Howard Zinn (1928 - 2010)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Howard Zinn

In Howard Zinn, democracy has its American historian, a writer and teacher attuned to the forces that just might create a world with respect for equality and human rights. Unlike many historians, he fixes attention not on wars and government, but on the ideas, imagination, and courage of ordinary people. And in a host of articles, essays, and books published since 1959, he focuses on acts of disobedience and solidarity of the past two centuries that initiated mass movements for liberation. Confronted with such large popular movements against injustice, the established order—and sometimes even the State—has given way to reason and reform.

In charting this history, Howard Zinn commits something more than his voice and tenure as an academic, beginning with his active involvement in the Civil Rights movement and in resistance to the draft, the nuclear arms race, and the war on Iraq. With a handful of talented and committed academics and artists, including Noam Chomsky, Grace Paley, Denise Levertov, George Wald, and Richard Falk, Zinn makes the link between scholarship and humane values, between the academy and the public order. He is, in fact, almost a National Endowment for the Humanities himself.

Howard ZinnBorn in New York City on August 24, 1922, Zinn eventually settled in the Boston area, with his wife and family, in 1964. He, like many men of his generation, “grew up” in the armed services, and was decorated as an Air Force bombardier in Europe during the Second World War. Afterward, he completed his formal education at New York University and Columbia University under the G.I. bill, receiving a Ph.D. in history in 1958. Before moving to Boston University, he chaired the history and social science department at Spellman College, in Atlanta; during those years, he was also deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and wrote an important study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964).

Prior to the publication of his major work, A People’s History of the United States (1980), Zinn wrote frequently on politics and the social thought of the Great Depression and on the tradition of civil disobedience in American history. In February 1968, he, with Father Daniel Berrigan, arranged the release of three American prisoners of war in North Vietnam, during a special visit to that country. Since that time, Zinn has testified on behalf of people on trial for resisting the draft or for damaging nuclear weapons equipment; he has appeared in numerous films, such as Holy Outlaw (1970) and Lovejoy’s Nuclear War (1976), that dramatize those issues. He is the author, as well, of a successful biographical drama about Karl Marx (Marx in Soho) and Emma Goldman (Emma), anarchist and feminist.

A People's History of the United States, Vol. 1In writing history, Zinn has taken his lead not from the announced purposes of governments, but from their actions, their deeds. He has been careful, for example, to note “the warring elements” of the American creed. By this he means a conflict between the rhetorical creed, represented by the Declaration of Independence (“all Men are created equal,” the right to revolution, and so on) and the working creed. The hard evidence is

that all men are created equal, except foreigners with whom we are at war, blacks who have not been signaled out for special attention, Indians who will not submit, inmates of prisons, members of the armed forces, and anyone without money.

In his writings, as well as in his undergraduate classes and public lectures, Zinn spells out the consequences of this dichotomy, especially America’s failure to alter its allocation of power and wealth. He occasionally admits that changes take place within the narrow boundaries of profit-motivated capitalism, a paternalistic political system, an aggressive foreign policy, and “a social system based on a culture of prejudices concerning race, national origin, sex, age, and wealth.”

Zinn’s truths are obvious to many observers outside the United States, but few people profess them “inside the whale,” and even fewer from the hallowed groves of academe. Although his view of history is sometimes regarded as unorthodox, his authority as a teacher and writer has won him a wide audience among students and scholars, as well as a significant, permanent place among modern historians. With E.P. Thompson, in England, Zinn has made the history of the working class visible in a way that it has seldom been since the 1930s, at least.

A People's History, Vol. 2First, why did the United States, exactly as it became the most heavily armed and wealthiest society in the world, run into so much trouble with its own people? From the late fifties to the early seventies, the nation experienced unprecedented black rebellion, student demonstrations, antiwar agitation, civil disobedience, prison uprising, and a widespread feeling that American civilization was faltering, or even in decay. And second, what are the possibilities, the visions, the beginnings of fresh directions for this country?

Decades later, Zinn continued to explore the implications of these radical questions. In the same quiet, measured voice, with an understated, even wry humor, he lectured to large audiences, spoke at rallies against war, on the Boston Common, and addressed meetings of professional historians and political scientists. Patient and persistent, he always appeared confident that his message would get through, amid the conventional noise and chatter. In the long effort to get the facts straight and to keep alive the history of ordinary people, he always behaved as if time were on his side, “as long,” he might add, “as the bomb doesn’t fall.”

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Howard Zinn
  • A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
  • The Politics of History. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1970.
  • Disobedience and Democracy. New York: Random House, 1968.
  • SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1964.
  • You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
  • The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.
  • Voices of the People’s History of the United States, with Anthony Arnove. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.

Related Resources


Remembering Howard Zinn - January 29, 2010 tribute from Bill Moyers Journal

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