When Howard Zinn died last year, the commentary about his life relayed his warmth and humor, his many protests against war and racism, and the wild popularity of his book, A People’s History of the United States. As a friend and student of Zinn’s, I find these descriptions incomplete. At the same time, “serious” historians dismissed A People’s History as superficial and ideologically driven. In both views—much less in the condemnations from the right-wing—something very central about Zinn is overlooked: throughout his life and work, he was fashioning a living concept of what it means to be a good citizen.
Howard Zinn as the paragon of righteous citizenship would strike many, including some in his legions of friends and admirers, as a peculiar way of describing this remarkable man. In the more commonplace view, he spent decades angrily decrying America’s treatment of every downtrodden minority, avidly protested against every US military intervention, and excoriated America and capitalism for the impoverishment of large swaths of the country and indeed of the world. Is this the stuff of citizenship?
That so many of his insights about US policies at home and abroad were spot on and often prescient is a sidelight. What emerges most powerfully from his voluminous writings about the civil rights movement, US war and imperialism, class in America, and related matters is a deep sense of involvement—with the forgotten people, the causes to reverse injustice, the outrage against senseless killing—framed by a consistent set of ideas that are in fact the fundaments of the American Republic. In this deep immersion in American society and ever mindful of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a vibrant citizenship was nourished.
Like all the great progenitors of American democracy, he was so many things in his 87 years that this doubtlessly enabled him to grasp the core ideas of why and how an American should learn and care and act. He was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks, a bombardier in the Second World War, a teacher and scholar, an organizer, a journalist, a playwright. In a deprived childhood and from the docks he understood economic injustice. In the unnecessary bombing raids in France he witnessed the absurd violence of war. He wrote about these experiences in compelling essays (such as “The Bombing of Rouen” in The Politics of History) and a short autobiography.
It was in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s where he found his voice and his characteristic style of citizenship. Here was the great struggle for black emancipation. Zinn and his young family had moved to Atlanta in 1955 to take up his first teaching post at Spelman College. There he mentored the likes of Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman and Julian Bond, among others, but at the same time he was experiencing, chronicling and interpreting the civil rights movement in articles for The Nation and other political journals. He was, quite unlike most academics, writing from the inside as an activist, aiding the uprising in many ways. The sit-ins, the marches, the protests, the bold challenge to segregation and its legal underpinnings were outbursts of citizenship, of ordinary people demanding rights and protections that had been guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
Much of Zinn’s most memorable writing about the civil rights movement was reportage from Selma, Hattiesburg, Atlanta and other venues where black people sat-in or marched or simply stood defiantly to bear witness to the segregation and indeed the degradation of centuries. Using the method of oral history that he helped pioneer, he gave voice to these activists as they moved from acquiescence to action: the sit-ins and other protests, more than anything, awakened blacks and whites to the actual circumstances of oppression and to the obligations for equal standing guaranteed by the America’s founding documents. The Freedom Day actions in Mississippi left the movement “battered and uncertain,” he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists. “It moved on to Greenwood and other towns in the Delta, grew in numbers, gathered thousands of supporters throughout the state. In places like Hattiesburg it took blows, but it left the town transformed, its black people—and possibly some white people—awakened… The long silence was over.”