Today marks the centennial of historian Howard Zinn’s birth. More than a decade after Zinn’s death in 2010, his best-selling A People’s History of the United States (1980) remains the most popular—and radical—introduction to American history, having recently surpassed 4 million copies sold. Zinn did more than any other historian to popularize the historiographical revolution of the Long 1960s, bringing from the campuses to the public its spotlight on the oppression of groups formerly marginalized in US history textbooks: African Americans, workers, Native Americans, women—and on their liberation movements. In place of traditional textbook triumphalism, Zinn’s People’s History offered a scathing account of American capitalism’s role in promoting economic, racial, and sexual inequality.
A World War II bombardier who, in the wake of Hiroshima, came out of that war profoundly disillusioned with the American warfare state, Zinn saw history as offering evidence to separate rhetoric from reality in US foreign policy, enabling Americans to probe “how many times have presidents said we’re going to war for democracy, and what have those wars really been about?” Zinn was a leading critic of the Vietnam War, who published one of the most influential books calling for its end, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967). In A People’s History, Zinn offered what may be the most profoundly anti-war introduction to American history ever written. Zinn, as historian Robin D.G. Kelley put it, was a “chronicler of the inhumanity of war…. [In A People’s History] antiwar activists were the heroes, not tank commanders, the cavalry, or fighter pilots. Imagine a history book that sells over a million copies that doesn’t sell war!”
Zinn’s historical work reflected other key aspects of his life experience. A child of working-class immigrants, Zinn spoke and wrote of growing up class-conscious, keenly aware of the contrast between his birth family’s poverty in the Depression years of his youth and the images of affluence conveyed by Hollywood. Class conflict would be a major theme in his People’s History.
So was the quest for racial equality. From 1956–63, Zinn taught at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, both mentoring and taking inspiration from his students, who helped to lead the sit-in movement and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Zinn and Ella Baker were the only older adults on SNCC’s executive committee, and he would go on to write the first book on the student wing of the Black Freedom Movement, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). It was his experience with this nonviolent grass roots insurgency that committed him to the kind of “bottom-up” view of history and politics that would characterize his People’s History. This experience also gave him a profoundly antiracist perspective on American exceptionalism, in which he argued that “there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important for so long a time as the United States. And the problem of the ‘color line,’ as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, is still with us.”
The Spelman experience also awakened Zinn to the role of sexual inequality in American history. His 1960 Nation article, “Finishing School for Pickets,” on the Spelman students’ protests against Jim Crowism and their revolt against campus sexual paternalism was among the first to highlight the activism of black women students. Zinn would be fired for supporting that revolt.
Part of what made A People’s History so popular was Zinn’s candor about his biases. Zinn made no pretense of neutrality—a bold departure from bland textbooks. In one of the most memorable passages from the book’s opening chapter, Zinn made such a neutral pose sound amoral. He argued that there was an “inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,” that in “a world of conflict…between conqueror and conquered, master and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex…victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” For Zinn this moral positioning yielded a form of advocacy history, in which he championed the oppressed, telling Columbus’s story from the standpoint of the indigenous people he conquered and brutalized, “the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson, as seen by the Cherokees,” and so on.
Zinn’s iconoclastic approach to American history has always infuriated right-wingers, who view it as anti-American. This was the case with Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Academia, who sought to ban and even burn A People’s History in the 1980s, and more recently with Donald Trump, who in his last year in the White House denounced Zinn as a dangerous propagandist, who, along with critical race theory and the 1619 Project, was supposedly corrupting the country’s young by making “students ashamed of their own history.” Neither teachers nor students have found such condemnations persuasive.
Zinn has had more reasonable critics: historians who see him as simplifying history by demonizing elites, romanticizing the working class and not grappling with its acceptance of capitalism. But such criticism underscores the fact that decades after its publication, A People’s History still matters, and it is still sparking debate in history classrooms.
Also enduring is Zinn’s concern that too many high schools lack the academic freedom to debate dissident historical interpretations, which led him in 2008 to cofound the Zinn Education Project (ZEP). Today, with its impressive online presence, ZEP reaches more than 100,000 teachers, and not only promotes people’s history and progressive pedagogy but has also spearheaded resistance to the recent bans imposed by Republican legislatures and governors on critical race theory and on candid teaching about race and gender in history classrooms.
In light of such bans, the question Americans might reflect on to commemorate Zinn’s 100th birthday is whether our nation is free enough to allow its youth to read and discuss people’s history, the 1619 project, and critical race theory—a history that shows that those beyond the elite matter; a history that in Zinn’s words, can “promote democracy by giving people the idea that they too can participate in history.”
FIVE OF HOWARD ZINN’S BEST NATION ARTICLES
“Finishing School for Pickets,” August 6, 1960
“Kennedy: The Reluctant Emancipator,” December 1, 1962
“Emancipation From Dogma: The Old Left and the New,” April 4, 1966
“Three Prisoners: The Petty Route Home,” April 1, 1968
For more of Zinn’s Nation articles, see Howard Zinn, Some Truths Are Not Self-Evident (2014)