Institutionalizing Howard Zinn

There are several memorial services and events being planned for Howard Zinn whom The New York Times called a “historian, shipyard worker, civil rights activist and World War II bombardier, when he passed away at age 87 late last month.”

His legion of friends, students, admirers and colleagues will be out in force reminding the country about his impact as a civic leader, motivational teacher, author of the ever more popular book A People’s History of the United States, and all around fine, compassionate, and level-headed human being.

Judging by similar gatherings for remembering other progressive activists and writers, the encomiums for Professor Zinn, who taught at Spelman College in the late fifties and early sixties (two of his students were Marian Wright Edelman and Alice Walker) and at Boston University until 1988, will be heartfelt, wide-ranging and inspiringly anecdotal.

Receptions will follow and those in attendance will return to their homes, hoping that what Howard Zinn spoke and wrote and how he acted will serve as an example for those who follow his public philosophy of being and doing.

Mr. Zinn’s legacy, however, needs more than sweet memories that carry forward the spirit of people. His impact needs more than the adult and youth book version (now in a television miniseries via the History Channel) to continue inspiring what the Times described as “a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history.”

How about drawing on the large, national constituency whose lives he has informed honestly and helped improve to support the establishment of the Howard Zinn Institute for Advancing Peace and Justice? Thought and action in a seamless flow toward returning the definition of “freedom” back to the words of Marcus Cicero as “participation in power.”

When Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, died in a plane crash in 2002, his children started “Wellstone Action!” with contributions from all over the country, to train citizen organizers to help empower underrepresented communities to engage in civic life. As a result, Senator Wellstone’s progressive work to deepen our democracy continues in action year after year.

The life of Howard Zinn did not follow the usual pathways. His experience as a manual laborer and organizer in New York City gave depth to his college and graduate years. He entered New York University at the age of twenty-seven and completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University in his thirties.

Consider the origins of his views on war summarized in his own words:
War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate….We are smart in so many ways. Surely we should be able to understand that between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.

Back in World War II, Mr. Zinn was a bombardier in planes that dropped napalm including during a raid over a town in France called Royan. After the war, his sensitivities horrified, Zinn returned to Royan on the ground and interviewed survivors, which included French civilians.

For sixty years, this Army veteran spoke out against all wars, from Vietnam to Iraq, and others, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Indonesian, African and Chinese assaults.

Howard Zinn did not choose his injustices. No matter where they came from, he was in opposition. In a poignant tribute of “thank yous” to his regular columnist, Matthew Rothschild, editor of the Progressive Magazine, wrote “Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being a Jew who dared to criticize Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, early on.”

MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, a long-time friend of Zinn, commented on his “amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” noting his “powerful role in helping…the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement.”

His two friends from Hollywood, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, took Zinn’s history of the downtrodden, the workers, farmers, women, slaves and other minorities, into popular culture, culminating in a television version of the book, The People Speak.

Perhaps, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll touched most personally on Zinn’s magnetic persona to so many people. “He had a genius,” Carroll wrote, “for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful.”

Zinn explained himself in his autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. His two greatest disappointments in the past two years were the loss of his wife Roslyn and the performance of Barack Obama. In his last article on the Obama White House, he wrote, “I’ve been searching hard for a highlight.”

Roslyn and Howard Zinn left two children, Myla and Jeff, and five grandchildren. Together with his publisher, Dan Simon of 7 Stories Press, his editor, Matthew Rothschild, his interviewer, Amy Goodman, his associate, Anthony Arnove, and his innumerable writers and fighters for justice, for the principle that the truth is revolutionary, why not a well-funded and staffed Institute, organizing from the neighborhoods on up, as he urged so often, with horizons for all seasons, as befits his vision?

Although the desire to remember is now intense, it is the willpower that implements the thought.

Jean Monnet, the great postwar French civic leader, put the legacy course on track when he asserted that “without people, nothing is possible, but without institutions, nothing is enduring.”

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.




Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!