(HOST) The news that historian Howard Zinn had suffered a heart attack and died, came as a surprise to commentator Jay Craven – who remembers his former teacher and friend’s dynamic activism.
(CRAVEN) I’d seen Howard in August and corresponded with him since then. His film, "The People Speak," made with Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Springsteen and a constellation of stars performing the words of American activists and historical figures, premiered on the History Channel in December. It seemed like Howard was everywhere, speaking and being interviewed. At 87, he remained vigorous, passionate, and articulate.
Howard Zinn touched many lives. His best-selling "Peoples History of the United States" focused on regular folks who acted for change. Zinn’s premise was that democracy is not a spectator sport and that the freedoms we enjoy were not given to us; they were won through hard sacrifice and struggle by everyday Americans, from Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Joe Hill, Thoreau, and Black Elk to the unnamed millions who participated as abolitionists, suffragettes, union organizers, and freedom riders.
I met Howard when I was seventeen. A freshman arriving at Boston University, I came upon the university’s Marsh Chapel, overflowing with students and faculty giving sanctuary to an Army solider, Ray Kroll, who had gone AWOL to protest orders sending him to Vietnam. Zinn, a decorated bombing pilot during World War II, turned against war after fighting one – and he helped lead the round-the-clock BU vigil.
Howard Zinn was a generous friend, mesmerizing teacher and unparalleled storyteller. His vivid and detailed historical narratives captivated us as students, providing fresh vision and a sense of our own ability to make a difference.
Of course Howard’s stories were not always comfortable to hear. Take for instance his comment about America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, recently quoted in an affectionate tribute by New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert:
"If you look through high school and elementary school textbooks in American history," wrote Zinn, "you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people – not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians."
Zinn was not a "neutral" historian. But despite his challenging vision, he remained an optimist.
"To be hopeful in bad times," he wrote, "is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something."
"If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of the present, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of what is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."