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Howard Zinn – A Tribute

Posted on 07 February 2010 by Barbara Beckwith (68)

Howard Zinn − historian, activist, and a member of the National Writers Union and the Boston Chapter for almost 20 years  died on January 27, 2010. But his life and writing will inspire grassroots activists for many future generations.

His The People’s History of the United States, published in 1980, documents grassroots struggles for economic and racial justice, democracy, free speech, led by the people whom textbooks ordinarily describe as either mere victims or as dangerous agitators: women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. His 1994 memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train chronicles his experience as a World War II Air Force bombardier, an historian, a Civil Rights and anti-war activist. Zinn spoke at our National Writers Union annual book party in 2005, focussing on the increasing challenges for writers in the face of wartime censorship, and encouraging writers to send 700-word op-ed pieces for the Progressive Media Project, which distributes them to publications around the country. As he said in his 1993 book, Failure to Quit, “When one voice speaks out against the conventional wisdom and is recognized as speaking truth, people are drawn out of their previous silence.”

He was both fierce and funny – and people listened and were moved to action. Howard would get up in front of an audience of 100 or 1000 or 100,000 with scraps of paper in his hands, mostly news items from the morning’s paper — and then he’d talk. He’d ponder aloud the deep import of such small news items, dig out the falsities and name the power dynamics. He would appear amused — and was always amusing — but also fierce in his belief that ordinary people are powerful and their voice must and will be heard. Here’s a quote from his memoir, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train:
No pitifully small picket line, no poorly attended meeting, no tossing out of an idea to an audience and even to an individual, should be scorned as insignificant.

The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies but the complacency of their friends are precious catalysts for change.


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