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Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History

Dave Zirin

 by The Nation

Howard Zinn, my hero, teacher, and friend died of a heart attack on
Wednesday at the age of 87. With his death, we lose a man who did
nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a
historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical
politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be
packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown,
would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic.
"What matters is not who's sitting in the White House. What matters is
who's sitting in!" he would say with a mischievous grin. After this
casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into
laughter and applause.

Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic. When
he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone who had
to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke
against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a
bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the
experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of
someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement
and was arrested sitting in with his students.

And of course, when he spoke about history, it was from the perspective of having written A People's History of the United States,
a book that has sold more than two million copies and changed the lives
of countless people. Count me among them. When I was 17 and picked up a
dog-eared copy of Zinn's book, I thought history was about learning
that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn't tell you what the
Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard took this
history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous

In Howard's book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the
labor radicals, the masses and the misfits. It was history writ by
Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share: to actually make
history instead of being history's victim. His book came alive in
December with the debut of The People Speak on the History Channel as
actors, musicians, and poets, brought Zinn's book alive.

Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was
divisive. He answered beautifully: "Yes, dissent and protest are
divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real
divisions in society. Those divisions exist - the rich, the poor -
whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is
no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division
in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the
balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed."

Words like this made Howard my hero. I never thought we would also
become friends. But through our mutual cohort, Anthony Arnove, Howard
read my sports writing and then gave his blessing to a book project we
called A People's History of Sports in the United States.

We also did a series of meetings together where I would interview
Howard on stage. Even at 87, he still had his sharp wit, strong voice,
and matinee-idol white hair. But his body had become frail. Despite
this physical weakness, Howard would stay and sign hundreds of books
until his hand would shake with the effort.

At our event in Madison, Wisconsin, Howard issued a challenge to the
audience. He said, "Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what
Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush,
everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama's doing and act
as engaged and vigorous citizens."

He also had no fear to express his political convictions loudly and
proudly. I asked him about the prospects today for radical politics and
he said,

"Let's talk about socialism. ... I think it's very important to bring
back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was
at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad
name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene
Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman.
It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the
country... Socialism basically said, hey, let's have a kinder, gentler
society. Let's share things. Let's have an economic system that
produces things not because they're profitable for some corporation,
but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating
from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism."

Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate.
Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It's a
beautiful legacy and however much it hurts to lose him, we should
strive to build on Howard's work and go out and make some history.

© 2017 The Nation
Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation, and author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket) and "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times,, New York Newsday, and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio's Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at

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