Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87
January 27, 2010 05:40 PM
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff
Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist
who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and a leading
faculty critic of BU president John Silber, died of a heart attack
today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling, his family said.
He was 87.
“His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and
helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our
lives,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, once
wrote of Dr. Zinn. “When action has been called for, one could always
be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and
For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist
brand of history he taught. Dr. Zinn’s best-known book, “A People’s
History of the United States” (1980), had for its heroes not the
Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to
the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the
farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and the union organizers of the 1930s.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving
Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own
history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted
more than ‘objectivity’; 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. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and Silber. Dr.
Zinn twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in
turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted)
and cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of
Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors
walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four
colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they
refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges
against “the BU Five” were soon dropped, however.
Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922, the son of Jewish
immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a
housewife. He attended New York public schools and worked in the
Brooklyn Navy Yard before joining the Army Air Force during World War
II. Serving as a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force, he won the Air
Medal and attained the rank of second lieutenant.
After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until
entering New York University as a 27-year-old freshman on the GI Bill.
Professor Zinn, who had married Roslyn Shechter in 1944, worked nights
in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his
bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees
in history from Columbia University.
Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn
College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in
1956. He served at the historically black women’s institution as
chairman of the history department. Among his students were the
novelist Alice Walker, who called him “the best teacher I ever had,”
and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children’s Defense Fund.
During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement.
He served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization
of the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.
Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in
1964 and was named full professor in 1966.
The focus of his activism now became the Vietnam War. Dr. Zinn spoke
at countless rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention when he
and another leading antiwar activist, Rev. Daniel Berrigan, went to
Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North
Dr. Zinn’s involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing
two books: “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience
and Democracy” (1968). He had previously published “LaGuardia in
Congress” (1959), which had won the American Historical Association’s
Albert J. Beveridge Prize; “SNCC: The New Abolitionists” (1964); “The
Southern Mystique” (1964); and “New Deal Thought” (1966).
Dr. Zinn was also the author of “The Politics of History” (1970);
“Postwar America” (1973); “Justice in Everyday Life” (1974); and
“Declarations of Independence” (1990).
In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement so as to concentrate on
speaking and writing. The latter activity included writing for the
stage. Dr. Zinn had two plays produced: “Emma,” about the anarchist
leader Emma Goldman, and “Daughter of Venus.”
Dr. Zinn, or his writing, made a cameo appearance in the 1997 film
‘‘Good Will Hunting.’’ The title characters, played by Matt Damon,
lauds ‘‘A People’s History’’ and urges Robin Williams’s character to
read it. Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns
Damon was later involved in a television version of the book, ‘‘The
People Speak,’’ which ran on the History Channel in 2009. Damon was
the narrator of a 2004 biographical documentary, ‘‘Howard Zinn: You
Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.’’
On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he
could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his
lecture to come along. A hundred did so.
Dr. Zinn’s wife died in 2008. He leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of
Lexington; a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaugthers; and two
Funeral plans were not available.