Howard Zinn came into my life when I enrolled for the second semester at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in January, 1962. A senior five months from graduating, I was one of forty students who had been either suspended or expelled from Albany State College in 1961 for participating and being arrested in the Albany (GA) Civil Rights Movement. Most of the students were suspended and could return after a waiting period. I was among the few who were expelled and could not return because we were considered to be outspoken leaders in on-campus and off-campus protests.
Due to the efforts of Irene Moore Wright — former Dean of Students at Spelman College and, later, Dean of Students at Albany State during the campus protests — the colleges in the Atlanta University Center opened their doors to any of us who met their qualifications. Morehouse College accepted several students, Morris Brown College accepted one and Spelman College accepted me and my two friends, Janie Culbreth (now Rambeau) and Bernice Johnson (now Reagon). Since none of us had private school money, Dean Wright asked her friend and former Spelman colleague to search for funds to cover our tuition. Dr. Howard Zinn, who was chair of the History Department at Spelman, located funding for all of us and we were able to continue our college education.
My friends and I arrived at Spelman, settled in and after a few days, attended a welcome luncheon for all new second semester students. Hosted by Dr. Zinn, the luncheon gave new students the opportunity to meet members of the Spelman College community — Student Government Association, Spelman leaders in the Atlanta Student Movement and other student leaders and activists. It was obvious from their excitement that the students were fond of him. That luncheon with Dr. Zinn was quite an experience. He towered over me, and as I looked into his handsome smiling face, I thought that he resembled Abraham Lincoln. As host he was gracious, informative, humble, enthusiastic and humorous. He had a wide smile and a big grin that seemed to light up the room. He introduced us to Dr. Staughton Lynd, another campus favorite, judging by the response he received when he stood. (Dr. Lynd later became my history teacher.) After introductions were made, Dr. Zinn discussed our activism and spoke of his beliefs about working together to create an equal and just society. Without trying to be, he was the center of attention, a magnet at the head of the table drawing all of us to him.
The students were from different backgrounds, different states, and a few were from different countries, but our host talked about the things that made us more alike than different — our experiences with segregation, injustice and inequality, our quests for basic human and civil rights, our decisions to make personal sacrifices that were the result of public protest activities and arrests and our willingness to "speak the truth to power". When he talked about the Albany Movement, he attached more significance to the roles of participants than I had. As I listened to him I no longer saw myself as just a tiny part of an isolated struggle to end discrimination in Albany, Georgia. His words and vision painted a picture of all of us as some of the necessary pieces to be added to the work-in-progress puzzle of an America where "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" would play out on an equal basis. I immediately felt him to be trustworthy, a feeling I had not had about a new acquaintance since I met Charles Sherrod, SNCC's Director of the Southwest Georgia Project. Dr. Zinn encouraged us to continue our efforts; I think he made all of us feel good about ourselves. I left the luncheon in high spirits.
Not long after the luncheon, I was among a large group of students who attended the trials of students from the colleges in the Atlanta University Center who had been arrested for participating in protest demonstrations in Atlanta in 1961. Dr. Zinn and other faculty members accompanied us. I learned that Dr. Zinn often protested with the students and took his classes to trials and legislative proceedings.
I was never in any of his classes, but he became my favorite teacher albeit outside of the classroom. I would see him in the dining hall or on the campus, and he would always stop to talk eagerly about what was currently happening locally or around the country in the struggle for justice and equality. He (and Dr. Lynd) had only to walk into the dining hall to create reactions from the girls — stares, whispers, gasps and general excitement. Only the appearance of Morehouse College President Dr. Benjamin Mays could create more of a stir among the girls. Dr. Zinn invited Janie, Bernice and me into his on-campus home to visit with his family many times and told us that we were welcome to give him or "Roz," his wife Roslyn, a call if we wanted to visit at other times. And of course we did.
We met his family, and I felt right at home with them. I was fortunate enough to get the chance to see him as a teacher, a father and a husband. His free- spirited family was open with no off-limits topics of conversation. The children, Myla and Jeff, were always included in our conversations, and their parents made sure they were able to follow what was being discussed. The children were never sent out of the room, never told to keep quit and never criticized for mistakes. Their questions were answered eagerly and honestly. Treated with love and respect by both parents, they responded with love and respect. They were knowledgeable, inquisitive and happy children. Dr. Zinn, I thought, was an admirable husband and father, often anticipating and providing what was needed before it was voiced. He and his wife exhibited an appreciation of and a respect for each others interests. I saw them as a happy and harmonious group. I enjoyed watching their faces as they looked at each other, especially Dr. Zinn's face. It was filled with love and pride.
