Web Letters | The Nation

These words of Howard Zinn's, the first I had ever heard him speak, electrified the crowd, and me, at the October 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium rally on the Boston Common

"I know this is a radical thing to say, and you're not supposed to say radical things, but: Who runs the city of Boston? Is it the tenants or the landlords?... The problem that people have all over this country and all over the world is to begin taking the power from the people who now have it and returning that power to large numbers of people suffering under it.... Somehow, on the critical matters, the men of wealth and power and privilege in America make the decisions of life and death for everyone else."

Those words of Howard Zinn's, the first I had ever heard him speak, electrified the crowd, and me, at the October 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium rally on the Boston Common. I phoned him and asked for a copy of his speech. It had been extemporaneous, he informed me, but WTBS at MIT had recorded it, and with a feed to the Harvard radio station WHRB, we managed to copy it and I transcribed it. Passages appeared in the program notes of my November production at Harvard's Loeb Experimental Theater of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock--the first in Boston since Leonard Bernstein's of thirty years earlier. Howard was there opening night, and pronounced himself bowled over, not only by the play, which echoed his words, but by the intermission feature: Elie Siegmeister's powerful setting of Mike Gold's poem, "The Strange Funeral in Braddock."

Sixteen months later, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Howard and Noam Chomsky attended the US premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Days Of The Commune, in my adaptation and translation, at a packed Sanders Theatre. Each had tentatively agreed to take roles in the play, which featured furious debates on the question of violence versus nonviolence. Each had to turn down the role offered him, for lack of time to rehearse it, but both had very nice things to say about the enthusiasm of the cast and audience, which pelted the villains with fruit, reminding some in attendance of what Shakespeare's audience must have been like.

A decade later, I was inspired by a friend in Berlin who had been a Boston University student of Howard's, Charles Streeper, to read--and to marvel at--Howard's 1980 A People's History of the United States, finding inspiration in it for New World: An Opera About What Columbus Did to the "Indians," commissioned by the Puffin Foundation for the 1992 Columbian quincentennial, and graciously mentioned by Howard in every new edition of his book, beginning in 1999. I also read about Howard's play about Emma Goldman (Emma in America, Rebel In Paradise in England--so as to avoid confusing it with Jane Austen!), the script of which Howard sent me on request. I proposed making it into a musical, and sent him a couple of songs, including one I thought might be a title song. He wrote me back regretfully that he was "not enthusiastic," whereupon my collaborator (Karen Ruoff Kramer) and I decided to go a different way: to focus not on Emma's career prior to her 1919 deportation but rather on her years in exile, looking back on her life in flashbacks, as she tried to return to America (which she did, for 90 days, in 1934). Our new title was E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, and we emphasized her commitment to (and imprisonment for) "free speech, free motherhood, and freedom from war." With the help of Candace Falk, Alice Wexler, Paul Avrich, Joel Sucher, Walter Lear, and many others, the work had performances first starring Elizabeth Parcells (twice) and then Helene Williams (forty-nine times)--in both Berlins, Amsterdam, Paris, San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, on the radio with Bob Sherman and Studs Terkel, and numerous venues around New York and Boston, including Boston University (thanks to Howard) and Brandeis--which he attended, this time with enthusiasm. Here's a photo of him there, with me and Helene.

The morning after that performance, the Brandeis Justice had a glowing review by a student named David Weinstein. Fifteen years later, PBS presented a documentary on Emma. I called Howard up to ask: "Why didn't they interview you?" "And why didn't they use your music?" was his rejoinder. We then learned that the show had been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, on the recommendation of its senior program officer: David Weinstein, who wrote me he could "still remember" some of the songs. So Howard's play and our musical had made an impact after all!

In 1995, I invited Howard to be the keynote speaker at a symposium I moderated at the National Opera Association convention in Boston on the opera Sacco And Vanzetti, commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the Metropolitan Opera, begun but left unfinished by Marc Blitzstein. Since Howard had written the foreword to the 1977 reissue of Upton Sinclair's novel on the subject, Boston, he was the perfect person to give the historical background as to why the case was still important today. You can read his remarks in the symposium's transcription, published in Opera Journal. I credit Howard with being among those that helped persuade the Blitzstein Estate of the importance of the opera and the need for its completion, which I finished in 2001 and staged at the White Barn Theatre, three weeks before 9/11 made any thoughts of mounting an opera where the heroes were anarchists at least temporarily unfeasible. "The Case That Will Not Die" was the theme of Howard's keynote address at a Hofstra conference a year later, published in Representing Sacco And Vanzetti by Palgrave Macmillan in 2005. In my essay, in the same volume, I quoted a statement of Howard's published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is mounted on my wall: "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people."

