Historian and activist Howard Zinn, 87, died of a heart attack yesterday while swimming laps. These days he is probably best known for his book A People's History of the United States, but he was also a prominent activist, both as an academic (who would not, for instance, cross striking secretaries' picket line at Boston University) and in the street, where he inspired others to civil disobedience and put his own body on the line. Amy Goodman's broadcast on Democracy Now!, which you can find here, offers a sense of both vectors of his activism, via interviews with Alice Walker (who, like Marian Wright Edelman, was a student of his at Spelman College in Atlanta) and Noam Chomsky (longtime friend and comrade). As Chomsky remarks, Howard Zinn "changed people's perspective. He changed people's consciences." He had the gift of being able to express simply and clearly what had previously been obscured in the murk of received opinion. According to Chomsky, Zinn's Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal changed the focus of antiwar activists, changed the very conversation about the war we were having in the US in the late 1960s.
Here's an excerpt from A People's History of the United States:
[Most] histories understate revolt, overemphasize statesmanship, and thus encourage impotency among citizens. When we look closely at resistance movements, or even at isolated forms of rebellion, we discover that class consciousness, or any other awareness of injustice, has multiple levels. It has many ways of expression, many ways of revealing itself--- open, subtle, direct, distorted. In a system of intimidation and control, people do not show how much they know, how deeply they feel, until their practical sense informs them they can do so without being destroyed.Here is an excerpt from Daniel Ellsberg's A Memory of Howard:
History which keeps alive the memory of people's resistance suggests new definitions of power. By traditional definitions, whoever possess military strength, wealth, command of official ideology, cultural control, has power. Measured by these standards, popular rebellion never looks strong enough to survive.
However, the unexpected victories---even temporary ones---of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful. In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications works, garbagemen and firemen. These people---the employed, the somewhat privileged---are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails.
There was a happier story to tell, just over one month later. On Saturday night, June 12, 1971, we had a date with Howard and Roz to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Harvard Square. But that morning I learned from someone at the New York Times that-without having alerted me-the Times was about to start publishing the top secret documents I had given them that evening. That meant I might get a visit from the FBI any moment; and for once, I had copies of the Papers in my apartment, because I planned to send them to Senator Mike Gravel for his filibuster against the draft.And here's Dave Zirin:
From Secrets (p. 386):
"I had to get the documents out of our apartment. I called the Zinns, who had been planning to come by our apartment later to join us for the movie, and asked if we could come by their place in Newton instead. I took the papers in a box in the trunk of our car. They weren't the ideal people to avoid attracting the attention of the FBI. Howard had been in charge of managing antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan's movements underground while he was eluding the FBI for months (so from that practical point of view he was an ideal person to hide something from them), and it could be assumed that his phone was tapped, even if he wasn't under regular surveillance. However, I didn't know whom else to turn to that Saturday afternoon. Anyway, I had given Howard a large section of the study already, to read as a historian; he'd kept it in his office at Boston University. As I expected, they said yes immediately. Howard helped me bring up the box from the car.
We drove back to Harvard Square for the movie. The Zinns had never seen Butch Cassidy before. It held up for all of us. Afterward we bought ice-cream cones at Brigham's and went back to our apartment. Finally Howard and Roz went home before it was time for the early edition of the Sunday New York Times to arrive at the subway kiosk below the square. Around midnight Patricia and I went over to the square and bought a couple of copies. We came up the stairs into Harvard Square reading the front page, with the three-column story about the secret archive, feeling very good.
Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully: "Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist - the rich, the poor - whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed."Here are just a few of the obituaries that have already appeared:
Common Dreams The Best of What A Human Can Be, and Do in Life by Abby Zimet
The Progressive Remembering Howard Zinn by Elizabeth diNovella
Boston Globe Howard Zinn, Historian who Challenged Status Quo, Dies at 87 by Mark Feeney
Democracy Now! Howard Zinn (1922–2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove"> by Amy Goodman
The Nation Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History by Dave Zirin; and
Goodybe Howard Zinn by Peter Rothberg
Huffington Post Howard Zinn Has Died. Long Live "Zinn" by Fred Branfman
The New York Times 'People's History' Author Howard Zinn Dies at 87