Howard Zinn, legendary historian, author and activist, died last week at the age of 87. His most famous book is “A People’s History of the United States.” Zinn told me last May, “The idea of ‘A People’s History’ is to go beyond what people have learned in school ... history through the eyes of the presidents and the generals in the battles fought in the Civil War, [to] the voices of ordinary people, of rebels, of dissidents, of women, of black people, of Asian-Americans, of immigrants, of socialists and anarchists and troublemakers of all kinds.”
It is fitting to write of Zinn’s life at the start of Black History Month. Although he was white, he wrote eloquently of the civil rights struggle and was a part of that movement as well. Fifty years ago, on Feb. 1, 1960, four black students entered the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., and sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter. They were refused service, and returned day after day. Each day, more and more people came with them. The lunch-counter desegregation movement spread to other Southern cities. By July, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated. This week, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened at the site of that original lunch-counter protest.
At the time of the sit-ins, Zinn was a professor at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta. He told me why, after seven years there, he was fired: “The students at Spelman College rose up out of that very tranquil and controlled atmosphere at the college during the sit-ins and went into town, got arrested, they came back fired up and determined to change the conditions of their lives on campus. ... I supported them in their rebellion, and I was too much for the administration of the college.” Zinn wrote in the afterword of “A People’s History”: “It was not until I joined the faculty of Spelman College ... that I began to read the African-American historians who never appeared in my reading lists in graduate school. Nowhere in my history education had I learned about the massacres of black people that took place again and again, amid the silence of a national government pledged, by the Constitution, to protect equal rights for all.”
One of his students at Spelman was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. Soon after she learned of Zinn’s death, Walker explained: “He was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens.” Just a few years ago, Zinn was invited back to Spelman to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree.
World-renowned linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky, a longtime friend of Zinn’s, reflected on Zinn’s “reverence for and his detailed study of what he called ‘the countless small actions of unknown people’ that lead to those great moments that enter the historical record.” Zinn co-wrote, with Anthony Arnove, “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” with speeches, letters and other original source material from those “unknown people” who have shaped this country. It was made into a star-studded documentary, which premiered on the History Channel just weeks before Zinn died. Matt Damon, its executive producer, gave “A People’s History” enormous popular exposure in the hit movie “Good Will Hunting” when his character Will recommended the book to his psychiatrist. Damon was Zinn’s neighbor in Newton, Mass., and knew him since he was 10 years old.
Last May, when I interviewed Zinn, he reflected on Barack Obama’s first months in office: “I wish President Obama would listen carefully to Martin Luther King. I’m sure he pays verbal homage, as everyone does, to Martin Luther King, but he ought to think before he sends missiles over Pakistan, before he agrees to this bloated military budget, before he sends troops to Afghanistan, before he opposes the single-payer system.
“He ought to ask: ‘What would Martin Luther King do? And what would Martin Luther King say?’ And if he only listened to King, he would be a very different president than he’s turning out to be so far. I think we ought to hold Obama to his promise to be different and bold and to make change. So far, he hasn’t come through on that promise.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.