The last time I saw Howard was at Cooper Union February 20, 2007, where I went to hear him speak--magnificently, as expected--and introduced him to my father and to Susan Blake, "the social conscience of Long Island" who succumbed to breast cancer a little over seven months later. The last I heard from him was in reply to my congratulatory message regarding the 12/13/09 History Channel broadcast of his The People Speak. A high school student I had interviewed for Harvard wrote:


I would like to thank you for recommending such an amazing documentary. It was packed with information I never heard of such as African American being elected to state legislation for a short time during reconstruction era, and how F.D.R's New Deal was created because of constant public rioting. The way it utilized popular individuals from the music and theatre industry to read and sing first hand accounts was power. I truly thank you for telling me about the special, the new information I learned will benefit me in my american government course.


Howard wrote me: "Thanks, Leonard. It 's these kids we always hope to reach!"

For the thousands he did reach, and the millions more he deserved and still deserves to reach, Thank you, Howard! Thank you for speaking truth to power, from the lectern, but also in the streets. Now we must continue to do so--to fight inequality, stop renditions, free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier, end capital punishment, exonerate Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and support those who call for peace and reform in China, Iran and Israel--for the sake of justice, and now your memory.

Leonard J. Lehrman

Valley Stream, NY

Mar 6 2010 - 9:25am

Web Letter

My thoughts on Howard Zinn are very personal. Like some, I had the memorable experience of having him testify at a trial I was part of. And as many activists know, being a defendant, even for a noble cause, can be hard. Suddenly one's acts are being publicly scrutinized; one may doubt whether they can ever be adequately explained. One contends with long-held assumptions and the staunch defenders of the organized system. And even after hours of organizing, strategizing and marshaling resources prior to trial, one is still forced to plead before a jury. Or find those who will do so with more credibility and clout. Still, court outcomes are uncertain, and one's fate totters.

In this case, scores of us had occupied a campus building at UMass-Amherst in the fall of 1986 after Abbie Hoffman delivered a scathing speech enumerating the crimes of the CIA. The agency had caused a stir trying to recruit students on campus. And Amy Carter, President Carter's daughter, then matriculating at Brown, also joined the sit-in. But riot police ended all that, unceremoniously evicting and arresting us, while injuring a few in the process. We organized to put on a so-called "necessity defense," claiming our trespassing was needed to call attention to the far more serious crimes of the CIA. But would a jury believe us? We needed authoritative voices to state our case. And Howard Zinn, for one, came. In his signature eloquent and personable style, he told a staid middle-class jury in Northampton, Massachusetts, that nonviolent direct action has a venerable history in this country. And that they should examine the standard view that protesters are automatically guilty and deserve full punishment.

Like the scholarly story-teller he was, Zinn intrigued jury members explaining the rationale of various aggrieved groups in history, the underdogs in our legal, economic and social order. How activists have long used principled protest to bring attention to larger issues--to cast light on what George Orwell called "the smelly orthodoxies," structures and habits that rob people of their prospects, their dignity and sometimes their lives. And after a lengthy trial featuring several other "expert witnesses," the jury went to deliberate. After what seemed days, but was only hours, we were acquitted. What a relief to feel the criminal justice system's weight lift; yet even as we exulted, we knew our win was fleeting, and the struggle long. Still, it was a victory. And Howard Zinn proved himself to truly be "a friend in need," a man drawn to progressive ideas and willing to defend them in every aspect and court. His writings and lectures, but moreover his life, was lived with verve and grace in opposition to virtually every tenet of mainstream American thought. For besides his prodigious intellectual acumen, life taught him that victims are worth heeding and conformity to an unjust social order is hardly noble. For anyone who still yearns for a saner, more just and more peaceful country, we have indeed lost a remarkable mentor and a guide. And it is an immense loss. So with his characteristic gleam in his eye, he has left the stage. And it is we who must go on.

jay allain

East Greenwich, RI

Feb 5 2010 - 11:15pm

Web Letter

It was Brave New World that changed the way I thought about the world. But it was A People's History of the United States that changed the way I saw the world forever.

That book was the spark that launched the lifelong search for the real truth.

Chris Ramirez

Ralls, TX

Feb 3 2010 - 12:04am

Web Letter

My remembrance of Howard Zinn is through using his books as reference material when I was writing my master's thesis. My thesis was an analysis of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its goals. I read a piece at one point were Dr. Zinn was in Mississippi as an observer of the voting rights activity there. Dr. Zinn noted that on the steps of the capitol budiling (a government building) there were two FBI observers, keeping an eye on white Southerners who were violating the law by not allowing black people to register to vote. Dr. Zinn asked what they were going to do about it, and he noted that they did nothing. .

He seemed to be where he needed to be to observe and record, for history, events as they unfolded. He seemed to be fearless.

I truly felt he was a great scholar/activist, and he will be sorely missed.

