When Howard Zinn passed away on January 27 at age 87, the nation mourned the loss of a pioneering historian and social activist who revolutionized the way millions of Americans, especially young Americans, understand our shared history. His writings and work inspired millions of readers, but I was among the generations of students privileged to know him as a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend. His first academic job after graduate study at Columbia University was at the historically Black, all-women Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, my alma mater. The tall, lanky professor and I arrived at Spelman together in 1956, I as a freshman and he as chair of the history department. He and his beautiful wife Roslyn and their two children, Myla and Jeff, lived in the back of Spelman’s infirmary where students always felt welcome to gather, explore ideas, share hopes, and just chew the fat.
Howie encouraged students to think outside the box and to question rather than accept conventional wisdom. He was a risk-taker. He lost no opportunity to challenge segregation in theaters, libraries, and restaurants, and encouraged us to do the same. The Black Spelman establishment did not like Howard Zinn any more than the White establishment did. Later, after he joined the faculty at Boston University, its president, John Silber, disliked him just as much as Spelman’s president Albert Manley did, because he made some teachers and administrators uncomfortable by challenging the comfortable status quo. We called him Howie and felt him to be a confidant and friend as well as a teacher, contrary to the more formal and hierarchical traditions of many Black colleges. He stressed analysis over memorization; questioning, discussions, and essays rather than multiple choices and pat answers; and conveyed and affirmed my Daddy’s belief and message that I could do and be anything and that life was about far more than bagging a Morehouse man for a husband.
He lived simply and nonmaterialistically. I felt comfortable asking to drive his old Chevrolet to transport picketers to Rich’s department store or to scout out other potential demonstration sites. He was passionate about justice and his belief in the ability of individuals to make a difference in the world. Not a word-mincer, he said what he believed and encouraged us as students to do the same.
He conveyed to me and to other students that he believed in us and that we were powerful and not helpless to change what we did not like. He conveyed to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose voter registration and organizing efforts he chronicled in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists that he believed in, respected, and supported our struggle. He was there when two hundred students conducted sit-ins and seventy-seven of us got arrested. He provided us a safe space in his home to plan civil rights activities by listening and not dictating and always kept our secrets from the administration. He laughed and enjoyed life and taught us that it could be fun to challenge the status quo. What fun it was to visit the Georgia state legislature, sit in the Whites-only section, watch the floor proceedings screech to a halt, and hear the frantic gaveling and demands to “move those people to where they belonged.” With Howie, we would then saunter out with smiles on our faces to dream about the next adventure.
He spoke up for the weak and little people against the big and powerful people just as he did his whole life. An eloquent and prolific chronicler of The People’s History of the United States, of the Civil Rights Movement, and of the longings of the young and the poor and the weak to be free, his most profound message and the title of one of his books is that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” You can and must act against injustice.
Howie taught me to question and ponder what I read and heard and to examine and apply the lessons of history in the context of the daily political, social, and moral challenges all around us in the South like racial discrimination and income inequality. He combined book learning with experiential opportunities to engage in interracial discussions; partnered with community groups challenging legal segregation; and engaged students as participants, observers, data collectors, and witnesses in pending legal cases. He listened and answered questions as we debated strategies for conducting sit-in demonstrations to challenge segregated public dining facilities and used his car to check out, diagram, and help choreograph planned civil rights events. He reassured us of the rightness of our case when uncertainty and fear crept in and some of our college presidents sought to dampen our spirits and discourage our activities.
In short, he was there for and with us through thick and thin, focused not just on our learning in the classroom but on our learning to stand up and feel empowered to act and change our own lives and the community and region in which we lived. He taught us to be neither victims nor passive observers of unjust treatment but active and proud claimants of our American birthright. Howie helped prepare me to discover my leadership potential. I was so blessed to have Howie Zinn as a teacher and lifelong friend and will miss him deeply.