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Late January marks the first anniversary of the death of noted author and social activist Howard Zinn. He was 87 when he died of a reported heart attack while swimming during some traveling with his daughter.
Dr. Zinn always looked to me to be the impish grandpa each child deserves. As a mentor, he appeared to live a full life, working on social issues important to him through his research, writing and activism.
As we enter yet again another U.S. Presidential election year, let’s take another look at Howard Zinn his legacy, and the revisionist history that he leaves us.
Perhaps the book he is most widely recognized for is A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980 and now a commonly used text in high school history courses! According to the New York Times, this book had a first printing of just 4,000 copies and was no conventional historical account, concentrating instead on "what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln."
This seminal work spawned a sequel: The Twentieth Century: A People’s History as well as versions written for young people: A Young People’s History of the United States, Volume 1 and A Young People’s History of the United States, Volume 2.
Dr. Zinn, a contemporary of left-wing activist and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, “made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” according to Chomsky. “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,” Professor Chomsky said in the Boston Globe online upon Dr. Zinn’s death.
A little bit about Howard Zinn, courtesy of the Boston Globe online: Born in New York City in 1922, he attended New York public schools and was working in the “Brooklyn Navy Yard when he joined the Army Air Corps where he worked as a bombardier in World War II, receiving the Air Medal and attaining the rank of second lieutenant. It was during this time that Zinn courted his soon-to-be wife through the mails before marrying in 1944. After the war, he worked a series of menial jobs before entering New York University on the GIP Bill, working nights in a warehouse loading trucks. He was awarded masters and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
In 1956, Dr. Zinn joined the faculty at Atlanta’s Spelman College, becoming chairman of the history department. During this time he became active in the civil rights movement, serving on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participating in numerous demonstrations.
In 1964, Dr. Zinn joined the staff at Boston University, becoming full professor in 1966 where the focus of his activism became the Vietnam war. He spoke at many rallies and teach-ins, drawing national attention when he and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.
In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement to concentrate on speaking and writing, including writing for the stage. On his last day at BU, he ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending the lecture to come along. A hundred did so.
Dr. Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is available through your local library in both book and DVD formats.