Debra Brown

Cincinnati, OH

Feb 2 2010 - 3:31pm

Web Letter

I feel cheated by not actually meeting Howard Zinn in person. From what everyone has written about him, he was a great man. I only know him through his writing. Even then though the force of his personality comes out. In reading his writings I feel as though I'm being personally addressed, especially when it came to the class issues that no one wants to talk about. When I read his writings I remember feeling cheated. I had been lied to all the way through college--only, as Zinn would say, the lying was in footnotes. I wanted my student loans canceled. I wanted the money that I and my parents had spent putting me through college back, and I definitely wanted the best years of my life that I spent there back. I learned more through Zinn's works about life, society, history and all the rest than from all the education I've ever had.

When I read about the class struggles that continue to this day, I felt a sense of relief, as if a burden had been lifted off my back. I said to myself, "It's not me. It's the exploiters above me." At that moment I stopped blaming myself and stopped listening to the vocies of doom who said that I was at fault for not having economic success. I've moved to the other side of the spectrum because of him. In doing so, I ended up leaving a lot of friends behind. Such is the way of things, I guess. But I've gained some new ones, even if I only see them in print or on YouTube. I've had the dream of writing a book and of having it been given a great review by Zinn as validation. Alas, that is no longer to be. But if I ever do get anything published I'd certainly dedicate it to him. We've lost the greatest warrior the fight for progress has ever known. Let us all at least try to emulate what he did, even if he is a tough act to follow.

Miguel Regojo

Miami, FL

Feb 2 2010 - 3:18pm

Web Letter

The following was originally published as "In the people's voice, Zinn lives," at thedailynuisance.com:

Launching The Daily Nuisance (TDN) under Dr. Howard Zinn's encouragement, we were inspired by his message that it is the collection of individual actions that spurs social change. Naturally, TDN has been terribly saddened by the death of this great thinker and activist for justice and freedom.

Zinn lived a long life, making an unquantifiable contribution to our understanding of the world, our role in it and inspiring us to do as he did and join in shaping it.

He was a living testimony of universal solidarity and humanism, who treated the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and equal rights with the same urgency as the struggles that he grew up with in America. It is in these rootless humanist values that Zinn's commitment to social justice is derived, and serves as a source of guidance at TDN.

Zinn's approach to discussing history challenged and altered the public memory to take into consideration how people directly feel about events happening in the world. It is the effort to bring the majority of the world into the conversation about our decisions, future and past that is Zinn's greatest contribution.

In Zinn's endorsement of TDN he stated, "Given the corporate domination of the major media, and the timidity that pervades contemporary journalism, we desperately need independent media to fulfill the promise of democracy, which requires that the public be fully informed about matters which affect all of our lives." This succinctly describes our vision for TDN here in Palestine/Israel.

His desire to reexamine the official records and then look at what people affected had to say about what was happening, is what drives the idea behind the kind of news we seek to generate in the Middle East. Zinn gathered and recorded voices that, despite being suppressed or ignored, shaped the development of history. This same idea drives us to present a local experience to the world, putting a camera on those who seek to stand up and be counted.

Since his death on January 27, media outlets around the world have run obituaries for the late historian about his life's contributions. It is perhaps a fitting end for a person who looked at historical figures not from the perspective of the powerful but based on their accomplishments and how people reacted.


The Daily Nuisance editorial board

Carmelle Wolfson

Jaffa, Israel/Palestine

Feb 1 2010 - 3:22pm

Web Letter

I remember my first encounter with Dr. Zinn--I was in eleventh grade (or as Canadians like to say, Grade 11). It was in my Advanced Placement US history class, with Ms. Hearn, one of my favorite-ever teachers. She gave us the book A People's History of the United States to read. I remember that after I read that first chapter on Columbus's discovery of North America, I never thought of history the same way again.

This first chapter focused on the disease that ravaged through the indigenous tribes of the Americas, brought to them by the Europeans. I had never thought about "the other side" before when it came to reading history--reading this first chapter turned on something inside of me, and I think it helped to jumpstart much of my sense of social justice that I feel today.

I remember talking to my dad about some of what I was reading in this class, and I heard him dismissively label it as "revisionist history." I think it was meant to be a slam on Zinn, but the older I grow, the more value I see in people taking revisionist approaches.

When I starting reading and considering the Bible in more revisionist ways, I started seeing through the happy Sunday School stories I was taught to some of the underlying ugliness. The tale of Noah's ark no longer was about cute animals walking two-by-two but instead was a story of a genocide to cover up God's mistake. The plagues of the Exodus no longer showed how God saved Israel but instead illustrated how creative God could be when punishing anyone he deemed as "the other." Job wasn't just the story of a faithful man but a tale of how God is eager to use us all as pawns in supernatural bets.

So, today, as I'm thinking of Howard Zinn, I'm appreciating how it's partially because of his unique way of looking at the world that I was influenced to go beyond what is conventional.

Rebekah Bennetch

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Feb 1 2010 - 2:15pm