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Still Not a Neutral Player on a Moving Train: Carrying Howard Zinn’s Torch in the Classrooms and in the Streets

We remember Howard Zinn on the eighth anniversary of his death.

Michael Gottlieb

January 27, 2018
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Image from Spelman College Archives, 1960.

January 27th, 2018 marks eight years since historian/activist/playwright Howard Zinn passed away at the age of 87. He passed away while swimming laps in a pool in Santa Monica, California. That literal way in which he left this world is a cosmically coincidental metaphor for the way he lived the large majority of his adult life. In a few respects, he found himself pushing, or swimming, against the grain. An air force bombardier pilot during World War II (an experience leading him to question militarism, conceptually and its uses), Zinn would end up attending Columbia University thanks to the GI Bill, eventually receiving his PhD in History. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Atlanta with his family to teach history at the historical black women’s Spelman College (1956-1963), wherein he engaged with local civil disobedience efforts, and later the direct action of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By 1964, he published SNCC: The New Abolitionists, an extensive historical study of the movement in which he himself played a small role.

After 1963, he relocated to Boston University, where he remained until his retirement in 1988. As a scholar-activist in the 1960s, Zinn belonged to a group of U.S. historians (including Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd and others) who emphasized history from the below, that is, historical narratives that pay attention to the marginalized, disenfranchised, and often invisible. Zinn was firm in his belief in rendering the invisible visible. Reflecting on his time as a teacher at Spellman, Zinn wrote:

I have told about the modest campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s libraries because the history of social movements often confines itself to the large events, the pivotal moments. Missing from such histories are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.(1)

As a member of the American Historical Association, he was a part of the Radical Historians Caucus. On December 28th, 1969 in Washington D.C., Zinn sought to postpone the remainder of a meeting during the annual AHA conference—the same meeting where an effort to elect the radical Staughton Lynd as president of the AHA was defeated—so that a resolution wholly condemning the Vietnam War could be heard.A scuffle ensued: then outgoing AHA president John Fairbanks wrestled Zinn for the microphone. Indeed, he was as passionate about lifting up voices from the past as much as he was amplifying historically analogous voices in the present. As a public orator, Howard Zinn marveled in wonderous delight at the power of the possible seen in the past and imagined in the present, similar to the way popular astrophysicist Carl Sagan would marvel in childlike awe at the power of the cosmos; one becomes enthralled in their captivation, and as a result finds oneself captivated. What’s more, Zinn’s infectious joy was a delight to audiences who came to hear him speak, be it at stand alone talk or at one of the many theatrical readings of his A Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which featured popular culture figures such as James Earl Jones, John Legend and Kerry Washington to perform in character excerpts from the collection.

An historian who certainly made his mark on history, Howard Zinn was and still remains, an inspiration to many—in the way we process various elements of the past, the way we actively engage in the present. Perhaps he is best known for A People’s History of the United States, a 1980 publication that has since sold over two millions of copies. Many on the right, as well as some liberals, rejected Zinn’s treatment on grounds of “objectivity.” Zinn scoffed at the notion of pure ‘objectivity’ in historical narrative before he wrote A People’s History: “The closest we can come to that elusive ‘objectivity’ is to report accurately all of the subjectivities in a situation.”(2) A book like A People’s History needed to be written because for a popular audience, and in a sea of secondary school history textbooks whose narratives glorify the view of the ‘oppressors’, it contained a systemic treatment on U.S. history through the subjectivity of the ‘oppressed’. This individual work has single-handedly shaped the minds of millions in respect to the way one views the history of the United States—myself included.

Thanks to growing up around my father’s family of educated Quaker (and some Jewish) activists, I was precocious, but it wasn’t until a dear family friend showed me the work of Howard Zinn that I had my view of the U.S. as a benevolent force shaken, and thus leading to my own radicalization (the Iraq War, then in its infancy, was also a crucial factor). I was so shaken and taken by A People’s History of the United States that, at the age of thirteen, I decided to write to Howard Zinn myself. To my surprise, he responded at 7:07 am EST on Monday morning, December 5th, 2004:


Screenshot A. For full text, see below.

