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Remembering Howard Zinn

An inspiration to generations, he never backed down from fighting for justice

By Noam Chomsky
From the newsletter: 
Immigrant Justice (March/April 2010)

Already in his eighties, Howard Zinn addresses the crowd at an April 2004 rally against the war in and occupation of Iraq on Boston Common in Massachusetts.

Credit: 

Ellen Shub

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian who passed away in January. He was a very close friend for 45 years. The families were very close too. His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvelous person and close friend. Also somber is the realization that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed and others, who were not only astute scholars but also dedicated, courageous militants, always on call when needed—which was constant.

Howard’s remarkable life and work are summarized best in his own words. His primary concern, he explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record—a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an industrial worker and labor activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spellman college in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

Roots of resistance

While teaching at Spellman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years—Alice Walker, Julian Bond, and others—and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well. And as always, he did not just support them but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts—no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organized popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years.

Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organizing demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death. By the early 1960s a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role, and the government had to respond. As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught. A few years later he wrote the standard work on SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the major organization of those “unknown people” whose “countless small actions” played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence and to bring the country to honor the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves—at least to do so partially; there’s no need to stress that there remains a long way to go.

On a personal note, I came to know Howard well when we went together to a civil rights demonstration in Jackson, Mississippi in (I think) 1964. Even at that late date, Jackson was a scene of violent public antagonism, police brutality and even cooperation with state security forces on the part of federal authorities, sometimes in ways that were quite shocking.

Loved (and resented) on campus

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration—though in later years, after his retirement, he gained the public honor and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty and the general community.

While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame. His book Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed. Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage and, if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed. The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead.

Significantly, among the general public by the war’s end, 70% regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” a remarkable figure considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion. Howard’s writings—and, as always, his prominent presence in protest and direct resistance—were a major factor in civilizing much of the country.

In those same years, Howard also became one of the most prominent supporters of the resistance movement that was then developing. He was one of the early signers of the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and was so close to the activities of RESIST that he was practically one of the organizers. He also took part at once in the sanctuary actions that had a remarkable impact in galvanizing antiwar protest. Whatever was needed—talks, participation in civil disobedience, support for resisters, testimony at trials—Howard was always there.

A book for the generations

Even more influential in the long run than Howard’s anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation. Here he developed with care, lucidity and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it. Later, his Voices of a People’s History project, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard’s unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of American history and turning to the record in other countries as well. It is not entirely novel—there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before—but nothing to compare with Howard’s broad and incisive evocation of “history from below,” compensating for critical omissions in how American history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss, though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country. Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight, light touch of humor in the face of adversity, dedication to nonviolence and sheer decency. It is hard even to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

There are places where Howard’s life and work should have particular resonance. One, which should be much better known, is Turkey. I know of no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of state and going beyond to engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then returning to the task. It is an honorable record and one that should be a model for others, just as Howard Zinn’s life and work are an unforgettable model, sure to leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and how a decent and honorable life should be lived.

Noam Chomsky is a founder of RESIST and a world-renowned political activist, linguist, author, philosopher, cognitive scientist and lecturer. Find his writings and more online at www.chomsky.info.

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