For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. Dr. Zinn’s best-known book, A People’s History of the United States (1980), had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and the union organizers of the 1930s.
I first encountered Zinn’s work while I was an undergraduate student and his approach to history was a tremendous wake up call. Through reading his work I realized that the interests of politicians and business leaders, those who typically filled the history books, were not always the same interests shared by the general population that made up the country. In fact, these interests were frequently at odds. Whereas most histories during this time would celebrate the navigation skills of Christopher Columbus, Zinn pointed out that Columbus was also a brutal murderer who thought nothing of killing or torturing the Arawak peoples of Hispaniola (ironically, the island that is today home to Haiti which has been subject to a new form of exploitation).
Zinn was at the forefront of tearing down what is known as “Big Man” history, the idea that a few great figures are responsible for the important developments of the past. The reality is that history is made up of ordinary people who work, struggle, and die often without ever seeing the results of their efforts. The abolitionists, suffragettes, labor unionists, civil rights activists, farm workers, and anti-war activists, all made history because of a network of dedicated individuals. While John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, and Tom Hayden may be familar names to many of us today, they are only remembered because of those whose names we will never know. While the political and business leaders have long enjoyed the spotlight, what Zinn’s history reveals is that each of us make history every day. Our choices matter and it’s important to always remain committed to working towards what we believe is right, whether that is in our communities, our laboratories, or on the national stage.
Zinn’s scholarship has spawned an entire series of works ranging from A People’s History of the Supreme Court to A People’s History of Science. By understanding how ordinary people have played a pivotal role in the construction of the modern world it reenergizes our own work with the knowledge that it doesn’t take greatness to achieve great things. Howard Zinn will be truly missed, but I look forward to learning about all of the great deeds from those he has inspired. The last thing Zinn would want is for people to celebrate him as somehow different than the rest of us. Rather, he’d ask us to take what was useful in his work and employ it in our own lives.