My correspondence with Zinn was limited, but the few exchanges we did have were memorable, and enough to stay with me as I myself—by and large inspired by Zinn’s life and work—venture into the world of education. For my junior U.S. History class in high school, four years after I wrote him initially, I had to write an essay about the question of dropping the atomic bomb. I wrote a Zinn-inspired essay arguing why the dropping of the atom bomb was immoral. It did not receive the grade I had thought I would. In a bit of what I admit was probably self righteous rage, I sent him the essay and complained to him about the poor grade I received even though I had worked so hard on it while others wrote it the night before and received higher grades. He responded in kind:


Screenshot B. For full text see below.

I was and still am thankful for that validation, even if I look at the same paper now and know I wouldn’t write it the same way. An ongoing conversation about content and form with my mentor Chuck Yates at Earlham College caused me to look at the essay Zinn praised and I would write the essay differently now. But nonetheless, Zinn was right to tell me what he did about teachers, rules and arguments. As someone going into education, it has instilled in me that passion should not be penalized, but polished.

This anniversary of Howard Zinn’s passing comes at a time where his prescient words are needed most, specifically in regards to elections. We are just coming off of the second iteration of the Women’s March, with this year featuring the slogan “Power to the Polls”. This narrow slogan comes as the Democrats have once again shown they are not a vehicle to fight injustice. Ten years ago (the same year I wrote to Zinn regarding my essay), after the Democrats failed to stop the war after taking back Congress in 2006 and during the midst of the “Hope and Change” mania that plagued 2008, Howard Zinn reminded us that:“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.”(3) What Zinn said then is just as true now- both capitalist parties govern in the interests of the wealthy. Simply just showing up to the polls will not achieve the deep and systemic change that we deserve; it is very likely that more compromisers and capitulators will be brought to the table. We can only achieve the change we need via organization and mobilization.

I was a freshman at Earlham College when I heard the news that Howard Zinn had passed away during the evening of January 27th, 2010. The next day, after class, I expressed my sadness to a friend on the way to lunch, letting him know about my limited correspondence with him and how he had inspired me to become an historian and an educator. My friend said, “All we can do is carry on the torch”. Indeed, we must carry on Zinn’s torch, be it through working in the classroom with the resources of the Zinn Education Project, or strategically organizing in the streets.

Email Exchange with Howard Zinn:
Hello Professer.

My name is Michael Gottlieb. I’m 13, an activist, and am very much into history, pholosophy, ect. I’m a huge fan of yours.

My grandfather had a habit of writting public officals (such as former Wisconson Senator Bill Proxmire) and devolping a freindship. His name was Mannuel Gottlieb, and he taught Economics at the University of Wisconson. I’m doing the same. I have a correspondance with Noam Chomsky. I hope to have one with you.

Michael Gottlieb, Seattle, WA.

Dear Michael:
Thank you for your letter. I’m encouraged by the fact that a thirteen-year old is politicall conscious as you obviously are.
Best of luck,
Howard Zinn

Michael, your grade is not an accurate reflection of the worth of your essay but rather a reflection of the mechanical thinking that we find too often among teachers, who measure something by whether it obeys certain formula rules rather the substance of the wssay. Often, attention to “rules” conceals hostility to the substance of an argument, which the teacher does not want to admit. Your essay t is strong snd persuasive. and well-documented even without footnotes.

Howard Zinn

Michael Gottlieb is an historian/educator who has written about and participated in social movements, namely anti-war and Palestinian solidarity efforts. Born and raised in Seattle, WA, he is currently based in New York City, where he received a master’s in Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research (2016)

1. Howard Zinn, “Reflections of a White Professor at Spelman College in the 1950s”, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 7 (Spring, 1995), pp. 97-99.
2. Zinn, The Politics of History (Boston: Boston University Press, 1970), p. 41.
3. Zinn, “Election Madness”, in The Progressive, April 8th, 2008.

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