Earlier today, one of my heroes crossed over to the other side. Howard Zinn –radical historian, civil rights activist, anti-war activist, direct action activist, thinker, doer, fighter for justice and educator- passed away at 87.
I first read “A People’s History of the United States” early on and it changed my life. It was an eye opener and a page turner. As Matt Damon said in “Good Will Hunting” “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.“
It told the history of the downtrodden, the oppressed and regular people opposing illegitimate authority, not the government, the politicians or the wealthy. It told me that history wasn’t about the Rockefellers or Kennedys, as the elite few would have us believe, but about those in struggle for justice, and often survival.
As an organizer within the climate justice and anti-coal movements, my worldview is shaped by Zinn’s work. He told the stories of miners fighting to unionize and resist King Coal. He told the stories of poor Appalachians fighting for economic justice and survival. He told stories of bootlegged coal during the depression helping Pennsylvania coal miners make ends meet and Appalachian Aunt Molly Jackson taking 24 lbs of flour at gunpoint to feed her seven children. He greatly influenced my politics and awareness of Appalachia. When delving into the politics there, it’s essential you understand the history. Without Zinn, I would have never had that.
As a professor at Spellman, Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. As a World War II vet and Boston University professor, Zinn organized actively against the war in Vietnam and was arrested several times. At Boston University, he supported labor organizing and feuded with the administration.
As direct action became a philosophy in my life, Zinn’s histories and actions have been a guide. As a historian that taught community college for six years, his work was the basis for my lectures.
Today, I watched dozens of friends post comments and links on Facebook and Twitter praising and remembering Zinn’s life. Many of us were deeply influenced by his writings. Let’s not mourn Howard Zinn, he had a long life surrounded by loved ones where he changed the lives of millions through his teaching, writing and activism. Instead let’s continue his work and spirit and in the words of Mother Jones “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for living.“