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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 503

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This is the grave of Howard Zinn.

Born in 1922 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, Zinn grew up as part of the immigrant working classes. His father was a ditch digger and window washer for awhile and then opened a candy store which barely provided enough money for the family to eat. Zinn’s parents were barely literate but they wanted a better life for their children. Moreover, this was Brooklyn in the 1930s and there were lots of communists around. Jews have long played an outsized role in the American left and Howard Zinn would represent another generation of amazing leadership from this community. His parents ordered books for him and his friends and neighbors began to radicalize him. When he was hit in the head by mounted police and knocked out at one of his first political rallies, a radical was made.

In 1940, Zinn graduated from high school and became an apprentice in a shipyard. There, he started organizing his fellow apprentices into something that looked like a labor union, from which they were excluded. When World War II began, Zinn eagerly joined the fight against fascism. He was a bombardier with the Army Air Force in Europe. But his experiences, including using napalm over France, deeply disturbed him and turned him into an anti-war activist after fascism was defeated in 1945. He later revisited the town in France where he had used the napalm and found out firsthand just how horrible it was, interviewing survivors. Really, a brave stance from someone who had participated, much more courageous than most soldiers.

Zinn was able to attend college with the G.I. Bill, graduating from New York University in 1951. He went on to Columbia to study history at the graduate level, completing his Ph.D. in 1958, writing a dissertation on Fiorello LaGuardia’s time in Congress and calling his program an antecedent to the New Deal. This became his first book. As was common in these years, historians received teaching positions while they were still working on their dissertation. Zinn went south, to Spelman College, the historically black institution in Atlanta, in 1956. This put him on the front lines of the civil rights movement and while he wasn’t always on campus, receiving quite a few fellowships at prestigious universities in the U.S. and Europe, when he was, he was a leader in helping out the student movement. He fought hard within the Southern Historical Association for it to stop holding its meetings at segregated hotels. He became an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as they formed in 1960 after the Greensboro sit-ins and he helped expand those to Atlanta. This made the Spelman administration furious. There’s a kind of general belief that the civil rights movement was supported by the entire black establishment, but this really is not true. Lots of black institutions were very nervous about it, plus wanted to protect their little fiefdoms. Despite Martin Luther King, leading ministers were often extremely hesitant to help. So were black college administrations. Zinn was a threat to them for his help in organizing the students. Administrators felt he was radicalizing them through his teaching and organizing work. So he was fired in 1963.

He wasn’t out of a job long. Boston University hired him in 1964 and he stayed there until he retired in 1988. He taught in political science there and was most known in his teaching for his classes on civil liberties. He published his 1964 book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. In 1964, he also developed a program to help SNCC volunteers continue with their education, which many had sacrificed to work in the struggle. He worked on SNCC voter registration drives in Mississippi, driving down from Boston to do so and also helped deliver the curriculum for the Freedom Schools within Freedom Summer. He served as an advisor for the project, fretting about the likelihood of violence that of course happened with the murder of the three civil rights workers that got national attention.

As the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, Zinn played a leading role in the antiwar movement, including visiting Hanoi with the legendary antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan that led to the release of three prisoners of war. He wrote the 1967 book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, one of the first anti-Vietnam books. Daniel Ellsberg gave Zinn a copy of the Pentagon Papers and he and Noam Chomsky edited what Mike Gravel would read into the Congressional Record. Zinn also testified for the defense in the trial against Ellsberg that followed. He would later oppose additional wars, including both of the nation’s invasions of Iraq.

Zinn also started working on his legendary A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980. This book, one of the most influential histories ever written in this country, has influenced two generations of young people to look at the past in a new way. Zinn was always a fan of the underdog. More of an anarcho-socialist than a communist, he had little patience for the institutions of the left such as the Communist Party and placed more emphasis on the great struggles the heroes of the past engaged in that can inspire us today. As late as 2006, the book sold around 100,000 copies a year. Yes, it has its weaknesses from the perspective of 2019, but what 40 year old history book does not? A lot of the attacks on Zinn are really political attacks from people uncomfortable with the idea that historians should also be activists in their writing, a position that I reject entirely.

What problems exist with People’s History today largely come from its age. When Zinn wrote it, he was right that historians had not properly looked at race, gender, class, etc. That was starting to change. He knew that and was building on the New Social History that brought everyday people and non-white men into the center of historical stories for the first time. But as a whole, historical writing was way too based on politics and diplomacy and top-down economics. So when young people read it today and believe that they are getting the True History for the first time, there are a couple of things going on. First, historians have in fact taken Zinn’s advice. Just reading African-American history releases would occupy you for your entire life. This is how the book the kind of dated. But also, for lots of young people, this stuff is new to them. They come from conservative families are looking for something else or they had bad high school teachers who teach Great Man History. So for them, this is very real. In truth, the book’s real weakness today is just that the profession has done so many things that Zinn could not have anticipated–environmental history, borderlands studies, history of sexuality, and other new fields. What we need is a new leftist history of the United States, not one that rejects Zinn but one that respects his work while also integrating all the new ideas from historians over the past four decades to provide something newly relevant today. I don’t think it will surprise anyone here for me to say that I have started to write that book. We’ll see how it goes.

After 1980, most of Zinn’s career was centered around promoting the People’s History. This includes 2004’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States, a primary source collection of the words of the people discussed in the original book, and the creation of the Zinn Education Project in 2008, which does great work providing online teaching materials for K-12 teachers trying to use Zinn’s insights in the classroom.

I have a personal Howard Zinn story. In late 1999, I and a bunch of other people at the University of Tennessee were organizing a labor teach-in for the following spring to help spur organizing on campus, which over time, after I left, led to a union of campus workers in that right-to-work state that still exists today, even though they will never have a collective bargaining agreement. Because I was young and evidently thought anyone would respond to me, I e-mailed Howard Zinn to ask him to attend. Now, we actually did have the funding and backing from real people to get people down to Knoxville, in part because the then head of the Highlander Center was helping us, as was the local AFL-CIO and other economic justice organizations. But still. Zinn e-mailed me back like 15 minutes later. He couldn’t attend, but he gave us two names that he said we really needed to ask–Elaine Bernard and Bill Fletcher. They both attended, spoke, and were great because they are both legends of organizing. I have no idea whether Zinn spoke to them about it, but it was incredible to have this amazing man e-mail me back like this. I’ve since learned that there are some people who are legendary leftists that are really giving of their time and energy–Bill McKibben is a prime example of this and Noam Chomsky has been incredible with my book. But a lot of these people are not or are generally pretty difficult individuals to deal with. Zinn was one of the best in terms of being open to the world.

Zinn was healthy up until the very last moment of his life, in 2010, when he died of a heart attack in a hotel swimming pool in Santa Monica while he visiting to give a talk. He was 87 years old.

This is of course also the grave of Zinn’s wife Roslyn. It’s hard to find out too much information about her. Howard had a nice obituary of her here, but it does kind of confirm that outside of spending a night in jail after an anti-Vietnam protest, she, like so many of her generation, were in the background taking care of the kids, doing the cooking, and (I’ll bet) doing the typing of her husband’s books. Here is a somewhat longer obituary that confirms her work helping Howard write his books.

Howard Zinn is buried in Newton Cemetery, Newton, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other historians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frederick Jackson Turner is in Madison, Wisconsin and Charles and Mary Beard are in Hartsdale, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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