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Guide to the Howard Zinn Papers TAM 542

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Jan Hilley, with the assistance of Maggie Schreiner and Walker Gunning

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 18, 2018
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was an award-winning historian, activist, playwright, teacher, public speaker and author of articles, essays and books including the best-selling A People's History of the United States. Praised for his moral courage and passion for social justice, Zinn influenced thousands of students during a teaching career of more than thirty years. Reaching the wider public through his books, plays, articles, lectures and in theatrical and television presentations of his  Voices of A People's History and  The People Speak, Zinn celebrated the lives of ordinary individuals engaged in the struggle for peace and justice, highlighting their often overlooked victories, and encouraging his audiences to engage as well.

Born on August 24, 1922, Howard Zinn was one of four sons of working-class Jewish immigrants Edward and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn. Growing up in Brooklyn, he held after school and summer jobs from the age of fourteen, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, and worked as an apprentice ship fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In early 1943, he joined the Army Air Corps, attaining the rank of Second Lieutenant. He trained as a bombardier and flew both combat and humanitarian missions in Europe. In 1944 he married Roslyn Shechter and, after the war, they lived in public housing and began raising a family while he attended New York University on the GI Bill and worked at a variety of menial jobs. Earning an undergraduate degree from NYU in 1951, Zinn continued his education at Columbia University, completing his MA in 1952 and PhD in 1958. In 1960-1961, he was a post-doctoral fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

After part-time lecturing in history and political science (1953-1956) at Upsala College in New Jersey, Zinn accepted a position at Spelman College in Atlanta as Chairman of the Department of History and Social Sciences (1956). During his seven years at Spelman, an all-black women's college, he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement – mentoring student activists, participating in sit-ins and other actions, advising the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and producing articles for publications such as The Nation and  Harper's. His activism made him unpopular with the school's administration and, in 1963, he was dismissed. Forty-one years later, in 2005, Zinn was invited to give Spelman's commencement address and the school awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

In 1964 Zinn published two books focusing on the civil rights movement – SNCC: The New Abolitionists and  The Southern Mystique—and also accepted a teaching position at Boston University.

His 24 years at BU were marked by overbooked classes and clashes with the administration, as well as teach-ins, strikes, debates, rallies and the writing of many articles, essays and books including two of particular note – Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967), one of the first to strongly condemn US actions in Vietnam, and  A People's History of the Unites States (1980), his most popular work. Noam Chomsky describes this as "his enduring masterpiece", a book that communicates Zinn's "fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice…"

Howard Zinn retired from Boston University in 1988. His relatively early retirement allowed him to concentrate on speaking and writing and to continue participating in demonstrations, protests, strikes and acts of civil disobedience which, on some occasions, resulted in his arrest. He spoke out against capital punishment and for improved prison conditions, expressed strong concerns about the environment and nuclear issues, consistently criticized US foreign policy in Central America and elsewhere, and was strongly opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In 2002, Harper Collins celebrated the sale of one million copies of A People's History of the United States with a New York City performance of readings based on the book. This was followed in 2004 by publication of  Voices of a People's History of the United States in which Zinn and Anthony Arnove collected speeches, articles, essays, poetry and song lyrics by the individuals described in  A People's History. Public performances of selections from  Voices culminated in the production of a feature film,  The People Speak, in 2009. The film features Zinn, along with well-known entertainers such as Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Viggo Mortensen, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin and Danny Glover. These performances, as well as references to Zinn in popular culture, including a mention in the 1997 film  Good Will Hunting, significantly increased the number of his readers and viewers. In 2008, the nonprofit Zinn Education Project was established to provide teaching materials based on Zinn's work to educators at the secondary school level insuring that his views on history, politics and social justice would continue to be introduced to young audiences.

Howard Zinn died on January 27, 2010. He and his wife Roslyn, who died in 2008, had two children, Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jeff Zinn, and five grandchildren. Zinn's life and work are described in his 1995 autobiography You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train which was released in 2004 as a documentary film of the same name.