Sometimes I visited his home without my friends. It would always be after dinner, and I enjoyed being there and sharing some of the "family" time. I noticed that he always listened intently when he talked with me or with people in general. He would look directly at me as I talked about an issue. He would then just ask questions, questions that caused me to probe deeper within myself to give him answers. He would use what I call his engaging technique of imparting knowledge in such a way that one does not always realize right away that a lesson is in progress. By doing so, he allowed me to see issues from different points of view, to connect dots that once had seemed random and to see my life and actions in an historical manner, in conjunction with the lives and actions of others. During each visit, I felt inspired and energized, ready to tackle whatever challenges confronted me. At the end of the semester, I went back to Albany and continued to participate in the Albany Movement, but I was eagerly looking forward to returning to Spelman in the fall.
During the next school year, he opened other doors for me. Often he would play songs from several of his record albums. That is how I was introduced to a young Bobby Dylan — before he became Bob Dylan. As my friends and I listened, I was moved beyond words by the lyrics of Dylan's songs. How can one so young know so much and write with such insight? I wondered. His songs gave voice to feelings that lay deep inside of me; they wrapped themselves around my heart and soul. Playing those songs was a gift that Dr. Zinn gave to me. He later gave me Odetta, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Music had always been a part of my life — big band, pop, opera, western, even country, which showcases the basics of life — but I had never heard the kind of truth music that Dr. Zinn enjoyed and shared. Those songs fueled my desire even more to make a difference, to help balance the scales.
Whenever I went home for breaks or vacations, my mother said I talked more about "Zinn and Lynd" than my other teachers. Little did I know when I completed the second semester in 1963 and went home for the summer that I would not see Dr. Zinn again for many years. I heard at mid-summer that he had been fired from Spelman at the end of the semester. I did not return to Spelman for the 1963 fall semester because none of the colleges in the Atlanta University Center offered the courses I needed to graduate. Instead, I worked in Albany with SNCC and its voter registration drive in the summer and part of the fall of 1963. Spelman notified me that the courses I needed would be offered beginning in January, 1964. Required to pre-register in order to reenter Spelman, I took a two day trip to Atlanta to do so, staying with Bernice Reagon who was living in Atlanta. After registering, I asked someone in the Registrar's Office if Dr. Zinn had been fired. They said he had, but when I tried to get information about his dismissal, they said no more. I decided to go to SNCC's office, which was on Raymond Street and within walking distance from Spelman, in order to talk about Dr. Zinn's firing because at an earlier time he had been an advisor to SNCC and I felt they would have information about his dismissal.
It was November 22, a balmy day, and as I walked past a dormitory on Atlanta University's campus I saw that almost all of the windows were opened. Several radios were playing loudly, all tuned to the same news program. That is how I learned of the assassination of President John Kennedy. I never stopped; I just kept walking and listening, in shock, until I reached SNCC's office where, needless to say, there would be no discussion of the firing of Dr. Zinn. James Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC, Julian Bond, member of SNCC and a leader in the Atlanta Student Movement and about a dozen field secretaries were discussing the assassination and the possible calling in of all workers in Mississippi, Alabama and other places in the South for their safety from extremists who might take the assassination of the President as an invitation to "open season" on civil rights workers. We sang "We Shall Overcome" and walked down to Paschal's Restaurant, met with other civil rights activists and talked some more. I left and went back to Bernice's apartment where we watched news of the assassination all night but also talked about the firing of Dr. Zinn and wished that we could talk with him about the days tragic events. The entire day had been surreal.
We did not know where Dr. Zinn was but as we talked, we decided to try and contact him — to find out if he had remained in Atlanta. We called several people the next day, but nobody we called knew of his whereabouts. We were able, however, to contact Dr. Staughton Lynd. We told him that we wanted to make plans to protest the firing of Dr. Zinn. There had never been an organized student protest because the firing had taken place when the semester was over and the students had gone home. Dr. Lynd stunned us when he informed us that he had resigned in protest of the firing. We then voiced our desire to protest his resigning as well since it was a result of Dr. Zinn's firing. He offered to come and talk with us that evening about our plans. We talked far into the night but since it appeared that Dr. Zinn and Dr. Lynd were moving ahead in different directions from Spelman, we decided not to put the protest ideas into play.
