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Remembering Howard Zinn: 1922-2010

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


For about four decades, Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian who died last week at the age of 87, played so conspicuous a role in the political and academic life of Boston that many locals have memories of him to recount. Here are mine.

I first heard him speak on the Brandeis campus in the early 1970s, to a small group of faculty and graduate students in the field of American history. He had been the author or editor of several respectable mainstream books, in particular on the 1930s. Out of his experience teaching at Atlanta’s all-black Spelman College in the 1960s, he had also published an inspiring account of the most daring of the civil rights organizations in the South, entitled SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Having myself taught in the mid-‘60s at a New Orleans equivalent of Spelman College, I was also familiar with Zinn’s “The Southern Mystique,” an unappreciated volume that argued white resistance to racial desegregation in the region was much exaggerated–and should not intimidate progressives who opposed white supremacy in the South.

In the International Lounge of Usdan, Zinn made an earnest and engaging case for a historiography that would deviate from the perspectives at the top. The standard version of the American past should not enjoy a monopoly, he argued. What I found persuasive was his claim that his own dissident slant was not the only way to interpret the national experience, and was not intended to establish a new orthodoxy. Zinn asserted that he merely wanted other voices to be heard. Here was a sneak preview of the direction much historical scholarship would take thereafter–and of “The People’s History of the United States” that would bring Zinn his greatest fame.

Special notice should be taken of his denunciation of the folly of the war in Indochina. Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was the first book to expose the utter pointlessness of the deepening conflict and to insist that the removal of American forces was the only humane and intelligent policy that should be adopted.

Five years later, with the Vietnam disaster still raging, Zinn joined with 107 others to commit an act of civil disobedience, by seeking to block Army inductees from getting to a Boston base from which they would be sent to Southeast Asia. I was among the protesters who were arrested, booked, fingerprinted and sent to a South Boston lock-up.

He and I ended up cellmates; and when we met the attorney assigned to us, my heart sank. In an era when long hair on males betokened a provocative counter-cultural radicalism, the blond locks on our lawyer fell to his shoulders. I couldn’t help noticing that he was wearing sneakers. Though our group had vowed to surrender our freedom to demonstrate how deeply we opposed the American war in Vietnam, any hope that we might have of avoiding a jail sentence depended on the eloquence of Howard Zinn. He chose to defend himself–and, in effect, the rest of us.

He did not disappoint. Maybe I had a little too much at stake emotionally to offer a fair evaluation, but Zinn gave one of the most impassioned political speeches I’d ever heard (before or since). He asked the judge in South Boston District Court to show some imagination–to think of the number of corpses the slaughter in Vietnam had produced, weighed against our peaceable act of “sauntering and loitering” in front of a bus. The judge looked more puzzled than impressed, and gave us a choice of $20 or 20 days. Zinn opted to pay the fine. But 12 of us thought that the whole point of the protest was to renounce our freedom to publicize our cause; and I took a certain self-dramatizing pride in getting hauled to the same prison where Sacco and Vanzetti had been incarcerated five decades earlier, and Malcolm X two decades after them.

The last time Howard Zinn spoke on campus was earlier in this century, under the auspices of the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI). Over lunch I reminded him of the lock-up three decades before; and when he failed to recall the “Non-Violent Direction Action Group” (as we called ourselves), I chalked up the memory lapse to the frequency with which he had been jailed. During his lecture, he condemned the war in Afghanistan, as though there were no difference between the incoherent rationale for the Vietnam War and the effort to dry up the sources of the fanatical rage that had resulted in 9/11. Sometimes lessons can be over-learned, or applied too rigidly.

But Zinn was at his best when a very patriotic member of the BOLLI audience demanded to know why the lecturer was so anti-American. Why did he seem to hate the history about which he had written? Zinn vehemently denied the accusation, by mentioning the figures he so deeply admired–from the abolitionists to the suffragists, from the labor organizers to the civil rights activists. That is the gallant lineage that indeed represents the best of our people. That is also a line that–his journey finished–Zinn himself has now joined.

Stephen Whitfield is professor of American Studies.