Howard Zinn, Historian who Challenged Status Quo, Died at 87
January 27, 2010
By Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard
Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and
political activist who was an early opponent of US
involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as "A
People's History of the United States," inspired young
and old to rethink the way textbooks present the
American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif,
where he was traveling. He was 87.
His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he
suffered a heart attack.
"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."
For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the
revisionist brand of history he taught. "A People?s
History of the United States" (1980), his best-known
book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers --
many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the
status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out -- but
rather the farmers of Shays' Rebellion and union
organizers of the 1930s.
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 great mind and was one of the great
voices in the American political life," Ben Affleck,
also a family friend growing up and Damon's co-star in
"Good Will Hunting," said in a statement. "He taught me
how valuable -- how necessary -- dissent was to
democracy and to America itself. He taught that history
was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky
enough to know him personally and I will carry with me
what I learned from him -- and try to impart it to my
own children -- in his memory."
Damon was later involved in a television version of the
book, "The People Speak," which ran on the History
Channel in 2009, and he narrated a 2004 biographical
documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a
"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
Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922,
the son of Jewish immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter,
and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a housewife. He attended
New York public schools and was working in the Brooklyn
Navy Yard when he met Roslyn Shechter.
"She was working as a secretary," Dr. Zinn said in an
interview with the Globe nearly two years ago. "We were
both working in the same neighborhood, but we didn't
know each other. A mutual friend asked me to deliver
something to her. She opened the door, I saw her, and
that was it."
He joined the Army Air Corps, and they courted through
the mail before marrying in October 1944 while he was
on his first furlough. She died in 2008.
During World War II, he served as a bombardier, was
awarded the Air Medal, and attained the rank of second
After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial
jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill
as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a
warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He
received his bachelor?s degree from NYU, followed by
master?s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia
Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and
lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty
of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at
the historically black women?s institution as chairman
of the history department. Among his students were
novelist Alice Walker, who called him "the best teacher
I ever had," and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of
the Children's Defense Fund.
During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil
rights movement. He served on the executive committee
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the
most aggressive civil rights organization of the time,
and participated in numerous demonstrations.
Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political
science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in
The focus of his activism became the Vietnam War. Dr.
Zinn spoke at many rallies and teach-ins and drew
national attention when he and the Rev. Daniel
Berrigan, another leading antiwar activist, went to
Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by
the North Vietnamese.
Dr. Zinn?s involvement in the antiwar movement led to
his publishing two books: "Vietnam: The Logic of
Withdrawal" (1967) and "Disobedience and Democracy"
(1968). He had previously published "LaGuardia in
Congress" (1959), which had won the American Historical
Association's Albert J. Beveridge Prize; "SNCC: The New
Abolitionists" (1964); "The Southern Mystique" (1964);
and "New Deal Thought" (1966).
He also was the author of "The Politics of History"
(1970); "Postwar America" (1973); "Justice in Everyday
Life" (1974); and "Declarations of Independence"
In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement to concentrate
on speaking and writing. The latter activity included
writing for the stage. Dr. Zinn had two plays produced:
"Emma," about the anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and
"Daughter of Venus."
On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes
early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500
students attending his lecture to come along. A hundred
"Howard was an old and very close friend," Chomsky
said. "He was a person of real courage and integrity,
warmth and humor. He was just a remarkable person."
Carroll called Dr. Zinn "simply one of the greatest
Americans of our time. He will not be replaced -- or
soon forgotten. How we loved him back."
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Zinn leaves a son,
Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaughters; and two
In memory of beloved activist and historian Howard Zinn, who has passed away two weeks ago, I'm enclosing a article which reflects the spirit Zinn brought to the study of history.
He writes: "I would never have become a historian if I thought
that it would become my professional duty to go into the past and never emerge, to study long-gone events and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to events going on in my time.If the Holocaust was to have any meaning, I thought, we must transfer our anger to the brutalities of our time. We must atone for our allowing the Jewish Holocaust to happen by refusing to allow similar atrocities to take place now - yes, to use the Day of Atonement not to pray for the dead but to act for the living, to rescue those about to die".