by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
February 6, 2010
HOWARD ZINN EXPANDED OUR VIEW OF HISTORY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Who controls the past controls the future," George Orwell once wrote. "Who controls the present controls the past."
History, contrary to what most believe, is not static. It is constantly changing as new heroes are discovered, old heroes are debunked and past events are reinterpreted and reevaluated.
That Orwell quote was a favorite of radical historian Howard Zinn, who died of a heart attack on Jan. 27 at the age of 87. "(It) is a very important observation that if you can control history, what people know about history, if you can decide what's in people's history and what's left out, you can order their thinking," Zinn said in a 1992 radio interview. "You can order their values. You can in effect organize their brains by controlling their knowledge. The people who can do that, who can control the past, are the people who control the present...who would dominate the media, who publish the textbooks, who decide in our culture what are the dominant ideas, what gets told and what doesn't."
Zinn's insistence on a more inclusive view of American history - that ordinary men and women should get as much play as the "great men" - made him a controversial figure in his field. But Zinn's landmark 1980 book, "A People's History of the United States," is one of the best articulations of the vision that our history was not only shaped by the "great men" like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln but also by the ordinary citizen and his capacity to act heroically in times of crisis.
In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He said his book, which has sold more than two million copies and has found its way into high school and college classrooms all over the nation, was a response to traditional works.
"We should have history that does reflect points of view and values, in other words, history that is not objective," said Zinn in 1992. "We should have history that enhances human values, humane values, values of brotherhood, sisterhood, peace, justice and equality. Those are values that historians should actively promulgate in writing history. In doing that they needn't distort or omit important things. But it does mean if they have those values in mind, that they will emphasize those things in history which will bring up a new generation of people who read history books and who will care about treating other people equally, about doing away with war, about justice in every form."
Zinn was the antithesis of the academic in the ivory tower. "When he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression," wrote columnist Dave Zirin. "When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and was arrested sitting in with his students."
Zinn was not content just to teach history. He inspired others to make it. Zinn encouraged his students at Spelman, an all-black women's college in then-segregated Atlanta, to request books from the segregated public libraries. He helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Among his students at Spelman were the novelist Alice Walker, who called Zinn "the best teacher I ever had," and Marian Wright Edelman, the future head of the Children's Defense Fund.
His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by frequent clashes with the school's conservative president, John Silber. On his last day of classes at BU before he retired in 1988, he let his class out early so he and his students could stand in a picket line in support of an on-campus nurses' strike.
As Zinn wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," "I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."
If the cause involved peace and justice, you could count on Zinn to be there, even at the risk of his personal safety. He wrote and lectured tirelessly and never hesitated to give liberals hell when they deserved it, especially in his longtime role as a columnist for The Progressive. He was just as hard on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as he was on Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
In his most recent piece for the magazine, he wrote, "Our political history shows us that only great popular movements, carrying out bold actions that awakened the nation and threatened the Establishment, as in the Thirties and the Sixties, have been able to shake that pyramid of corporate and military power and at least temporarily changed course."
That was a point Howard Zinn never stopped trying to make. The power of people coming together for the common good is one of the most powerful forces on Earth, and when the people lead, the leaders eventually follow. That is the history of America, and the artful telling of that story by Zinn has inspired countless people to try to make some history of their own. This will be his greatest legacy.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.