The next year, in 1964, after I graduated from Spelman, Dr. Zinn sent me an autographed copy of his book, The Southern Mystique. That is how I found out that he was in Boston. I was surprised and honored to see that he had included my name in the acknowledgments. It seemed that I had been sitting with a group of students to whom he had talked about the Albany Movement when he came to Albany in December, 196l. I had thought he was just one of the many reporters who were covering the Albany story. I answered his questions and forgot about him and the incident. At the time, I did not know that he was Dr. Howard Zinn or that he was gathering information for a race relations organization in Atlanta, the Southern Regional Council, or that he would value my information. When I saw him at the luncheon the next year, I did not recognize him and thought I was meeting him for the first time. When I received the copy of the book, I thought about all of the things I had come to know about Dr. Zinn since that luncheon, and I came to the conclusion that besides being an activist, author, pacifist and great teacher, he was a considerate, caring person who was generous with his attention to others. I wrote him, and thanked him.
Later, as a favor to me, he read my first attempt at writing a fictional short story. A patient man, he took the time to hand write a critique, pointing out the strong points in my story, which were few, and pointing out the weak points, which were many. I respected his opinion and was grateful for his suggestions. It was interesting that sometimes we did not communicate for many months, sometimes years, but when we did communicate, we just took up where we had left off. He would always remember things I had shared with him in the past. He took friendships seriously and did not forget the people whose lives he touched even when physical distance or lapsed time came between them. He nurtured the relationships. He would send me a note or card whenever the family changed addresses. I was a participant in a conference at the Smithsonian Institute in 1981, convened by Bernice Reagon, ("Voices of the Civil Rights Movement") and during a break, I heard my name being called. I looked up and saw Dr. Zinn and his wife waving and grinning. I rushed over and we shared a three way hug before talking and sharing things we were involved in. They seemed to be as happy to see me as I was to see them.
He was a man with a genuine love of life, of teaching and of people. He honestly cared about people and about the abuse of their human and civil rights. He hated aggressive behavior and war with a passion. I was not surprised when he spoke out against the Vietnam War or when in 1968 he was one of the three people who went to Vietnam and negotiated for the release of three American prisoners of war. It was in keeping with his beliefs about negotiating and making agreements rather than resorting to violence or war. However, the military took over the "task" of bringing the soldiers home.
I remember the time years later when I saw his autobiographical movie, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on A Moving Train," on PBS. I had never known anything about his background and had assumed that he was from an affluent family. Not so. I also learned something that I would not have ever imagined...he had volunteered for the military and been a bombardier during World War II. No doubt the horrors of war touched him deeply and caused him to advocate for peace for the rest of his life. I watched fascinated as his life unfolded before my eyes. Moved and excited, I called him after the movie ended to tell him how it had inspired me, but he was out of town. I talked to his wife at length about the movie. To my surprise he called the next day from wherever he was and said that Roslyn had called him and told him of my call. We talked about the movie and about what we both were involved in at the time. Again to my surprise, a few days later, I received a DVD of the movie and a note. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised at either gesture; he was a kind and thoughtful person.
In 2005, I received a note from him when he was invited to deliver the commencement address at Spelman College and to receive an honorary degree. Later he called me, gave me his itinerary while on campus and expressed hopes that I could attend. I was ill at the time, but told him I would come if my condition improved. It did not, and I did not attend. In hindsight, I wish I had attended anyway. I have told myself over and over again that I should have ignored my pain and dragged myself to the event so I could have seen him once more. Although I talked with him over the years, I never saw him again after the Smithsonian conference.
He is quoted as saying that he "wanted to be known as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before." In my opinion, he certainly accomplished that mission. I learned life lessons from him and his influence still follows me. He was a wonderful teacher and a caring and generous man. No matter how great his deeds, no matter how much his influence and popularity grew and no matter how many people he knew in high places, he remained a "real person," a man of and for the people. He remembered and stayed in touch with this thirsty for knowledge student that he met in 1961 from the segregated roads and back roads of southwest Georgia. I never told him, but I think he knew what a positive and lasting effect he had on my life. I miss him not being a physical presence in the world, but I feel his presence when I read his books or books written about him.
In Kahlil Gibran's book, "The Prophet," Almustafa the Prophet bids the people of Orphalese farewell after his twelve year sojourn with them. He goes to the dock to board his ship, and they follow him, dismayed at no longer being privy to his guidance and words of wisdom. Almustafa comforts them by saying, "A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me."
Howard Zinn, I can only pray that Almustafa's words/prophecy extend to you and that you/your counterpart will pass this way again...
[Note: The internet, books that Dr. Zinn wrote and books others wrote about him provide examples of his philosophy, speeches, experiences, influence, etc, for all to see. Therefore, I did not concentrate on those things. This is my personal account of Dr. Zinn as I knew him — as a teacher, mentor, family man and friend. Parts of this article appear in "Howard Zinn, My Favorite Teacher" on the Zinn Education Project website.]
Copyright © Annette Jones White, 2016
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