Three obituaries for US-historion Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn in The Progressive

By Antonino D’Ambrosio, January 28, 2010

“There is no death…People die only when we forget them…If you can remember me, I will be with you always.”
— Isabel Allende (Eva Luna)


For nearly a quarter of a century, I have found solace in the above quote whenever someone close to me dies. I first invoked it as a hopeful mantra when my father died when I was fifteen and now I turn to it once again upon learning of the sad news of Howard Zinn’s passing.

Like many, I was lucky enough to learn from Zinn by discovering his work at a time in life where it served as an antidote to the harmful illness that makes it seem that “America is a day,” a way of living in the world where there is no sense of history or hope for the future. This anti-history took on new shape and meaning for those of us with the misfortune of attending grade school during the Reagan years. I’m sure more than a few of you remember those old world maps where the U.S. was placed squarely in the center and was seemingly five times larger than it actually is. Or that Russia was the “Evil Empire” and the U.S. the “shining city of the hill.”

History seemed more like a Saturday morning cartoon where we always win, nothing really bad happens to us, and we really do nothing bad to anyone. I couldn’t find myself or my family in any of the “we’s,” “us,’” or “anyone’s.”

In Howard Zinn’s direct, sincere and often fiery voice, I first heard the words that fit the snapshots of the life and history I knew. His words imbued with compassion, the main ingredient of courage, helped push me down the difficult yet rewarding path of thinking for others.

Zinn was great at moving people, inspiring so many to aspire for something better. The millions of books bearing his name still sold all over the world that come to rest on bookshelves after the reader mark entire pages, underline sentences, and scribble notes in the jacket, are just a small indication of his impact.

As someone who first began to understand the world through do-it-yourself popular culture movements like punk rock, Zinn’s DIY approach to history and citizenship made me understand that my families story—immigrant, working class, union people—was not only relevant it was real and important: it was the people’s history.

There are moments in life that serve as validation, a sign that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. For me, that moment presented itself when I sought out Zinn to discuss a recent article, book, and even film I was working on (I’ve been privileged to be published alongside him in the pages of The Progressive). At each request, he spoke openly and thoughtfully, offering me all he knew. A friendship blossomed and when I told him that the subject of my current book, Johnny Cash, admired his work, Zinn was humbled. “Really?” he told me. “Well, isn’t that something because I found him quite extraordinary.”

As I reflect on the many accomplishments of Zinn’s life, I look once again to the quote listed above for it best describes how Howard Zinn lived his life. Zinn dedicated himself to the fight against forgetting and the struggle to honor history by telling the truth. For me, his work did more than pour a blazing light into the cracks of American history spackled over by the powerful to conceal the true stories that are shared by the majority of human beings: he made the invisible insurrection of the human spirit shine like a beacon in the dense fog of history.

As history is known to do, it played the ironic jester as the publication of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The two arose out of the same historical era but represented the present and future American epoch with drastically divergent ideas and worldviews. One believed in the American spectacle, the other in the American people. Both would alter the political and cultural landscape of America forever. And on the day that we lost Zinn, history once again showed its biting wit, as history takes another step forward as America’s first Black President, one that Zinn was so willing to critically press to step-up to the challenge of “hope,” was due to deliver his first State-of-the-Union address.

Here is where we must not mourn Zinn, nor relegate him to the dustbin of history remembered only with one-dimensional clichés. We must honor him by not forgetting what a people’s history is and what it represents for it is the quiet revolution of the human spirit, which never stops moving forward no matter how many attempts are made to pull it back and keep it silent. This is the true significance of Zinn’s work: there is only truth when there is honesty. We must be honest with our history, we must be vigilant against the forces that oppose democracy, and we must be steadfast in the pursuit of justice. We must be sovereign as a people.

Just a few days ago, I had spoken with Zinn. He had graciously made himself available in the coming months to participate with me in a few public events for my current book and film. He spoke in a hopeful tone that there were many young, strong voices out in the world. He mentioned writers like Dave Zirin, Jeremy Scahill and dropped my name in there. I was deeply moved by his belief in my work. I can only hope that now his words and how he lived will continue to arouse compassion and courage. In the end, Howard Zinn will never stop informing us on our ultimate responsibility of being human.

Antonino D’Ambrosio, the founder/director of the media and production nonprofit La Lutta NMC (, is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, where he recently launched the multimedia project La Terra Promessa.





