Photo: Peter Simon
On learning of the sudden death of Howard Zinn at 87, friend and fellow social justice activist Fred Branfman wrote, “I have met many political people in my lifetime. Howard was by far the most honest, human, open, kind, generous, gracious, sweetest, humorous, and charming of them.” Throughout Rethinking Schools’ relationship with Howard Zinn, which began with the publication of Rethinking Columbus in 1991 and culminated recently with the Zinn Education Project, these are exactly the qualities that we experienced. Howard granted us numerous interviews, allowed us to use his writing in the magazine and other publications, wrote kind blurbs for our books, put us in contact with funders and other activists—and in countless ways showed us how deeply he respected teachers and believed in the power of education. We will miss his wisdom, his courage, his humanity, his friendship. After Howard’s death, writer Naomi Klein said, “We just lost our favorite teacher.” We agree. Zinn’s most influential work, A People’s History of the United States, was a gift to teachers everywhere—an eloquent anti-textbook that pointed the way to an approach to the past that was at once angry, passionate, and hopeful. Corporate textbooksdelete all fundamental criticism of war, empire, and a profit-first economic system. They erase the impact of social movements and make it appear that events march inexorably forward without the influence of ordinary people. Zinn wanted none of that. He insisted that our history has been a long struggle for justice, and that anything decent and democratic in todays society exists because people fought for it. Zinn highlighted those who challenged injusticeand focused on the achievements of activism and dissent. (Civil disobedience is not a problem, he liked to say. The problem is civil obedience.) In short, Howard recognized and celebrated the best in us. Howard Zinn made us more courageous as teachers. He encouraged us to be radicalto attempt to know the world by going to the roots, by pursuing the question Why? as tenaciously as we could. He wanted teachers to show students how the world has been made better by small acts of defiance and solidarity by ordinary people, not only by the illustrious leaders of social movements. And certainly not by the traditional heroes who, more often than not, deserve more contempt than praise—think Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, or Woodrow Wilson.
His life had “nurtured an indignation against the bullies of the world,” he wrote, and he wanted students to see themselves as potential activists, to consider ways that they could make a difference—as people who would stand up to those bullies.
Zinn the Teacher
Howard Zinn saw no contradiction between teaching and activism. In fact, for him they were inseparable:
When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.
Zinn revealed his commitments in the classroom, but also beyond the classroom. He wrote, “I always believed that teachers taught more by what they did than by what they said.” And this doing won him the respect and affection of his students as well as sometimes the enmity of college authorities.
After earning his Ph.D at Columbia University, Zinn was hired as a professor and chair of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College in Atlanta, a “tightly controlled” school for African American young women, as Zinn described it. Zinn arrived at Spelman in 1956, before Spelman students were active in civil rights struggles.
The novelist and poet Alice Walker recently remembered her first encounter with Howard Zinn; she sat next to him at an awards dinner at Spelman, shortly before she became his student: “I was surprised that he did not feel white . . . i.e., heavy, oppressive, threatening, and almost inevitably insensitive to the feelings of a person of color.” In the classroom, Walker remembers, “Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise.”
But in a time of what Zinn called the “malignancy” of Southern racism, he felt the need to push beyond the classroom. In early 1959, Zinn suggested to the Spelman Social Science Club, for which he was the faculty adviser, that they initiate a social action project. The students decided to desegregate Atlanta’s public libraries.
As Zinn tells the story in his inspiring autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, black students repeatedly entered the whites-only main branch of the Atlanta public library to ask for a book—John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Tom Paine’s Common Sense, or the Declaration of Independence—only to be turned away. Students and other activists threatened a lawsuit until finally the library board voted to desegregate the library system.
Zinn uses this story to illustrate a theme that weaves throughout everything he wrote or said: History is filled with courageous and determined acts for justice, which are the source of hope for the future. He points out that too often the history of the Civil Rights Movement focuses on Supreme Court cases, landmark pieces of legislation, or even the great marches and demonstrations. “Missing from such histories,” Zinn writes, “are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to these 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.”
At the conclusion of the 1963 academic year, Howard Zinn was fired for his activism, for supporting his students rather than deferring to the Spelman administration. When Amy Goodman asked Alice Walker on a recent Democracy Now! broadcast why Zinn had been thrown out of Spelman, she answered simply, “He was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens.” The college president told people he’d sacked Zinn for “insubordination.” Walker remembers Zinn’s response: “‘Yes,’ he would later say, with a classic Howie shrug, ‘I was guilty.’”