Howard Zinn Biography

Biography (eNotes Publishing)

Historian Howard Zinn, who died January 27, 2010, was best known for his A People's History of the United States (1980). Zinn directly experienced many of the events he wrote about in his work. A voice for the poor, minorities, and those living in terrible conditions, and for outsiders in America, Zinn was born in 1922 to Jewish immigrants and grew up in Brooklyn's racially mixed slums. A critic of militarism, Zinn was a veteran who served as a bombardier in the Air Force, joining at twenty-one and serving with distinction. A longtime champion and witness to the struggles of the working man, Zinn had worked in shipyards and saw his parents work in factories.

After Zinn hurt his back while loading trucks in a warehouse, he became a teacher. After earning a PhD from Columbia University (1956), Zinn took a position teaching at Spellman College in Georgia. Zinn was a white man teaching at a college for African-American women (including a young Alice Walker), but he became so active in organizing student action for social justice that he was eventually fired in 1963. Throughout the sixties, Zinn was involved in many protests and campaigns to register black voters. Zinn wrote about these activities in The Southern Mystique (1964), SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964), and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994). Zinn was eventually involved in these activities on a very high level: he testified at the trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who had released the thousands of classified pages related to the war in Vietnam known as the "Pentagon Papers."

As a historian, Zinn was known for the specific focus of his work (his ceaseless attempts to document the experiences and perspectives of those left out of mainstream histories) and for his overall perspective. Zinn rejected the ideal of objectivity, arguing that history is always written from a specific invested perspective. Because of this, Zinn argued, one should consciously write and read history with a social conscience, from and for specific political points of view.

Zinn taught at Boston College, the University of Paris, and the University of Bologna. In addition to his scholarly work, Zinn wrote plays. In 1991, he received the Thomas Merton Award (given by the Thomas Merton Center to individuals fighting for social justice), and in 1998 he was granted the Eugene V. Debs Award (given for work carrying on Debs's legacy and contributing to social justice and world peace).