Thank You, Howard Zinn


By Matthew Rothschild, January 28, 2010

Thank You, Howard Zinn, for being there during the civil rights movement, for teaching at Spelman, for walking the picket lines, and for inspiring such students as Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being there during the Vietnam War, for writing “The Logic of Withdrawal,” and for going to Hanoi.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for always being there.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being a man who supported the women’s liberation movement, early on.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being a straight who supported the gay and lesbian rights movement, early on.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being a Jew who dared to criticize Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, early on.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for being a great man who didn’t believe in the “Great Man Theory of History.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for taking the time to write your landmark work, “A People’s History of the United States,” and for educating two generations now in the radical history of this country, a history, as you stressed, of class conflict.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for grasping the importance of transforming this book into “The People Speak,” the History Channel special that ran in December and that should be used by secondary, high school and college classes for as long as U.S. history is taught.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for opposing war, all wars, including our own “good wars,” our own “holy wars,” as you called them—and for pointing out that a “just cause” does not lead to a “just war.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for pointing out that soldiers don’t die for their country, but that they die for their political leaders who dupe them or conscript them into wars. And that they die for the corporations that profit from war.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for urging us to “renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed. We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for stressing that change comes from below, and that it comes at surprising times, even when things seem bleakest, if we organize to make it happen.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for stressing the value of engaging in action to make this world a better place, even if we don’t get there.

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for this amazing, inspiring paragraph, which I’ve had on my wall for years now:

“To be hopeful in bad times 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 presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for recognizing the beauty and power of culture, and for exalting the poet, the singer, the actor, the artist.

Thank you, Howard, for being kind enough to write your columns this last decade for a relatively obscure magazine called The Progressive, and for doing so with the utmost intelligence and grace.

Thank you, Howard, for calling me your editor.

Thank you, Howard, for your wry and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Thank you, Howard, for your kindness.

Thank you, Howard, for your friendship.

Thank you, Howard.

Thank you.

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.






Remembering Howard Zinn


By Elizabeth DiNovella, January 27, 2010

I am deeply saddened by the news of the death of Howard Zinn. He was a longtime columnist for The Progressive, and his most recent piece, “The Nobel’s Feeble Gesture,” expressed his dismay about President Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here’s an excerpt:

“I think some progressives have forgotten the history of the Democratic Party, to which people have turned again and again in desperate search for saviors, later to be disappointed. Our political history shows us that only great popular movements, carrying out bold actions that awakened the nation and threatened the Establishment, as in the Thirties and the Sixties, have been able to shake that pyramid of corporate and military power and at least temporarily changed course.”

It was a “classic” Zinn piece—piercing but playful, saying in no uncertain terms what needed to be said. It’s not surprising he was a favorite columnist for many of our subscribers. He was my favorite, too.

On matters of war and peace, he was absolute. In our July 2009 issue, he wrote, “We’ve got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what. No matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate. . . . We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.”

What I loved most about Zinn was his sense of humor, which didn’t always translate onto the page. I didn’t know how funny he was until I heard him speak at our 95th anniversary party six years ago. He was gracious enough to attend our recent 100th birthday bash, too.

When I was a just becoming politicized, I read A People’s History of the United States and it blew my mind away. Reading Zinn’s book was a rite of passage in my activist circles, and I hope it still is.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve read A People’s History, and it is no small thrill to be at a magazine that regularly publishes the work of a peace mongering historian, a World War II soldier who flew bombing missions over Europe but later staunchly advocated for peace. That was thing about Zinn—when he spoke of war, he knew what he was talking about.

Back in 2003 when George W. Bush was gunning for Saddam Hussein, Zinn wrote a cover story for The Progressive called “A Chorus Against War.”

This is how it ends:

“If Bush starts a war, he will be responsible for the lives lost, the children crippled, the terrorizing of millions of ordinary people, the American GIs not returning to their families. And all of use will be responsible for bringing that to a halt.

Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back.”

I would have loved to read what Zinn thought about the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing even more money into our political system. Or what he would have written after hearing Obama’s first State of the Union Address. The President’s speech hasn’t even started yet tonight, but this much I do know: Zinn would have reminded us, as he did over and over, that we need to organize our neighborhoods and workplaces and schools in order to create change, and not leave it up to the politicians.

“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war,” Zinn wrote in a piece called, “Election Madness” back in March 2008. “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”


Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive.