Howard Zinn
(1922 — 2010)

See also:
Against Discouragement, by Howard Zinn.
What the Civil Rights Movement Proved, by Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn: Remembered and Missed, Annette Jones White


As remembered by Alice Walker
January 31, 2010

Saying Goodby to My Friend Howard Zinn

[Originally published on Boston.Com, reposted with permission of the author.]

Me: Howie, where did you go?

Howie: What do you mean, where did I go? As soon as I died, I went back to Boston.

I met Howard Zinn in 1961, my first year at Spelman College in Atlanta. He was the tall, rangy, good-looking professor that many of the girls at Spelman swooned over. My African roommate and I got a good look at him every day when he came for his mail in the post office just beneath our dormitory window. He was always in motion, but would stop frequently to talk to the many students and administrators and total strangers that seemed attracted to his energy of non-hesitation to engage. We met formally when some members of my class were being honored and I was among them. I donbt remember what we were being honored for, but Howard and I ended up sitting next to each other. He remembered this later; I did not. He was the first white person Ibd sat next to; we talked. He claimed I was " I was surprised he did not feel white.

I knew nothing of immigrants (which his parents were) or of Jews. Nothing of his father's and his own working class background. Nothing of his awareness of poverty and slums. Nothing of why a white person could exist in America and not feel white: i.e., heavy, oppressive, threatening, and almost inevitably insensitive to the feelings of a person of color. The whole of Georgia was segregated at that time; and in coming to Spelman I had had a run-in with the Greyhound bus driver (white as described above) who had forced me to sit in the back of the bus. This moment had changed my life, though how that would play out was of course uncertain to a 17-year-old.

One way it did play out was that the very next summer I was on my way to the Soviet Union to see how white those folks were and to tell as many of them as I could, even if they were white, that I did not agree to my country's notions of bombing them. I didn't see a lot of generals, but children and women and men and old people of both sexes were everywhere. They were usually smiling and offering flowers or vodka. There was no "iron curtain'' between us, as I'd been told to expect by Georgia media. I love to tell the story of how I was so ignorant at the time I didn't have a clue who folks were queuing up to see in Lenin's tomb; nor did I even know what the Kremlin was. I also didn't speak a word of Russian.

Coming back to Spelman, I discovered Howard Zinn was teaching a course on Russian History and Literature and a little of the language. I signed up for it, though I was only a sophomore and the course was for juniors (as I recall). I had loved Russian Literature since I discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevsky back in the school library in Putnam County, Georgia. As for the Russian language, as with any language, I most wanted to learn to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.

Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise, he loved what he was teaching and clearly wanted his students to love it also. We did. My mother, who earned $17 a week working 12-hour days as a maid, had somehow managed to buy a typewriter for me and I had learned typing in school. I said hardly a word in class (as Howie would later recall), but inspired by his warm and brilliant ability to communicate ideas and conundrums and passions of the characters and complexities of Russian life in the 19th century, I flew back to my room after class and wrote my response to what I was learning about these writers and their stories that I adored. He was proud of my paper, and, in his enthusiastic fashion, waved it about. I learned later there were those among other professors at the school who thought that I could not possibly have written it. His rejoinder: "Why, there's nobody else in Atlanta who could have written it!''

It would be hard not to love anyone who stood in one's corner like this.

Under the direction of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) many students at Spelman joined the effort to desegregate Atlanta. Naturally, I joined this movement. Howie, taller than most of us, was constantly in our midst, and usually somewhere in front. Because I was at Spelman on scholarship, a scholarship that would be revoked if I were jailed, my participation caused me a good bit of anxiety. Still, knowing that Howard and others of our professors, the amazingly courageous and generous Staughton Lynd, for instance, my other history teacher, supported the students in our struggle, made it possible to carry on. But then, while he and his family were away from campus for the summer, Howard Zinn was fired. He was fired for "insubordination.''

Yes, he would later say, with a classic Howie shrug, I was guilty.

For me, and for many poorer students in my position, students on scholarship who also worked in the Movement to free us from centuries of white supremacy and second-class citizenship, it was a disaster. I wrote a letter to the administration that was published in the school paper pointing out the error of their decision. I wrote it through tears of anger and frustration. It was these tears, which appeared unannounced whenever I thought of this injustice to Howard and his family - whom I had met and also loved - that were observed by Staughton Lynd, who realized instantly that a) there was every chance I was headed toward a breakdown; and b) the administration would quickly find a reason to expel me from school. Added to the stress, which nobody knew about, was the fact that I was working for a well-respected older man who, knowing I had to work in order to pay for everything I needed as a young woman in school, was regularly molesting me. Lucky for me he was very old, and his imagination was stronger than his grasp. As a farm girl and no stranger to manual labor, I could type his papers with one hand while holding him off with the other. What rankled so much, then as now, is how much others respected, even venerated him.

