HOWARD ZINN: People's Historian

February 3, 2010

The important and often controversial historian and social movement activist Howard Zinn died on January 27. A student reading about the man and his ideas is followed by discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry and citizenship.

To the Teacher:

The student reading below is an introduction to the important and often controversial life and work of historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died on January 27, 2010. The reading is followed by discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry and citizenship.

Student Reading: 

Howard Zinn: People's Historian

"If there's going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That's how change happens." In these two sentences and just a few weeks before his death at 87 on January 27, Howard Zinn summarized for columnist Bob Herbert the driving force behind his life as a people's historian and activist for social justice. ("A Radical Treasure," New York Times, 1/30/10)
A key event in Zinn's life came in April 1945 just a few weeks before the end of World War II in Europe, while he was a B-17 bombadier. "There was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them," Zinn said during an interview 60 years later. "Twelve hundred heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm—first use of napalm in the European theater.
"And we don't know how many people were killed or how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we're on the right side, they're on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it's OK. And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn't hear screams, couldn't see blood. And this is modern warfare. (Quoted from 2005 interview by Amy Goodman, host of the radio program Democracy Now!,, 1/28/10)
Thinking about those "human effects" contributed to Zinn's becoming a historian and a social justice activist. Zinn went on to teach history at Spelman College, a black college for women. When Spelman students conducted a sit-in at the segregated white section of the Georgia State legislature, Zinn actively supported them. He was fired for insubordination. Years later, Spelman changed its official mind, presented Zinn with an honorary degree, and invited him to address the graduating class.
Zinn played significant roles in and wrote about the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. During a Vietnam war protest he was beaten by the Boston police. In 1967, he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. In 1968, he went to North Vietnam with Rev. Daniel Berrigan. The two men secured the release of three American POWs and accompanied them back to the United States.
Zinn was an advocate of civil disobedience. He told Amy Goodman, "A lot of people are troubled by civil disobedience. As soon as you talk about committing civil disobedience, they get a little upset. That's exactly the purpose of civil disobedience: to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. We who commit civil disobedience are disturbed, too, and we mean to disturb those who are in charge of the war."
In 1980, he published what became his most famous book, A People's History of the United States. Its first printing was 4,000 copies, but its sales 30 years later are close to two million. Zinn wrote from the perspective of the persecuted and downtrodden, of ordinary people who could be so extraordinary. In the first chapter of A People's History, Zinn described the genocidal behavior of Columbus and his crew and wrote about the writing of history: "The treatment of heroes [Columbus] and their victims [the Arawak Indians]—the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress—is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders...
"In the inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson, as seen by the Cherokees..., of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills...
"If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past, when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win...That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on."
In the introduction to a companion book, A Young People's History of the United States, Zinn wrote, "Over the years, some people have asked me: 'Do you think that your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the United States, is suitable for young people? Won't it create disillusionment with our country? Is it right to be so critical of the government's policies? Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt?'"
Zinn told Amy Goodman in a 2009 interview, "Yeah, it's true that people have asked that question again and again. You know, should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero, that Columbus mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold? Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that?
"And I think the answer is: we should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.
"Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain—well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines."
In December 2009, the History Channel premiered a 90-minute special, "The People Speak" based on Zinn's A People's History. Bill Moyers asked him, "What do you think these characters from the past that we will see on the screen...have to say to us today?
Zinn answered, "Well, I think what they have to say to us today is think for yourself. Don't believe what the people up there tell you. Live your own life. Think your own ideas. And don't depend on saviors. Don't depend on the Founding Fathers, on Andrew Jackson, on Theodore Roosevelt, on Lyndon Johnson, on Obama. Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done.
"Because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it's done so only because it's been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing, by, you know, Lincoln pushed by the anti-slavery movement. You know, Johnson and Kennedy were pushed by the southern black movement. And maybe hopefully Obama today, maybe he will be pushed by people today who have such high hopes in him, and who want to see him fulfill those hopes." (; click on the 12/11/09 transcript for the entire interview.)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. The belief that change comes "from the bottom up, from the people themselves" was central to the way Zinn thought. Did he live this belief? If so, how? What role did civil disobedience play in living his beliefs? 

3. What people in American history can you name who have practiced civil disobedience? Why did they do it? With what results? What do you think about civil disobedience as a political strategy? Why?
4. From what point of view did Zinn write his history books? Compare the point of view reflected in A People's History with the point of view in the history text you are using in school. What do you think about each point of view and why?
5. In one of Zinn's last interviews he said, "Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done." Why did he say this? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
6. Based on what you have read about Zinn, would you want to read A People's History? Would you want it as a text for your American history text? Why or why not?

For inquiry

Organize the class for independent and small-group inquiries into Howard Zinn's perspectives on certain figures and events in American history, such as those cited below. In each case, the student inquiry might respond to the same basic question: With what evidence and for what reasons do you support or oppose the Zinn point of view on X?
Zinn is harshly critical of Christopher Columbus for what he viewed as his genocidal acts against the Arawak Indians.
He criticized Andrew Jackson for his treatment of Cherokee Indians.
He criticized Theodore Roosevelt for supporting massacre in the Philippines.
He actively opposed the Vietnam War and, more recently, U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He supported Mark Twain's work for the Anti-Imperialist League.
He supported and participated in civil disobedience campaigns during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements.
He supported people's movements like those of abolitionists against slavery, workers for unions, and struggles by women and gay people for equal rights. 

For citizenship

Zinn cites abolitionists for prodding and pushing Lincoln on slavery, the southern black movement for prodding and pushing Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights. "Don't depend on your leaders to do what needs to be done," he said. And he also said, "If there's going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That's how change happens."
Involve students in a brainstorming session that responds to the following question: What change would you like to see in American life today? Note student responses on the chalkboard without comment. Then invite discussion aimed at zeroing in on a change for which there is class consensus, followed by the question: What might we do about it?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: