Opinion: The inspiring life of Howard Zinn

Author Howard Zinn takes part in a panel discussion about a mini-series entitled “The People Speak” at Emerson College in Boston in 2008.

Author Howard Zinn takes part in a panel discussion about a mini-series entitled “The People Speak” at Emerson College in Boston in 2008. Michael Dwyer / AP


Published: 05-06-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

It has now been 14 years since Howard Zinn died. A historian, Zinn is mostly remembered for writing “A People’s History of the United States,” a controversial recounting of the American story. Zinn focused on the stories of workers, minorities and fighters for justice, not presidents, Supreme Court justices and courtiers of power.

His book showcases the narrative battle over U.S. history with Zinn presenting a bottom-up view devoid of nationalist glorification. He shows the dark side from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized. Because of Zinn’s importance, I wanted to share a couple memories of my own about him.

Zinn was a professor at Boston University. I lived in the Boston area in the 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, BU had a radical film series that featured off-beat and lesser-known movies. One movie shown was Burn, a 1969 film made by Italian film director Gillo Pontecorvo, who made the Battle of Algiers. I saw Zinn give a talk about Burn.

The film starred Marlon Brando who played an English intelligence agent, William Walker, sent to a Portuguese-controlled island to foment a native revolution. The film takes place in the 1840s. Brando’s William Walker sought to replace the Portuguese with British imperialism. He succeeded in fomenting revolution among the slaves while pursuing a goal of colonial manipulation to advance British interests. Pontecorvo shows the history of slavery underlying the slave revolt. In the film, the Portuguese killed off all the native inhabitants and replaced them with imported African slaves who worked in the sugar cane fields.

Burn was made during the time of the Vietnam War and it evoked the story of a revolution against imperialism. In the movie, Brando installs a native leader who was intended to be a puppet for the British although it does not turn out that way. The story was not far off from the example of Ngo Dinh Diem’s role with the Americans in Vietnam.

Zinn’s talk preceded the showing of the movie. He was charming, self-deprecating and with wit and humor he provided a historical background on the movie that was definitely not available elsewhere. The movie was quite expensive to make. It cost $3 million (a lot then), featured a major star (Brando), had beautiful color cinematography, great attention to costumes and a cool score.

Zinn said movie companies suppressed the movie after its release because of its politics. The version shown in America was cut and twenty minutes were edited out. Pontecorvo was very unhappy and United Artists almost fired Pontecorvo.

Burn remains one of the strongest movie statements against colonialism and imperialism. The only other movie I could think of that might be comparable is Raoul Peck’s mini-series Exterminate All the Brutes.

In the original script, the island in the story was a Spanish protectorate. Spain’s Franco regime pressured the filmmakers to alter the script. Portugal substituted as the main colonial villain. I think it is fair to say there has been massive resistance to appreciating the role of both European colonialism and American imperialism in understanding the modern world.

I saw Zinn give a number of speeches against the Vietnam War on Boston Common. He was a powerful voice for peace. His book, “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal,” published in 1967, was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal. This was a time when the U.S. government was telling the American public that if Vietnam became communist, there would be a threat to the United States. Maybe now we can look back and see the absurdity of that claim.

Zinn had an earlier history in the Army Air Corps, doing bombing runs against the Germans near the end of WWII. In his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral of a Moving Train,” Zinn wrote that it was John Hersey’s postwar report, Hiroshima, that made him more aware of the horrors of war.

He wrote, “I had been an eager bombardier in the war, caught up in a fanaticism which let me participate unquestioningly in atrocious acts. After the war, I slowly came to question whether war, however noble “the cause,” solves anything, given the warping of moral sensibility, of rational thought, that always accompanies it.”

After the war, Zinn worked loading trucks in a warehouse on the four to midnight shift for three years. He was from a poor background and saw his parents work hard their whole lives without gain. He worked as a waiter, a ditch-digger, a shipyard worker, a brewery worker and also had periods of unemployment where he needed unemployment benefits.

He was able to go to NYU and Columbia on the GI Bill earning a Ph.D. in history. In 1956, he got a job teaching and being chair of the History Department at Spelman College in Atlanta. Zinn landed in the middle of the early civil rights movement and immediately connected to it. He wrote that he nurtured an indignation against bullies. He hated to see human beings being treated as inferior beings because of the accident of their skin color.

Zinn was a teacher to, among others, Marion Wright Edelman and Alice Walker. He traveled to Selma in October 1963 as an advisor to SNCC to observe its voter registration campaign. Zinn was part of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. His activism eventually cost him his job at Spelman. It also led to later conflicts at BU.

Because of his writing and activism, Zinn was always a lightning rod for criticism. When John Silber became president of BU, he blocked Zinn from getting raises and promotions even though Zinn was one of the most popular professors. Silber denied Zinn teaching assistants even though he was teaching up to 400 students in a semester. Silber hated Zinn. Zinn had to appeal the matter of back pay, an appeal he ultimately won.

Conservatives who hated Zinn’s politics often criticized the quality of his scholarship. When Mitch Daniels was governor of Indiana, he instructed his subordinates to make sure Zinn’s book “A People’s History of The United States” not be used anywhere in Indiana. This effort ultimately backfired. The book became a hit, selling more than two million copies.

If Zinn was alive today, I have no doubt he would be an anti-war voice, protesting the Gaza war and demanding an immediate ceasefire. He would have opposed college presidents sending in police to campuses to arrest peaceful students for exercising their First Amendment rights. Zinn was always a dissenter in a hopeful way.

He wrote, “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

There are hardly any people more inspiring and heroic than Howard Zinn.