On January 27, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. Howard Zinn was a historian and a professor of political science at Boston University and a great inspiration to the anti-war movement. Writing for the New York Times, Bob Herbet writes that Zinn “was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it.” Zinn was an outspoken intellectual who championed liberty and the author of what I consider his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States.
A People’s History is a revisionist examination of American history, from the perspective of working people, of war resisters, of suffragists, of the black minority, of the indigenous populations—in other words, the people who have shaped America, the people whose voices are often overlooked in history. The painting of America as “exceptional” is replaced by the sober reality of the America’s massacres, invasions, secret bombings, assignations, coups, and brutal domestic repression. It becomes evident that what we call “civilized society” today is a product of popular struggles, won by the efforts of ordinary people. These are “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”
That’s the central message you can find in Zinn’s The People Speak, which was shown on History and which I had wrote about in December when it aired. The People Speak tells the story of America through the history of dissent and resistance and activism. It examines the role of ordinary people who rose up in opposition to state violence and oppression. It evinces the point that democracy comes from the bottom, not from above. If there’s a message it gives, I think it is that what lies ahead is largely up to us.
In a recent interview with Big Think, Zinn stated that he wants to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality … I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn’t have before.” That’s certainly how I’ll remember him.