Many of the scholars who gathered at Vanderbilt Hall for a recent daylong symposium on Howard Zinn shared a common quirk of speech: They tended to refer to the icon in question as “Howie.”
That’s because more than a few of the assembled admirers of Zinn’s work—including NYU history professor Marilyn Young and writer Alice Walker—were also students, colleagues, or personal friends of the popular historian and lifelong activist who died in 2010.
The series of talks was presented by The Federic Ewen Academic Freedom Center at NYU’s Tamiment Library—home to the Howard Zinn Papers—in collaboration with The Nation, and was supported by a grant from the Kurz Family Foundation.
Dropping in for the afternoon discussions—on activism and on efforts to bring the people’s history to the classroom—NYU Stories heard panelists hold forth on everything from 1960s-era desegregation and the Vietnam War to recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.
But the speakers were most animated when debating how best to carry Zinn’s ideas forward to galvanize a new generation of thoughtful, engaged citizens toward a passion for justice. A few of their thoughts appear below.
“To call Howard Zinn an activist-historian or a historian-activist is to misunderstand, because there was no separation between Howie teaching a class and Howie addressing a rally, or Howie greeting people on the street. He lived a fully integrated life.”
—Marilyn Young, NYU Professor of History & Collegiate Professor
“When [Zinn] was praised for his courage, after participating in hundreds of social actions and sit-ins, he said:
‘It's not a courage to me....I'm not going to be executed. I'm not even going to be given a long jail sentence. I may be thrown into jail for a day or two, and that has happened to me eight to nine times. I may be fired, I may get a salary decrease, but these are pitiful things compared to what happens to people in the world. So it doesn't take much courage to do that.’”
—Martin Duberman, professor emeritus of history at Herbert Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left
“In my little community of Putnam County, Georgia, we honestly thought that there was no such thing as a good white man. Sure, once in a while someone would posit Santa Claus and Jesus as the only real possibilities. But when I was sitting next to Howie [at an event at Spellman College] I realized that he was the first white person I liked. He did not feel in the least white. What is it that made him not a white man? It’s worth pondering.”
—Alice Walker, author, activist, and former Spellman College student of Zinn’s
“One time Howie went up to [a police officer] and said something friendly, like, ‘how’s your morning been?’ And the officer maced him. But you have to tell that story with a smile, because that’s how Howie told all his stories.”
“There were those in his day who denounced Howard as a communist and a socialist—the accusation varied according to the speaker. In fact Howard did tend to defend socialism, but in a haphazard way. He didn’t have the mind of an ideologue. And he was always careful to distinguish between what he meant by socialism and what the Soviet Union had become.”
“Howie never spoke on the level of rhetoric. His way of speaking was directly addressed: it was plain, it was kind of 'just talking,' and it was always punctuated with the phrase 'you see?' Of course when he said that, you did see. How could you not? It wasn’t a stump speech—it was funny and direct. You see?”
“As he got older, Howard’s basic instinct was more anarchist than socialist. But he made clear when he talked about anarchism that he wasn’t talking about violence and chaos. Rather his position was one of anti-authoritarianism, particularly when it came to the authority of Church and State. He advocated for the widest possible dispersal of power.”
“It’s unbelievable the impact a teacher like Howie can have in a young person’s life. It’s so rare to have an adult tell you the truth, or to be right there on the picket line with you, ready to go to jail with you, ready to take his turn under the axe handle with you.”
“The choosing of curriculum is incredibly political—always has been, and probably always will be...Should we advocate for standardized tests of history? If it’s tested, it’ll be taught—but the tests themselves are nothing to cheer about. So it’s a dilemma.”
—Katy Swalwell, assistant professor in University of Maryland’s College of Education and author of Educating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite
“Howard was always eager to meet his students, and to establish the kind of dialogue in which there is genuine give-and-take. He felt that he should be educated at least as much as they.”
“My students are often surprised to learn that various historical figures—like Henry David Thoreau or Frederick Douglass—actually supported multiple causes. That’s because kids generally learn about each figure in connection with just one cause.”
—Julian Hipkins III, U.S. history teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC and National History Day board member
“One of the greatest lessons students can learn is that history is actually a series of choices. They should see that there were turning points where different choices might have been made—and therefore that they can make choices for change in the world today.”
—Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change and co-director of the Zinn Education Project