Howard Zinn

On this date in 1922, historian, author, playwright and peace activist Howard Zinn was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants. As a 17-year-old, Zinn attended a political rally in Times Square at the urging of neighborhood Communists and was knocked unconscious by police battering and beating the crowd. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, received an Air Medal, and, upon returning home, placed his medal and military papers in a folder on which he wrote, "Never again." Zinn attended New York University and received a doctorate in history from Columbia University. He became chair of the history and social sciences department of Spelman College, the historically black college for women in segregated Atlanta, in 1956. He actively participated in the civil rights movement, served on the executive committee for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and inspired many of his students, including Alice Walker. Fired for "insubordination" from Spelman in 1963 (namely for his criticism of the school's failure to participate in the civil rights movement), Zinn took a position teaching history at Boston University, which he held until his retirement in 1988.

An aggressive and early opponent of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and champion of leftist causes, Zinn's 1967 Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, was the first book calling for immediate withdrawal from the war with no exceptions. His A People's History of the United States, published in 1980 with a small printing and little promotion, became essential reading in classrooms across the country and a bestseller, hitting 1 million sales by 2003. In his 1994 autobiography You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn wrote: "I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it." While his publications were numerous, some of the highlights included the plays "Emma" (1976), about radical anarchist/feminist/atheist Emma Goldman, "Daughter of Venus" (1985), and "Marx in Soho: A Play on History" (1999), and books such as Artists in Times of War (2003), History Matters: Conversations on History and Politics (2006), and Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (1993). Zinn received the 1958 Albert J. Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association for his book, LaGuardia in Congress; the 1998 Eugene V. Debs Award from the Debs Foundation; the Upton Sinclair Award in 1999; and the 1998 Lannan Literary Award. Zinn's wife and lifetime collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. Zinn died of a heart attack while swimming at the age of 87. D. 2010.

"If I was promised that we could sit with Marx in some great Deli Haus in the hereafter, I might believe in it! Sure, I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism. I identify as a Jew, but not on religious grounds. Yes, I believe, as Pascal said, 'The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.' There are limits to reason. There is mystery, there is passion, there is something spiritual in the arts—but it is not connected to Judaism or any other religion."

—Howard Zinn in a Tikkun Magazine interview with Shelly R. Fredman, "Howard Zinn on Fixing What's Wrong," May 17, 2006

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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