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Howard Zinn - Tributes, Memorials, and Obituaries

Sean Wilentz

To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can't be true. A lot of people on the left spent their lives apologizing for one of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn't know that from Howard Zinn.

Eric Foner

The idea that historians have to be neutral about everything they study is the death of history. Every historian has beliefs and feelings about what they're studying. Howard made them very explicit. The teachers you remember are the ones with a passion for history who made it clear what they thought. They were not polemicists. They respected the canons of historical scholarship, as Zinn did, but they cared deeply....

The way he inspired people, to me, is his legacy, rather than his interpretation of the Jacksonian era or the Gilded Age or the New Deal. Those can be debated and will be debated. But he deserves more than just people saying this is a biased historian. He really was an important figure in the public vision of history.

David Kennedy

His professional persona reminded me of something someone once said about the great British historian A.P.J. Taylor, who was a northerner, and like so many northerners, he was an"aginner." You said whatever you wanted to say and he was"agin" it. Zinn had some of that temperament. He did not naturally agree with anything. He was a kind of temperamental contrarian. In the great collective enterprise, I think that was a healthy thing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

I knew him, and I thought he was an extraordinary person. I met him when I was just starting to teach at Harvard in 1969. It was so exhilarating; he was so passionate about history. I had just come back from working in the White House and then on the ranch with Lyndon Johnson. We had tons of things to talk about.

Gabriel Winant

Zinn’s humanitarianism was also fuzzy-headed."A People’s History of the United States" -- the one work among his many for which he will be most remembered -- does not offer a compelling explanation of past events or present conditions. Zinn was not really capable of doing so, committed as he was to insisting on the nobility of the exploited many at the hands of a nefarious few. Exploitation and protest, domination and resistance are indeed enduring and central features of American history (and all other history). But they don’t come near being the whole story. Despite the brave struggles of workers, women and minorities, American capitalism remains astonishingly rapacious, and patriarchy and sexism are still very much with us. And as for racism -- well, it’s clearly survived the election of our first black president in reasonable health. As the historian Robert Norrell has put it, there is still no socialism in Reagan Country.

Zinn’s world had little room for workers who wouldn’t join unions, or black people who were not on the front lines of protest. It’s certainly possible to explain these phenomena without abandoning radical criticism or arguing that the proletariat is cheering on Goldman Sachs. But Zinn’s preference was to pretend there was no issue at all.

It’s for this reason that"A People’s History of the United States" -- and Zinn himself -- might best be compared to physicist Niels Bohr and his theory of the electron. Bohr argued that electrons orbited nuclei like planets around the sun. This is incorrect, just barely, but the theory's simplicity means it's often how students are first introduced to the issue....

Boston Globe

The Guardian notes the passing of"American historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn [who] died yesterday, aged 87".

Christopher Hitchens noted that in America you can say pretty much anything you like and still get listened to if you prefix your name with the title"Reverend". I can only assume the same was true in Zinn's case with the title"Professor". The man was not just a charlatan and a fanatic - of whom there are many in public life - but was also perfectly incompetent to be a teacher of history....

Video of Howard Zinn

Boston Globe

“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” Noam Chomsky, the activist and MIT professor, said last night. “He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

Chomsky added that Dr. Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation.”

“He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant,” Chomsky said. “Both by his actions and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement.”...

“Howard had a genius for the shape of public morality and for articulating the great alternative vision of peace as more than a dream,” said James Carroll, a columnist for the Globe’s opinion pages whose friendship with Dr. Zinn dates to when Carroll was a Catholic chaplain at BU. “But above all, he had a genius for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful.”

Daniel Ellsberg

I just learned that my friend Howard Zinn died today. Earlier this morning, I was being interviewed by the Boston Phoenix, in connection with the release in Boston February of a documentary in which he is featured prominently. The interviewer asked me who my own heroes were, and I had no hesitation in answering, first, “Howard Zinn.”...

Alex Green at the Huffington Post

As I sit at the desk of my small independent bookstore a mile from where he lived, and think of Howard Zinn, I cannot cast my eyes in any direction without signs of his presence here. Howard was my indefatigable supporter, as he was of all books and all bookstores. Without him, I never could have kept this store alive in its first years....

He was the Eugene Debs of our time, a monumental figure, walking the long road, collecting voices, and passing them down the line to those in most desperate need. There is no greater purpose to life than to protect that which darkness wishes to envelope, give it energy, and use it to act forcefully for what is right and beautiful in the world. Howard saw that potential in people and he shared it as few ever have, and we must carry this forward, and we shall.

Joseph A. Palermo

I was deeply saddened to see on the front page of The Huffington Post that Howard Zinn passed away today at 87. I know that I am not alone among my colleagues in saying that Howard Zinn is the reason I became a historian. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was a volunteer writer for a nuclear freeze news monthly in Santa Cruz, I used to send Howard my articles seeking his praise and encouragement. He was always so generous and gracious and he took the time to write to me and comment on my little obscure articles. I've kept one of his letters to me in a dog-eared copy of A People's History of the United States on my bookshelf. It's from April 21, 1991, and Howard was commenting on an article I sent him about the Persian Gulf War."Your article," he wrote in a little note batted out on a manual typewriter,"'An Unsanitized Look at the War' is on of the very best I have read on the events in the Gulf -- vivid, passionate, factual, and written with admirable clarity. It is a powerful indictment of the war and it pulls together the basic facts about the violence we have done to human beings in that war. Thanks for sending it to me. Best, Howard Zinn" That single letter from Howard inspired me to carry on what I was doing more than any other correspondence or comments I've ever received from any quarter....

Associated Press

...Professor Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.

Born in New York in 1922, Professor Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and responded strongly to the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on by some young Communists in his neighborhood, he attended a political rally in Times Square.

“Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound, and I looked around and saw the policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people,” he told The A.P. “I couldn’t believe that.”

“And then I was hit. I turned around and I was knocked unconscious. I woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times Square quiet again, eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired. I was ferociously indignant.”

War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: “Never again.”

He attended New York University and Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history. In 1956, he was offered the chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, an all-black women’s school in segregated Atlanta.

During the civil rights movement, Professor Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. He also published several articles, including a rare attack on the Kennedy administration, accusing it of being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students — among them a young Alice Walker, who later wrote “The Color Purple” — but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for “insubordination.” (Professor Zinn was a critic of the school’s non-participation in the civil rights movement.) His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by feuds with the school’s president, John Silber.

Professor Zinn retired in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines. One of Professor Zinn’s last public writings was a brief essay, published last week in The Nation, about the first year of the Obama administration....

“I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

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