Helene Atwan: The Loss of Howard Zinn
The Death of Howard Zinn Mourned by Many

Marian Wright Edelman on Howard Zinn

The following is an excerpt from Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. Edelman was a student of the late Howard Zinn at Spelman College.

  Photo by Roslyn Zinn


The tall, lanky professor and I arrived at Spelman College together in 1956. He and his wife Roslyn and their two children, Myla and Jeff, lived in the back of the Spelman College infirmary where students felt welcomed to gather, explore ideas, share hopes, and just chew the fat.

Howie encouraged students to think outside the box and to question rather than accept conventional wisdom. He was a risk-taker. I am indebted to him for my first interracial experience with a discussion group at the YMCA on international relations and for going with his Black Spelman students to sit in the "White" section of the state legislature which stopped its deliberations to hoot and jeer and demand that we be removed. He lost no opportunity to challenge segregation in theaters, libraries, and restaurants, and encouraged us to do the same.

Howie not only lived what he taught in history class by breaching Atlanta's segregated boundaries, but stretched my religious tolerance beyond childhood limits. I felt shock and confusion when he announced in class that he did not believe in Jesus Christ. There were few Jewish citizens in my small South Carolina hometown. Through him I began to discern that goodness comes in many faiths and forms which must be respected and honored.

The Black Spelman establishment did not like Howard Zinn any more than the White establishment did. Later, after he joined the faculty at Boston University its president, John Silber, disliked him just as much as Spelman's president Albert Manley did, because he made some teachers and administrators uncomfortable by challenging the comfortable status quo. We called him Howie and felt him to be a confidant and friend as well as a teacher, contrary to the more formal and hierarchical traditions of many Black colleges. He stressed analysis and not memorization; questioning, discussions, and essays rather than multiple choices and pet answers; and he conveyed and affirmed my Daddy's belief and message that I could do and be anything and that life was about far more than bagging a Morehouse man for a husband.

He lived simply and nonmaterialistically. I felt comfortable asking to drive his old Chevrolet to transport picketers to Rich's department store. He was passionate about justice and his belief in the ability of individuals to make a difference in the world. Not a word-mincer, he said what he believed and encouraged us as students to do the same.

He conveyed to me and to other students that he believed in us. He conveyed to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose voter registration and organizing efforts he chronicled in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists that he believed in, respected, and supported our struggle. He was there when two hundred students conducted sit-ins and seventy-seven of us got arrested. He provided us a safe space in his home to plan civil rights activities by listening and not dictating. He laughed and enjoyed life just as he still does and he spoke up for the weak and little people against the big and powerful people just as he still does.

An eloquent chronicler of The People's History of the United States, of the Civil Rights Movement, and of the longings of the young and the poor and the weak to be free, his most profound message and the title of one of his books is that "you can't be neutral on a moving train." You can and must act against injustice.

Howie taught me to question and ponder what I read and heard and to examine and apply the lessons of history in the context of daily political, social, and moral challenges like racial discrimination and income inequality. He combined book learning with experiential opportunities to engage in interracial discussions; partnered with community groups challenging legal segregation; and engaged students as participants, observers, data collectors, and witnesses in pending legal cases as my diary recalls. He listened and answered questions as we debated strategies for conducting sit-in demonstra tions to challenge segregated public dining facilities and used his car to check out, diagram, and help choreograph planned civil rights events. He reassured us of the rightness of our cause when uncertainty and fear crept in and some of our college presidents sought to dampen our spirits and discourage our activities.

In short, he was there for us through thick and thin, focused not just on our learning in the classroom but on our learning to stand up and feel empowered to act and change our own lives and the community and region in which we lived. He taught us to be neither victims nor passive observers of unjust treatment but active and proud claim- ants of our American birthright.

Howie helped prepare me to discover my leadership potential. With Charles Merrill, Howie made possible a defining year in my life by sending me as a nineteen-year-old Black girl from a small segregated southern town off to navigate the world of Europe all by myself.

I learned I could travel the world without losing my moral compass and common sense and not to fear, indeed to enjoy being alone. I learned to be comfortable in strange lands with people who speak different languages, worship God in many different ways, have different political systems and ideologies and yet have the same human longing for freedom. Howard Zinn and Charles Merrill gave me a chance to get outside myself, outside segregated America, and roam around inside myself where one dreams, prays, and connects with our Creator and others.