Howard Zinn

Active - 2003 - 2012  |   Born - Aug 24, 1922   |   Died - Jan 27, 2010   |   Genres - History, Culture & Society

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Biography by Mark Deming

Howard Zinn was an author, historian, academic, playwright, and activist who devoted much of his life to justice, progressive political reform, and the struggle to bring to light the truth about American history: the sometimes lamentable sides of our heroes and the important actions of ordinary citizens who through courage and principle made a difference. Howard Zinn was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1922 to a family of Jewish immigrants. Raised in a working-class household, Zinn developed a passion for reading as a young boy, but after graduating high school he took a job in a shipyard to help support his family. Once the United States entered World War II, Zinn volunteered for the Air Force, primarily because he felt America was engaged in a battle against fascism. Zinn became a bombardier with the 490th Bomb Group and flew missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, an experience he later cited as the foundation of his passionate opposition to war. After earning his honorable discharge, Zinn returned to Brooklyn and began attending New York University under the G.I. Bill. Zinn graduated in 1951, and did graduate work at Columbia University, where he received a Ph.D. in history, minoring in political science.

In 1956, Zinn became a professor of history at Spellman College, a historically African-American college in Atlanta, GA, and he took part in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, serving as an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and joining students who demanded Spellman take a more active role in fighting segregation and institutionalized racism. Zinn was dismissed from Spellman for his role in student protests, and he became a Professor of Political Science at Boston University in 1964. While in Boston, Zinn continued his activism in favor of civil rights and began working to end the war in Vietnam; with Rev. Daniel Berrigan, he helped arrange the release of American airmen shot down over Hanoi, and when Daniel Ellsberg gave him a cache of top-secret documents on U.S. military policy in Vietnam, he helped edit the material and arranged for it to be published as The Pentagon Papers, which exposed the flaws in America's strategy in Indo-China. Zinn also testified on Ellsberg's behalf when the latter was brought to trial for distributing classified materials.

Zinn long believed that many texts on American history reflected a narrow, incomplete view of the nation and its people, and in 1980 he published A People's History of the United States, which focused on stories often ignored in American history: the struggle by Native-Americans to hold on to their land, efforts by African-Americans to throw off the chains of slavery and live in freedom, the rise of the labor movement and workers' demands for fair treatment, women's suffrage and their calls for political equality, and the civil rights movement. Zinn's book was nominated for the National Book Award and became an integral part of many college history courses, selling well over a million copies. In 2004, Zinn helped compile Voices of a People's History of the United States, which collected essays, speeches, and other writings by some of the key figures in the earlier book, and the two books later inspired the documentary film The People Speak, in which a cast of respected actors reads the words of the citizen activists chronicled by Zinn. (One of the participants was Matt Damon, who famously cited Zinn's People's History of the United States in the film Good Will Hunting.) Zinn's life and work inspired a biographical documentary, Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and he was an interview subject for a number of fact-based films, including The Corporation, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, and Sacco and Vanzetti. Zinn was also the author of three plays, Emma (about American anarchist Emma Goldman), Daughter of Venus (concerning the impact of the nuclear disarmament movement on one family), and Marx in Soho (a one-man-show about Karl Marx's exile in London). Zinn died on January 27, 2010, suffering a heart attack during a visit to California.

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