Howard Zinn died yesterday. Let me explain why I held him in such high regard.
He was a highly political, highly debative public figure. He stood strong in his political positions against all wars, for socialized medicine, for civil rights for all, including gays and lesbians (he was a prominent figure in the South during the early civil rights movement), for workers’ rights to organize and strike, for fair distribution of wealth, and for freedom of speech, among other things.
But even as he articulated his stridently left-wing positions in his books and speeches… you never got the feeling that he was “selling you” on something, or engaging in argument just to promote an ulterior agenda. His agenda was to further understanding, to help human progress through raising our level of knowledge about our history.
He wrote A People’s History of the United States, a book that went through American history from the point of view of ordinary people, as opposed to the conventional “dates and figureheads” format of history. He did not claim to be “neutral;” he was very openly biased–in favor of truth, in favor of justice, and passionately so.
And yet, he was open-minded and undogmatic. He once said about his book, “There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete. My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.” He also remembered that, in his time as professor at Spelman College in Atlanta many years ago, “I learned more from my students than my students learned from me.”
On the eve of the war in Iraq, in early 2003, I had Howard Zinn come and speak at an anti-war “teach-in” that I had organized. Hundreds flocked to watch him, and his humble but poignant words mesmerized everyone who saw him. He was not a fiery, forceful personality, but he was no less memorable in his calm humility. He could also be very funny, in a simple, commonsense way.
I wholeheartedly encourage all of you who read this to learn more about him. Watch his speeches, read his writings, and you’ll understand why the world has lost a truly awesome force for positive energy and understanding. Rest in peace, Howard Zinn.