Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn, influential 20th century historian and activist, dies at 87

Bedder/Getty Photo

Originally Published:Friday, January 29th 2010, 7:25 AM
Updated: Friday, January 29th 2010, 8:40 AMHoward Zinn, world-renowned historian, teacher, activist, author and playwright, passed away Wednesday of a heart attack while swimming in California, according to his daughter and the AP. He was 87 years old.Zinn had a kind, friendly personality, was generous with his time, and spoke easily with others. He was also relentlessly unafraid to stand up for what he believed in, and speak the truth - even if doing so could cause him distress in his personal and professional life.Over the course of his career, Zinn established himself as arguably the most influential historian in the United States. He led Americans to view their past through a more complex and often darker lens, and helped bring attention to social justice and human rights issues around the world, from Boston to Baghdad.Although he wrote a number of books, it is his seminal text, "A People's History of the United States", for which he will most likely be remembered.

"A People's History" was a finalist for the 1981 National Book Award, and has been updated in numerous editions. Over a million copies of the book have been sold.The book explores aspects of American history which are given little attention in mainstream textbooks, such as pre-Columbian life of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans, as well the struggles of socialists, feminists, and the labor movement. Zinn was a Brooklyn boy, born in New York in 1922. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They worked in factories and the family lived in slums. At the age of 17, Zinn got an early taste of activism, when he was beaten by police at a Times Square political rally. Zinn worked as a shipbuilder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard until he joined the air force. As a bombardier during World War II, he bombed targets across Europe and was among the first in the US military to deploy napalm as a weapon, over France. Zinn came to question the ethics of his participation in the war, and those of his leaders. His military service helped shape the anti-war views he promoted for the rest of his life. After he left the air force, he put all of his military awards, photos, and papers in an envelope. In the essay Just and Unjust War, Zinn recalled that, "I wrote on the folder, without really thinking, and surprising myself: 'Never Again'". After the war, he returned to New York and earned degrees from NYU and Columbia. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a Professor of History at Spelman College, a historically all-black and all-female institution in Atlanta, where he advised the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was personally active within the civil rights movement. Zinn lost his tenured job at Spelman after he chose to side with his students during a dispute with the college and because of his involvement with the civil rights movement. He spent the rest of his career as a Professor of Political Science at Boston University, where he was an opponent of the Vietnam War and often engaged in disputes with the university's leadership. He was also a beloved teacher and colleague whose classes were sought after by hundreds of students each semester. Although Zinn was a vocal critic of both the Democratic and Republican parties. He had great faith in the power of the people and social movements. "The crucial thing, to me, is not how you vote, but whether you participate in a movement that will have an affect on whoever's elected. You have to build power outside the political process," Zinn told me, in a 2005 interview. Howard Zinn is survived by his daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, his son, Jeff Zinn, and five grandchildren. Zinn's wife, Roslyn, whom he loved deeply, died in 2008. They were married for 63 years.