Perhaps this was one of many births of my feminism. A feminism/womanism that never seemed odd to Howard Zinn, who encouraged his Spelman students, all of them women, to name and challenge oppression of any sort. This encouragement would come in handy, when, years later, writing my second novel, "Meridian,'' I could explore the misuse of gender-based power from the perspective of having experienced it.

With Staughton Lynd's help, and after he had consulted with Howie (I did not know this), I was accepted to finish my college education at Sarah Lawrence College, a place of which I had never heard. I went off in the middle of winter, without a warm coat or shoes and ice and snow greeted me. But also Staughton's mother, Helen Lynd, who immediately provided money for the coat and shoes I needed, as well as a blanket that had been her son's.

In my solitary room, and knowing no one on campus, I hunkered down to write. Letters to the Zinns, first of all. To inform them I had been liberated from Spelman, as they had been, and had landed.

I was Howard's student for only a semester, but in fact, I have learned from him all my life. His way with resistance: steady, persistent, impersonal, often with humor, is a teaching I cherish. Whenever I've been arrested, I've thought of him. I see policemen as victims of the very system they're hired to defend, as I know he did. I see soldiers in the same way. In some ways, Howie was an extension of my father, whom he never met. My father was also an activist as a young man and was one of the first black men unconnected to white ancestry or power to vote in our backwoods county; he had to pass by three white men holding shotguns in order to do this. By the time I went off to college, the last of eight children, he was exhausted and broken. But these men were connected in ways clearer to me now as I've become older than my father was when he died. They each saw injustice as something to be acknowledged, confronted, and changed if at all possible. And they looked for signs of humanity in their opponents and spoke to that. They both possessed a sense of humor and love of a good story that made them charismatic teachers. I recently discovered, and it amuses me, that their birth dates are close, though my father was 13 years older.

Howie and I planned to rendezvous in Berkeley in March, when he came out to spend a few weeks with his grandchildren. In April we planned to be on a panel with Gloria Steinem and Bernice Reagon at an event in New Orleans for Amnesty International. I had decided not to go, but Howie said if I didn't come he would "sorely miss'' me. I wrote back that in that case I would certainly be there as "soreness of any sort'' was not to be tolerated.

Over the years I've been in the habit of sending freshly written poems to Roz and Howie. After her death, I continued to send the occasional poem to Howie. Last week, after the Supreme Court's decision to let corporations offer unlimited financing to electoral candidates, I wrote a poem about what I would do if I were president, called: "If I Was President: 'Were' For Those Who Prefer It." My first act as president, given that corporations may well buy all elections in America from now on, would be to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, both men accused of murders I've felt they did not commit; both men in prison for sadistically long periods of time.

Howie's response, and the last word he communicated to me, was "Wonderful." I imagined him hurriedly typing it, then flying, even at 87, out the door.

The question remains: Where do our friends and loved ones go when they die?

They can't all go back to Boston, or wherever they've lived their most intense life.

I fell asleep, after leaking tears for Howie most of the day: my sweetheart's shirt was luckily absorbent and available to me, and after tossing and turning almost all night, I had the following dream: We (Someone and I) were looking for the place we go to when we die. After quite a long walk, we encountered it. What we saw was this astonishingly gigantic collection of people and creatures: birds and foxes, butterflies and dogs, cats and beings I've never seen awake, and they were moving toward us in total joy at our coming. We were happy too. But there was nothing to support any of us, no land, no water, nothing. We ourselves were all of it: our own earth. And I woke up knowing that this is where we go when we die. We go back to where we came from: inside all of us.

Goodbye, Howie. Beloved. Hello.

Copyright © Alice Walker, 2010.

[Alice Walker is known for her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple."]


As remembered by David Nolan
January 28, 2010

Dear friends

What a decent person. Every time I saw him on television, I noted how his face naturally settled in a smile. I recently watched our public library's copy of the DVD made from his autobiography You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

I remember, years and years ago, when I ran an article by him in the "New South Student," called "Dow Shalt Not Kill." It was one of the few occasions when I did the illustration for an article myself — some variation on a skull and crossbones. SSOC then reprinted it as a pamphlet, and Earl Wilson's mimeographed version was a staple on southern literature tables at ten cents a copy. Many decades after that, the piece was included in The Zinn Reader," and — though the magazine was long gone by then — he credited it to the "New South Student," which I thought quite decent of him.

Alas, I have a couple of books on my shelf that I meant to send him for his autograph. Shame on me for not doing it.

He died in harness, out west for a speaking engagement. You can look at his website, to see what an incredible pace he maintained in his upper 80s. I hope I can do the same at 87. And he went just on the eve of SNCC's 50th reunion, where I am sure he will be fondly remembered, both as a participant and as the author of SNCC: The New Abolitionists.

I was multitasking last night, watching the State of the Union address when on my computer screen, up popped the news of Zinn's death. What a worthwhile life!

Rest in peace, old friend.


