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NY Times, January 28, 2010
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose book “A
People’s History of the United States” became a million-selling leftist
alternative to mainstream texts, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif.
He was 87 and lived in Auburndale, Mass.
The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn said.
Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000,
“A People’s History” was, fittingly, a people’s best-seller, attracting
a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in
2003. Although Professor Zinn was writing for a general readership, his
book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and
numerous companion editions were published, including “Voices of a
People’s History,” a volume for young people and a graphic novel.
“A People’s History” told an openly left-wing story. Professor Zinn
accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide,
picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and
celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.
Even liberal historians were uneasy with Professor Zinn, who taught for
many years at Boston University. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: “I
know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very
seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”
In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Professor Zinn
acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a
complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the
first chapter, not the last, of a new kind of history.
“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,”
Professor Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already
been done a thousand times.”
“A People’s History” had some famous admirers, including the actors Matt
Damon and Ben Affleck. The two grew up near Professor Zinn, were family
friends and gave the book a plug in their Academy Award-winning
screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”
Oliver Stone was a fan, as was Bruce Springsteen, whose bleak “Nebraska”
album was inspired in part by “A People’s History.” The book was the
basis of a 2007 documentary, “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,”
and even showed up on “The Sopranos,” in the hand of Tony’s son, A.J.
Professor Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged
with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and
engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.
Born in New York in 1922, Professor Zinn was the son of Jewish
immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and
responded strongly to the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on
by some young Communists in his neighborhood, he attended a political
rally in Times Square.
“Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound, and I looked around and saw the
policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people,” he
told The A.P. “I couldn’t believe that.”
“And then I was hit. I turned around and I was knocked unconscious. I
woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times Square quiet again,
eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired. I was ferociously
War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, he joined
the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to
let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout
Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it
all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a
folder and wrote on top: “Never again.”
He attended New York University and Columbia University, where he
received a doctorate in history. In 1956, he was offered the
chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at Spelman
College, an all-black women’s school in segregated Atlanta.
During the civil rights movement, Professor Zinn encouraged his students
to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped
coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. He also published several
articles, including a rare attack on the Kennedy administration,
accusing it of being too slow to protect blacks.
He was loved by students — among them a young Alice Walker, who later
wrote “The Color Purple” — but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman
fired him for “insubordination.” (Professor Zinn was a critic of the
school’s non-participation in the civil rights movement.) His years at
Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by
feuds with the school’s president, John Silber.
Professor Zinn retired in 1988, spending his last day of class on the
picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike.
Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at
rallies and on picket lines.
Besides “A People’s History,” he wrote several books, including “The
Southern Mystique,” “LaGuardia in Congress” and the memoir “You Can’t Be
Neutral on a Moving Train,” the title of a 2004 documentary about
Professor Zinn that Mr. Damon narrated. He also wrote three plays.
His wife and longtime collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. They had two
children, Myla and Jeff.
One of Professor Zinn’s last public writings was a brief essay,
published last week in The Nation, about the first year of the Obama
“I’ve been searching hard for a highlight,” he wrote, adding that he
wasn’t disappointed because he never expected a lot from President Obama.
“I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought
to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president —
which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some
national movement to push him in a better direction.”
2007 interview with Howard Zinn in Socialist Review