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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

January 28, 2010

PASSINGS: HOWARD ZINN

NPR - Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist . . . died Wednesday. He was 87.
Zinn died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, Calif., daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn said. The historian was a resident of Auburndale, Mass.

Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000, A People's History was - fittingly - a people's best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003. Although Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and numerous companion editions were published, including Voices of a People's History, a volume for young people and a graphic novel

At a time when few politicians dared even call themselves liberal, A People's History told an openly left-wing story. Zinn charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters. . .

Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.

Born in New York in 1922, Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and responded strongly to the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on by some young Communists in his neighborhood, he attended a political rally in Times Square.

"Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound, and I looked around and saw the policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people. I couldn't believe that."

"And then I was hit. I turned around and I was knocked unconscious. I woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times Square quiet again, eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired. I was ferociously indignant. ... It was a very shocking lesson for me."

War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: "Never again."

He attended New York University and Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history. In 1956, he was offered the chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, an all-black women's school in then-segregated Atlanta.

During the civil rights movement, Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Zinn also published several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students - among them a young Alice Walker, who later wrote The Color Purple - but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for "insubordination." (Zinn was a critic of the school's non-participation in the civil rights movement.) His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by feuds with the school's president, John Silber.

Zinn retired in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses' strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines.

Besides A People's History, Zinn wrote several books, including The Southern Mystique, LaGuardia in Congress and the memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn that Damon narrated. He also wrote three plays.

One of Zinn's last public writings was a brief essay, published last week in The Nation, about the first year of the Obama administration.

"I've been searching hard for a highlight," he wrote, adding that he wasn't disappointed because he never expected a lot from Obama.

"I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president - which means, in our time, a dangerous president - unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction."

Boston Globe - "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."

. . . 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 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."


3 Comments:

Blogger Fatmex said...

A very sad day, indeed. He will be missed more than we can know.

January 28, 2010 7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howard Zinn, a higher form of human life.
Tony Vodvarka

January 28, 2010 8:38 AM  
Anonymous robbie said...

A truly inestimable loss.

January 28, 2010 6:37 PM  

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