Behind Bars

Howard Zinn, Master Historian

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

It should surprise no one when a man, nearly 90, dies. It is as natural as moonlight, as regular as a rainbow after a summer shower.

And yet, the passing of Howard Zinn surprises. He was a few months shy of 90, true, but he was still a bright eyed and brilliant lecturer, whose sense of humor gave a wondrous sparkle to his speeches and humanized his writing.

He is perhaps best known for his masterwork, A People’s History of the United States; 1492-Present, Harper Collins, 1980/2003. which sold millions of copies. Zinn was an adherent of the “history from below” school of history, and wrote from the perspective of the bottoms of societies, not the top. He wrote about Black slaves fighting for freedom, Native folks fighting for sovereignty, poor white workers fighting for the right to unionize, women fighting for the right to work and vote, soldiers, gay folks, prisoners, and students struggling to learn about the history of their country.

And while Zinn was indeed a brilliant, groundbreaking historian, he didn’t write about the poor from a scholar’s distance; he grew up desperately poor in New York, joined the Air Force during World War II, and became a bombardier. Like many young service members, he read incessantly. When he left the service, he used the G. I. Bill to study at Columbia where he earned his Ph.D.

And while he earned an advanced degree, he learned things he hadn’t planned on when he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, for his teaching took place during the eruption of the Civil Rights movement, and student protests against the U.S. apartheid system of segregation. Spelman, a Black women’s college, had its share of activists, who, when they tried to leaflet, were stopped, threatened and prevented from leafleting by the cops.

Zinn, teaching legal history and constitutional law to many of these students, learned that what the law books and cases said meant nothing in the real-life world of Georgian apartheid. In his 1990 book, Declarations of Independence, Zinn wrote:

“The law was plain. A series of Supreme Court decisions made the right to distribute leaflets on a public street absolute. It would be hard to find something in the Bill of Rights that was more clear-cut than this. I told my students this. But I knew immediately that I must tell them something else; that the law didn’t much matter. If they began handing out leaflets on Peachtree Street and a white policeman (all police were white in Atlanta at the time), came along and said “Move!” what could they do? Cite the relevant Supreme Court cases to the policeman. {p.198}”

This was Atlanta: 1961, and the Movement taught Zinn many realities about America.

Howard Zinn, historian, activist, playwright, prodigious writer, father of the People’s History movement, and friend., January 28, 2010