When I first met Howard Zinn 40 years ago, I had known him as a leading antiwar critic, civil rights activist and radical historian. I expected a brooding and perhaps angry intellectual deeply at odds with a nation that shortly afterward reelected Richard Nixon by a landslide. But my first impression of him, sitting in his office at Boston University, was of a casual, jovial and self-deprecating professor who, I learned, was provoked to a kind of controlled fury only by war and injustice. It was an impression shared by his legions of friends.
Zinn was a force in the civil rights movement and one of the originators of oral history and history “from below.” His work in the South in the 1950s and early ’60s, while he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, was galvanizing for a new generation of black students, Alice Walker, Julian Bond and Marian Wright Edelman among them. He helped guide the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major component of the black uprising, and wrote a number of seminal articles and books about the movement, including “The Southern Mystique” and “SNCC: The New Abolitionists.”
(New Press) - ‘Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left’ by Martin Duberman
The civil rights movement demonstrated the power of mass mobilization, and this carried over into the protests against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. By 1965, the year the U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew quickly, Zinn was in Boston (having been fired from Spelman for rousing the students) and began to play a similar role in antiwar activism — writing, speaking and encouraging students and others to organize against the war.
If these two fabled movements absorbed Zinn and forged his role as an activist and intellectual, it was his writing of “A People’s History of the United States” (1980) that gave his work a long shelf life. It is one of the top-selling American history books ever and one that launched a small industry of spinoffs, including books, school curricula, television specials, celebrity salutes and the like. It reflected his lifelong passion for addressing issues of war, race, class and labor, and was innovatively told from the perspectives of ordinary people rather than princes and presidents.
When he died in January 2010, the obituaries commonly focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights periods of his life. But as Martin Duberman smartly lays out in his new biography, there was a lot more to Zinn’s remarkable role in the glory days of the movement and the phenomenon that is “A People’s History.”
While Zinn was widely known as a great orator and a modest, congenial man, his activism tended to overshadow his considerable intellectual achievements. His extensive use of oral history and history from below changed historiography. He challenged the notion of objectivity and indeed the neutrality of the scholar, most famously in the finely argued “Politics of History” (1970) and in several other prominent forums. He was often accused of distortion when he expounded his leftist views, but he insisted that the issue was one of choice — historians choose their focus, and so did he, while honoring standard methods of inquiry. That hasn’t been good enough for his many academic critics, but he could argue, as Duberman does, that his work “has played a crucial role in providing a corrective to the traditional accounts that omit discussion of the lives of ordinary people or of those who protest against the status quo.”