Today marks the 90th birthday of historian, playwright, and activist Howard Zinn (1912-2010). A former bombardier in WWII, Zinn became active in the civil rights movement while teaching at Spelman. After being fired for supporting student protestors, he became a professor at Boston University, where he taught until his retirement in 1988. He is the author of many books, including his landmark work,A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial), and his memoir, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train(Beacon Press).
Be a part of a People's Tribute to Howard Zinn! Submit a video of yourself reading a chosen selection from his autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and part of your reading may be included in a video tribute.
If we use a portion of your video, we'll send you a copy of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train or the new compilation of his plays, Three Plays: The Political Theater of Howard Zinn—Emma, Marx in Soho, Daughter of Venus.
HOWARD ZINN had just buckled his seat belt when the flight attendant’s voice came over the speakers with the pre-flight routine - the welcome aboard and identification of crew members. At mention of the pilot's name, Zinn’s eyes lifted, and he wondered - could it be the same man? Years before, Zinn, and fellow anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, had traveled to Hanoi for the purpose of accepting the release from North Vietnam of three American prisoners of war - downed US flyers. They were the first prisoners to be released, but the condition was that they be handed over not to American officials, but to representatives of the anti-war movement.
The three prisoners were subdued and skeptical - obviously beaten down by their ordeal. The empathy Zinn felt was rooted in his own having been an Army Air Forces bombardier during World War II. Zinn and Berrigan reassured them, and soon the five men were flown out of Hanoi - freedom! While changing planes in Laos, they were intercepted by the US ambassador, who took custody of the POWs. Zinn wished them luck, and that was the last he had ever seen of them.
But now he had just heard the name of one of the three - the man at the controls of his airliner. Could it be? When the flight was underway, Zinn asked an attendant to tell the pilot his name. Soon, the captain came walking down the aisle. They recognized each other, exchanged a friendly greeting - and that was it. Some moments in life are too multi-layered for words. When Zinn told me this story, he said he was glad to see the man looking well, but that their brief meeting left him feeling sad. Beyond acknowledgment, there was simply no way to reckon with what they had shared. For Zinn's part, he realized that the intense bond he felt with the former POW was unbroken.
Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise, he loved what he was teaching and clearly wanted his students to love it also. We did. My mother, who earned $17 a week working 12-hour days as a maid, had somehow managed to buy a typewriter for me and I had learned typing in school. I said hardly a word in class (as Howie would later recall), but inspired by his warm and brilliant ability to communicate ideas and conundrums and passions of the characters and complexities of Russian life in the 19th century, I flew back to my room after class and wrote my response to what I was learning about these writers and their stories that I adored. He was proud of my paper, and, in his enthusiastic fashion, waved it about. I learned later there were those among other professors at the school who thought that I could not possibly have written it. His rejoinder: "Why, there's nobody else in Atlanta who could have written it!"
I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?
Last Thursday's Daily Show ended with a Moment of Zinn. Here's the entire interview from 2005 (click here to watch if the embedded clip does not appear below) in which former President George W. Bush comes up short in comparison to Christopher Columbus.
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 death of Howard Zinn is an irreparable loss. His contributions to how history is viewed and taught, to political discourse, to activism will be celebrated in the coming weeks and months by the legions of people who were influenced by his work and by his example. Already some of those encomia are being published and posted; the list below represents only a sampling. I want to say just a little today about his enormous contribution to Beacon Press and to independent publishing.
Howard's first book with Beacon was SNCC: The New Abolitionists, the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which he advised for many years, and which we published in 1964. It was his second book. It began a 46 year relationship with the press that was virtually uninterrupted. We didn't publish all of his books, of course, or all of the books he championed over the years, but we were proud to publish quite a few, including Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, his memoir. His last book, Three Plays: The Political Theater of Howard Zinn, was slated for publication in April 2010. Receiving his advanced copies just two weeks ago Howard wrote: "Hot off the press; looks great!" As always, he thanked us for our work. And, as always, we were the ones who owed him the thanks.
Embedded below is a CBS story about the film, based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which premieres this Sunday on the History Channel. If it doesn't appear, view the video on YouTube.