He may lie at the opposite end of the political spectrum from where I do, yet no matter what one’s political views are – there is no denying the fact that Howard Zinn was and is one of the single most important figures in contemporary political history. Mr. Zinn died last Wednesday of a heart attack, he was 87.
We know and generally accept now that history is written by the powerful, the winners and the wealthy. We know that there are classes of people in not just the history of the U.S., but around the world, whose voices are not heard by the writers of history. That knowledge is thanks in part to Zinn and his book “A People’s History of the United States,” (one of many works he authored) which challenges many of the fanciful notions of American history that we are brought up believing. His book chronicles the history of our country, from the landing of Columbus, to the tyranny of colonial government, to the Civil Rights movement and up to the War on Terrorism.
Howard Zinn is a champion for the political left and taught at Boston University for 24 years. During that time he was the professor of our very own Stuart Shulman, who once referred to Zinn in an email as “an American hero!”
I am quite sure he, and countless others, still hold that view today. Although he may not be everybody’s favorite social or political figure, David Horowitz, who is scheduled to speak at UMass on Feb. 23 said that “there is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect.” I beg to differ on this point. His teachings and intellect have not only intrinsic worth, but also value as a way of studying history, analyzing politics and living an engaged life.
Claims he was a fascist or communist (whether to praise or denounce him, depending on where you stand) are wrong. Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II, eager to fight against tyranny and oppression sweeping the globe. It may have been these experiences that made him critical of certain tactics in war, such as the bombing of civilians.
Zinn was also a major voice in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. As a professor at Spelman College in Ga. he lobbied, organized sit-ins and mentored students on civil rights. He was eventually fired from Spelman for standing up against segregation with the students.
Along with his teachings as a professor and authoring a bestseller, Zinn was a playwright and activist. A documentary featuring his works, “The People Speak,” was released last year and Zinn traveled across the country giving performances and viewings in bookstores, on stage and on college and high school campuses until recently.
He was a voice for progress who inspired generations of students not just at BU, but around the country, to be active in their society and their governments, to challenge conventional wisdom and to speak up against injustices we see in the world. It is said that he not only taught history, but encouraged his students to make it, to live it. I think this is a philosophy that resonated down the Pike and stuck here at UMass, one of the most politically active campuses in the nation, for better or worse.
Although I disagree with some of his politics – his teachings will, nevertheless, live on in the hearts and minds of millions of students here in Massachusetts and across the nation. After more than forty years, Howard Zinn was invited back to Spelman College, where he gave the commencement speech in 2005.
In it he told students, “The lesson of history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies.”
Justin Thompson is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] .