Tasked with assessing the young administration of a young Democratic president in these pages, radical historian Howard Zinn began, “My object is not to denounce, but to clarify. It is important for American citizens to know exactly how far they can depend on the national government, and how much remains for them to do…. This government simply cannot be depended upon for vigorous initiatives. It will, however, respond to popular indignation and pressure.”
The year was 1962, and the president was John F. Kennedy. Earlier that fall the Kennedy administration had dispatched federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to quell riots that erupted after the first African-American student, James Meredith, enrolled at the University of Mississippi. At the time many liberals portrayed the Kennedys as heroic allies of the civil rights movement; Zinn observed a more complicated dynamic. He believed, correctly, that the government would move to desegregate the South only in “cases of extreme and admitted defiance of federal authority.” Zinn argued, again correctly, that this limit to federal action was not primarily a legal matter but a political one, a matter of perception. A “less timorous” administration, he wrote, “could find solid legal sanction” for more assertive action if it were pushed to do so–by the people. And so, in that article, among the earliest Zinn published in The Nation, he wrote to the people, for the people: “My intention is…to light a flame under the rest of us.”
And that is exactly what Howard Zinn did–in the dozens of books he wrote and edited, in the hundreds of speeches he gave, in his teaching and activism and, later in life, in his role as the muse of history and politics for a new generation of freethinkers and organizers. Over the past fifty years, The Nation published Zinn on a number of subjects: from his early dispatches from Atlanta’s Spelman College (for example, “Finishing School for Pickets,” August 6, 1960), where he taught history and advised and sheltered civil rights protesters, to his incisive and passionate articles against US wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (for example, “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal,” February 6, 1967, and “The Others,” February 11, 2002), to his pleas for a federal bailout for citizens instead of corporations (“Beyond the New Deal,” April 7, 2008).
Zinn has been labeled a dogmatic historian, but these Nation articles reveal something else entirely: a pragmatic radicalism. He was interested in inspiring people to be agents of change, and he assembled from history, literature, philosophy and reportage a formidable intellectual and moral toolbox for doing it. We were fortunate to call him a friend, and it fills us with pride as well as sadness that the last article he published appeared in our pages in a forum on the first year of the Obama administration (“Obama at One,” February 1). Seeking to light a flame under the rest of us once again, Zinn wrote, “I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president–which means, in our time, a dangerous president–unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”