Our nation lost a pioneering historian and social activist last month. Howard Zinn, who died while swimming laps at 87, revolutionized the way millions of Americans—especially young Americans— understand our shared history.
His writings and work inspired millions, but I was among the generations of students privileged to know him as a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend. His first academic job after graduate study at Columbia University was at the historically black, all-woman Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. The tall, lanky professor and I arrived at Spelman together in 1956, I as a freshman and he as chair of the history department. His family lived in the back of Spelman’s infirmary, where students always felt welcome to gather, explore ideas, share hopes, and just chew the fat.
Zinn encouraged students to think outside the box and to question rather than accept conventional wisdom. He was a risk-taker. He lost no opportunity to challenge segregation in theaters, libraries, and restaurants, and encouraged us to do the same. The black Spelman establishment didn’t like him any more than the white establishment did. Later, after he joined the faculty at Boston University, its president disliked him just as much as Spelman’s president did, because he made some teachers and administrators uncomfortable by challenging the comfortable status quo.
We called him “Howie” and saw him as a confidant and friend, as well as a teacher—contrary to the more formal and hierarchical traditions of many black colleges. He stressed analysis over memorization; questioning, discussions, and essays rather than multiple choices and pat answers. He affirmed my daddy’s belief that I could do and be anything.
He lived simply. I felt comfortable asking to drive his old Chevrolet to transport picketers to Rich’s Department Store, or to scout out other potential demonstration sites. He was passionate about justice and his belief in the ability of individuals to make a difference in the world. Not a word-mincer, he said what he believed and encouraged us as students to do the same.
He conveyed to me and to other students that he believed in us and that we were powerful and not helpless to change what we did not like. He conveyed to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose voter registration and organizing efforts he chronicled in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, that he believed in, respected, and supported our struggle. He was there when 200 students conducted sit-ins and 27 of us got arrested.
Zinn provided us a safe space in his home to plan civil rights activities by listening and not dictating, and always kept our secrets from the administration. He laughed and enjoyed life, and taught us that it could be fun to challenge the status quo. What fun it was to visit the Georgia State Legislature, sit in the whites-only section, watch the floor proceedings screech to a halt, and hear the frantic gaveling and demands to “move those people to where they belonged.”
He spoke up for the weak and little people against the big and powerful people. His most profound message, and the title of one of his books, is: “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”—that we all must act against injustice.
He was there for and with us through thick and thin. He focused not just on our learning in the classroom but also on our learning to stand up and feel empowered to act and change our own lives—and the community and region in which we lived. He taught us to be neither victims nor passive observers of unjust treatment, but active and proud claimants of our American birthright. Howard Zinn helped prepare me to discover my leadership potential. I was blessed to have him as a teacher and lifelong friend, and will miss him deeply.
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