restricted access Howard Zinn, The People’s Historian
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Howard Zinn, The People’s Historian
Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New York: The New Press, 2012)
Timothy McCarthy, ed., The Indispensable Zinn: The Essential Writings of the “People’s Historian” (New York: The New Press, 2012)
Stephen Bird, Adam Silver, and Joshua C. Yesnowitz, eds., Agitation with a Smile: Howard Zinn’s Legacies and the Future of Activism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2013)

When Howard Zinn died on 27 January 2010, I immediately began reading on-line obituaries and tributes to the people’s historian whose radical example had inspired countless men and women to stand up, to march, to resist, and, if necessary, to go to jail. That afternoon, I went to the library where I checked out as many Howard Zinn books as I could carry. For the next couple of weeks, I read about the Civil Rights Movement, the labour movement, the wars against Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the brutality of American imperialism, and the madness of neoliberalism. What struck me was the clarity of his vision and the clarity of his writing. As an activist, he knew right from wrong and, as a writer, he knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He was never an academic poser and his writing was neither burdened by impenetrable theory nor cluttered with incomprehensible jargon. In a 1966 article published in the New York Times, he rejected the role of the disinterested scholar, instead defining himself as a historian-citizen. “In a world hungry for solutions, we ought to welcome the emergence of the historian as an activist-scholar, who thrusts himself and his works into the crazy mechanism of history, on behalf of values in which he deeply believes. This makes him a citizen in the ancient Athenian sense of the word.”1 [End Page 265]

A few weeks later I received an e-mail from announcing a public memorial service at Boston University where Zinn had taught from 1964 until his retirement in 1988, often under less than ideal circumstances. It’s a theme Martin Duberman develops to considerable effect in Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left. bu’s president, the conservative, vindictive, and dictatorial John Silber, loathed his most popular professor, once describing him as the “enemy of truth.”2 Although Zinn had an international reputation both as a scholar and as an activist, and although students could be seen lining up outside his door, down the hallway, and into the stairwell, Silber routinely denied him pay raises and even assigned him smaller classrooms to limit his enrolments. He once accused him of attempting to set fire to the president’s office, a charge for which he was forced to apologize. Zinn’s crime wasn’t his defence of untenured faculty or striking clerical workers; it wasn’t his courage or the example he set for the larger bu community; and it certainly wasn’t arson. It was what he represented: to conservatives, the sixties was a period of moral disorder when the United States went off the rails and Silber – who supported the wars against Indochina and later the counterinsurgency campaigns against Central America – intended to put America back on the rails one radical professor at a time.

On the long drive to Boston, my kids wanted to know why they were being dragged to a memorial service for some guy we didn’t even know. Because, I said, Howard Zinn changed the world. Well, if he changed the world, how come you’re always complaining about it? Good question, I said. Because change comes slowly, I guess. But it does come. Of course, it doesn’t come from the top. It comes from the bottom; it comes from men, women, and even children who say enough is enough, who say we’re not putting up with this crap anymore. Daddy said a swear word, Frances shouted. Crap isn’t a swear word, Harriet responded. Regardless, I said, if Howard Zinn knew anything, he knew that nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. In the rear view mirror, I could see their eyes...