As remembered by Heather Tobis Booth
January 28, 2010

In his own words:

What the civil rights movement that even if people lack the customary attributes of power — money, political authority, physical force — as did the black people of the Deep South, there is a power that can be created out of pent-up indignation, courage, and the inspiration of a common cause, and that if enough people put their minds and bodies into that cause, they can win. It is a phenomenon recorded again and again in the history of popular movements against injustice all over the world...

Not to believe in the possibility of dramatic change is to forget that things have changed, not enough, of course, but enough to show what is possible. We have been surprised before in history. We can be surprised again. Indeed, we can do the surprising...

The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is not the prospect of future victory. It is the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disheartening setbacks — together.

Note how often...we have been surprised. By the sudden emergence of a people's movement, the sudden overthrow of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of the quiet simmerings of indignation, of the first faint sounds of protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst of our despair, portend the excitement of change. The isolated acts begin to join, the individual thrusts blend into organized actions, and one day, often when the situation seems most hopeless, there bursts onto the scene a movement.

Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, 1994, Beacon Press.


As remembered by Joan C. Browning
January 28, 2010

Remembering Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn had the gift of giving his friendship for a lifetime. As one of the millions now mourning his passing, I hold even dearer the photocopy of a check he sent in support of my campaign for election to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

In SNCC: The New Abolitionists, and in his report on Albany for the Southern Regional Council, Howard puts me in published civil rights history. He quotes the words I spoke at Mt. Zion Baptist church in Albany in December 1961.

I quote Howard Zinn when I lecture about how someone as ordinary as I could become, as Jim Foreman wrote to me on a scrap of napkin when we were jailed Freedom Riders in Albany, a "SNCC volunteer worker." Howard published a book, The Southern Mystique, in which he showed "How reluctant white Southerners have exposed the fallacy of gradualism, and how reluctant white Northerners have shown that Southern racism may be an exaggerated version of a national prejudice."

I read the following paragraphs from the chapter titled "Is the Southern White Unfathomable?"

Every time we create a new situation of encouragement, another human being steps out of the shadows and comes forward. One autumn evening in 1961, my wife returned from a lecture on campus and with her was a young white girl of about nineteen, slender, shy, a student at Georgia State College who came from a small town in South Georgia. She had heard that an interesting lecture was being given at a Negro college on "the other side of town" she became curious, and so, that evening, found herself sitting and listening in a mostly Negro audience. On the way out, she and my wife had begun a conversation, and then there she was in our living-room. We talked for a while, and she left.

We didn't see her again. In December, I traveled down into Southwest Georgia, to the city of Albany, in an uproar at that time after Negro demonstrations. At a mass meeting in a Negro church my first night in Albany, I listened to the chairman offer welcome to a group of students who had just been released from jail. They came down the aisle to the front of the church, and one of them was the slim, shy girl who had visited our house that night in Atlanta.

And then to demonstrate that I was that slim, shy girl, I show overhead transparencies of a page of my scribbled notes, and at the bottom of the page, in her clear writing, "Roslyn & Howard Zinn- Spelman College." I show other notes from that lecture on "12 October 1961, Thursday P.M." The speaker was "Dr. M. L. King, Town Meeting, Atlanta University." And I show a couple of notes that have guided and comforted me since.

[That's when I got Dr. King's autograph, which is now in the Emory University's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.]

pp. 80-81. Howard Zinn. The Southern Mystique. Alfred A. Knopf, 1964 — published October 19, 1964 including articles published from 1959-64.

Howard dedicated the book to Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. Acknowledgements include many of those early activists who are seldom recognized: "my students at Spelman College and the student movement in Atlanta, without whom this book could not have been written... Margaret Long, for wisdom and camaraderie on that first trip to Albany Slater King, C. B. King, Irene Wright, Charles Sherrod, Annette Jones, and so many others in the Albany Movement, for information and inspiration...

Joan C. Browning
PO Box 1147
Lewisburg WV 24901


As remembered by Steven Lawson, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
January 29, 2010

Many folks can attest to Howard's contributions to anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements. I'd like to share some words on his generosity as a scholar. When I was writing my dissertation on the history of black voting rights back in 1972, I sent off a note to Howard, whom I had never met but whose book, SNCC: The New Abolitionists influenced me greatly, to ask if he had any personal papers on SNCC he could let me examine. He replied by sending me a package filled with documents that pertained to his SNCC and told me to return them whenever I finished with them. Just like that. He had never met me, but he trusted me.

I subsequently met him when I was teaching at the University of South Florida and brought him to campus as a speaker. I was using his 'Postwar America' in my course, U.S. since 1945, which itself was a revelation to students on topics such as the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb and the Rosenberg Case. He gave two lectures on the meaning of freedom of speech and dissent in his soft-spoken manner with a twinkle in his eye that captivated his audiences. He showed many of us in academia that scholarship and political engagement were not incompatible."

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