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For Challenging The History Books, Zinn Found His Place In Them

Howard Zinn takes part in a panel discussion at Emerson College in Boston in January 2008. (AP)

BOSTON — “Think. It’s patriotic,” a bumper sticker once noted. That was Howard Zinn’s challenge to his students and readers. Because once people start thinking, they start asking questions.

“When I got out of school I began to learn things,” he once said. “That’s when you begin to learn. Right? You go to the library. There is nothing like a library.”

What they don’t teach you about our history in schools was the very stuff Howard Zinn considered worth learning. His perspective of American history embraced the standpoint of the unprivileged who didn’t write the history books: the workers, African Americans, slaves, immigrants and Native Americans.

“Who controls the past controls the present.” Howard Zinn would have said that if George Orwell hadn’t said it first. History, he told the world, had generally been written by the winners, the wealthy and the white men. Howard wanted to hear from the others: the losers, the poor, the rainbow.

He liked to tell audiences, as he did last May at the 100th anniversary celebration of The Progressive Magazine, “I only have a bit of time, just enough to introduce a few ideas, just to think about. OK?”

That would be Howard, the self-effacing, wizened, gentle teacher of “a few ideas” that were penetrating, subversive and challenging to the core. Howard stuck his giant thumb in the eye of convention in 1980, when he published “A People’s History of the United States.”

The author had an interesting education along the way. Born to immigrant factory workers, Zinn worked in the shipyards, he organized workers for the union and then shipped off to the Great War, one of the three “holy wars” — the American Revolution and the Civil War were the other two — that, Zinn would later comment, were considered “sacrosanct.”

But not by Howard. He had been a bombardier on the B17s over Europe. He came home and put himself through school on the GI Bill, but he borrowed ideas not from the books in his courses but from the library and from his own life.

“I think it is important to at least raise the possibility that you can criticize something which everybody has accepted as uncriticizable,” he said. “I mean we are supposed to be thinking people — you should be able to question anything.”

Like the “holy war” that was the American Revolution.

“Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England?” he asked. “No. In fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England because England had set a line — the Proclamation of 1763 had set a line — and said you cannot go westward into Indian territory beyond this line.”

About the Revolutionary War, he wondered out loud, “Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?” After all, he noted, Canada managed to win its independence — “not a bad society. They have good health care … they didn’t fight a bloody civil war.”

Typical Howard. “Just a few ideas. Just to think about. OK?”

Last year, when I was doing a show for Radio Boston on the holidays we celebrate in history, I asked Howard for his red-letter dates. He thought the celebration of the Declaration of Independence was a winner. “The Declaration of Independence declared that the government is really set up by the people,” he told me, “and when the people feel the government is not representing to their interests, people have a right to overthrow the government. That was a high point in American history.”

Of course, tribute to the Fourth of July and the Declaration couldn’t pass without Howard pointing out that it was penned by a slave holder named Jefferson.

As for local history, Zinn’s chosen high point was the protest of thousands in Boston against the return of fugitive slaves to their masters before the Civil War.

Shadrack Minkins, a Southern slave, ran for freedom and was captured by two Boston police officers in 1851. Citizens of Boston, Zinn said, “violated the Fugitive Slave Act, they committed acts of civil disobedience … the citizens of Boston gathered and they battered down the doors of the courthouse and rescued Shadrack and they sent him on his way to Canada to his freedom.”

Next came Howard’s recurring line: “I never learned that in my history books.”

Of course, questioning whether even the “good wars” were necessary when a very ugly war in Vietnam was dividing America and roiling college campuses — particularly Boston University, where Zinn was one of the brightest stars and a leading protester — helped ignite the so-called culture wars and a conservative backlash on campus.

On a parochial level, it also ignited the celebrity death match between Howard and the fierce Texan BU President John Silber.

With all the passion and mutual animosity of Red Sox-Yankees, Redskins-Cowboys, Zinn led strikes and faculty rebellions against Silber and what he described as Silber’s autocratic, tyrannical rule, while Silber, never one to shirk from a good fight, proudly stood up to “left-wingers” who were “poisoning the well in academe.”

In the end, Silber declared that, though he had plenty of cause to fire his nemesis, he “wasn’t about to make a martyr of Howard Zinn.”

Howard lived to retirement and to a ripe and productive old age, still collecting royalties from “A People’s History of the United States,” which ironically had become a best-seller. John Silber, retired and much mellowed, is still at BU, at work on three different books, and someone I’d love to talk to today.

My last question to Howard, the last time we spoke, was whether he was still worried that students had become passive acceptors of “the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers … that their nation is civilized and humane.”

I’d given Howard another opportunity to teach.

“One of the advantages of a different kind of history, it is encouraging to young people,” he told me. “It creates citizens instead of subjects. It’s strange that here we are in the United States. We consider ourselves a democracy. But in a democracy you can’t simply pay homage to the president. In a democracy, citizens gather and they organize and they make history.”

“A few ideas just to think about,” he liked to say. Howard Zinn ran out “his bit of time,” which came too soon even at 87.

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  • Delia

    We need more people like Howard Zinn lest we become a nation of sheep, blindly accepting what we are told, never questioning what is preached and promoted until someday we are forced to accept a reality that we never thought possible, and that only happened because no one was paying attention. If we want our country to be what we are taught to believe it is, then we have to work continually to make it so; we cannot leave that important work to the whims of politicians who will only do what is in their personal interest. It is up to the people to ensure that they are “enlightened” such that their personal interest is what is best for the people, not the “special interests” that presently control most of our government.

  • Bernadette Davidson

    Howard Zinn spoke truth to authority but he did it with humor and creativity. A Zinn speech never left you devastated but rather motivated us all in a spirit of community to be activist. Along with Grace Paley he combined a love for humanity with a passion for justice and was a figher and a lover too.

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