By VFP Board President Mike Ferner
The death of a loved one or someone significant in our life often leaves us saying, "There weren't many like him," or "she'll really leave a hole in this world."
In the case of Dr. Howard Zinn, there was no one else like him and his passing will leave a hole we can only hope will be filled some day. He was a longtime member of Veterans For Peace.
The day before he passed, VFP received an email from Howard Zinn to confirm arrangements for June to film a video greeting for our 2010 convention. In an earlier exchange, Howard had written, "Of course my heart is with VFP, but I'm not free to come. Thanks for inviting me, and best wishes for a great event. Howard."
As a renowned historian, he made no attempt to appear objective, indeed he thought it impossible. In an opening section of "A People's History of the United States," he said he preferred "to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves...the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers." He believed history should "emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare." Then, as only Howard Zinn can, he wrote, "The reader may as well know that before going on."
From the spring in his step to the joyful, incisive wit of his words, few would have guessed his age. But at 87, his great heart, which clearly guided his remarkable intellect, finally stopped.
There may be others with great hearts and intellects to match, but Howard Zinn will be missed because he combined those with something much rarer: courage.
Some would point to his time in World War II as a B-24 bombardier, flying missions through the red-hot shrapnel of German anti-aircraft fire and Messerschmitt machine guns. Surely that is one kind of courage. It is tempered, however, by accepting that death can strike at any moment.
In his youth, Howard Zinn had the courage of a warrior. Over many decades as an adult he had another kind of courage that he practiced often, publicly and boldly, unfettered by the usual shackles of career ambitions, money or even social acceptance by ones peers.
This kind of courage, arguably the least common, Zinn frequently brought to bear in his lifelong mission of articulating uncomfortable truths and acting against injustice.
How else to explain this historian's ability to not only recognize the importance of the moment in the civil rights movement, but to encourage and join his students, eventually getting fired by Spelman College because they refused to participate as an institution; to speak publicly and early against the war in Vietnam when few with a safe job in academia dared; and most significantly, to fly into the hurricane of our most powerful myths and institutions by challenging "Three Holy Wars."
In one of his last speeches he explained that these wars were not religious, but sacrosanct, "the three wars you cannot say anything bad about: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II."
Examining his treatment of just one, the Revolution, is to begin to understand the significance of his intellect and the depth of his courage.
Zinn said that according to population differences then and now, the equivalent number of deaths today would mean "two and a half million people dying in a war to get England off our backs. Well, you might consider that worth it, or you might not."
Challenging the customary tale of our revolution, Zinn pointed out that the year before Lexington and Concord, farmers in much of western Massachusetts drove the British government out without firing a shot. "They had assembled thousands upon thousands around court houses, around official offices and they had taken over and they said good bye to the British officials."
Further challenging the standard story, he observed, "Canada is independent of England aren't they? I think so. Not a bad society. They have good health care. They have a lot of things we don't have. They didn't fight a bloody revolutionary war."
One problem he noted was we rarely take time to differentiate between various parts of the population "because we don't think in class terms. We think we all have the same interests. We all have the same interests in independence from England. We did not all have the same interests.
Perhaps most challenging, he asked, "Did blacks benefit from the Revolution? Slavery was there before; slavery was there after. No, we remained a slave society after the Revolution. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it. It is always good if you want to get people to go to war to have a good document and have good words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...Of course, when they write the Constitution it's not, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...it's life, liberty and property. Have you noticed that difference? You should notice. You should take notice of these little things."
Howard Zinn took notice of all those "little things." He took them and, in the crucible of his intellect, forged a new story of how we came to be; a story that took great courage to articulate; a story that has the power to take us a long way down the road of freedom and peace.
January 28, 2010.
|The Boston Globe: Howard Zinn, Historian Who Challenged Status Quo, Dies at 87
January 27, 2010
By Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff
Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as "A People's History of the United States," inspired young and old to rethink the way textbooks present the American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling. He was 87.
His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he suffered a heart attack.
"He's made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture," Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said tonight. "He's changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can't think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect."
Chomsky added that Dr. Zinn's writings "simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant. Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement."
For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. "A People’s History of the United States" (1980), his best-known book, 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 union organizers of the 1930s.
As he wrote in his autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" (1994), "From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."
Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers "who poison the well of academe."
Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against "the BU Five" were soon dropped.
In 1997, Dr. Zinn slipped into popular culture when his writing made a cameo appearance in the film "Good Will Hunting." The title character, played by Matt Damon, lauds "A People’s History" and urges Robin Williams’s character to read it. Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns growing up.
"Howard had a great mind and was one of the great voices in the American political life," Ben Affleck, also a family friend growing up and Damon's co-star in "Good Will Hunting," said in a statement. "He taught me how valuable -- how necessary -- dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally and I will carry with me what I learned from him -- and try to impart it to my own children -- in his memory."
Damon was later involved in a television version of the book, "The People Speak," which ran on the History Channel in 2009, and he narrated a 2004 biographical documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train."
"Howard had a genius for the shape of public morality and for articulating the great alternative vision of peace as more than a dream," said James Carroll a columnist for the Globe's opinion pages whose friendship with Dr. Zinn dates to when Carroll was a Catholic chaplain at BU. "But above all, he had a genius for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful."
Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a housewife. He attended New York public schools and was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he met Roslyn Shechter.
"She was working as a secretary," Dr. Zinn said in an interview with the Globe nearly two years ago. "We were both working in the same neighborhood, but we didn't know each other. A mutual friend asked me to deliver something to her. She opened the door, I saw her, and that was it."
He joined the Army Air Corps, and they courted through the mail before marrying in October 1944 while he was on his first furlough. She died in 2008.
During World War II, he served as a bombardier, was awarded the Air Medal, and attained the rank of second lieutenant.
After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women’s institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him "the best teacher I ever had," and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children's Defense Fund.
During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement. He served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.
Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.
The focus of his activism became the Vietnam War. Dr. Zinn spoke at many rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention when he and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, another leading antiwar activist, went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.
Dr. Zinn’s involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing two books: "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal" (1967) and "Disobedience and Democracy" (1968). He had previously published "LaGuardia in Congress" (1959), which had won the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Prize; "SNCC: The New Abolitionists" (1964); "The Southern Mystique" (1964); and "New Deal Thought" (1966).
He also was the author of "The Politics of History" (1970); "Postwar America" (1973); "Justice in Everyday Life" (1974); and "Declarations of Independence" (1990).
In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement to concentrate on speaking and writing. The latter activity included writing for the stage. Dr. Zinn had two plays produced: "Emma," about the anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and "Daughter of Venus."
On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along. A hundred did.
"Howard was an old and very close friend," Chomsky said. "He was a person of real courage and integrity, warmth and humor. He was just a remarkable person."
Carroll called Dr. Zinn "simply one of the greatest Americans of our time. He will not be replaced -- or soon forgotten. How we loved him back."
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Zinn leaves a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaughters; and two grandsons.