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On January 27, 2010 we lost a great champion for the voiceless and marginalized people around the globe. Noted professor, activist, and playwright Howard Zinn died of a heart attack while preparing for a talk in California. His passing touched many across the globe, spurring an international outpouring of grief.
Howard exposed us to a different take on history. His landmark book A People’s History of the United States showed millions the stories left out of our history textbooks—those of the enslaved, labor organizers, miners, anti-war veterans, and others. Until his book, the voices of these seemingly anonymous people had largely been silenced.
While he noted many of the crimes committed by our country, Zinn also highlighted the countless acts of bravery and courage committed by people to fight those injustices. He gave us both the hard truth and the real hope in US history, and left behind many lessons for those of us interested in fighting for justice.
The first lesson Zinn imparted to us was his example of empathy. When Howard spoke about the Iraq sanctions, he spoke with the perspective of a suffering Iraq civilian. Howard’s comments on the Republic Windows and Doors strike embodied the spirit of union workers occupying the Chicago plant for pay and benefits due to them. His response to the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan could have come from a civilian whose family was killed from one of the many errant bombs, whose voice was neglected by most US media sources. Howard spoke so passionately for these people because he made a point to understand and embrace their suffering. He took injustice personally because he believed that all people deserved a fair shake at life.
The second lesson was to always take time to connect with people, especially at the grassroots. Zinn’s work drew admiration from famous actors and musicians, playwrights and essayists, scholars and grassroots organizers. His books have sold millions of copies, and he was interviewed and quoted in media around the world. But despite his many great achievements, he was incredibly humble.
I first met Howard after a rousing talk he gave at Boston University. When a few of us asked him to hang out with us afterwards, he gladly obliged. Because he wanted to really converse with us, he wanted to speak at the quietest place we could find. So, we sat and talked with him for an hour…in a McDonalds. You couldn’t have scripted it better.
A few years later, I ran into Howard at a talk in Washington, DC. A line of hundreds of people holding their copies of his books to be signed had already formed. Howard stood up to begin signing them, but happened to see me 20 feet away. Although it had been a few years since we had seen each other, Howard recognized me. He walked over, and we talked for a good while before he decided he needed to sign those books. These small acts of kindness and friendship to thousands of people over the years are a central aspect of the legacy he leaves behind.
Despite being a brilliant public intellectual, he spent as much time as possible getting to know people from all walks of life. Those actions inspired thousands of people like myself to do the same. Following in his example, we have constantly organized, researched, written, and talked from a bottom-up perspective, trying to connect with and empower as many people as possible.
Howard’s third lesson for us involves the need to analyze and rethink our views of change, being open to different kinds of victories and different ways to measure success. Change can happen with hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets, but it could also happen with one person putting together an informational workshop in a poor community about the economic crisis. Change can arise from talking to our neighbors and speaking out at school board meetings about the jingoistic textbooks our children read in class. It might come from citizens banding together to create an online newspaper that reports on the abuses of power committed by their government leaders, or supporting their leaders for tackling serious issues with honesty and integrity.
Howard taught us that we can all play a part, some way, if we stay human and connect with others. We may not all be able to do it all, but we can do what we can, and that is usually more than we think.
In Zinn’s own words: “Everything we do is important. Every little thing we do, every picket line we walk on, every letter we write, every act of civil disobedience we engage in, any recruiter that we talk to, any parent that we talk to, any GI that we talk to, any young person that we talk to, anything we do in class, outside of class, everything we do in the direction of a different world is important, even though at the moment they seem futile, because that’s how change comes about. Change comes about when millions of people do little things, which at certain points in history come together, and then something good and something important happens.”
To truly honor Howard is to remember the causes he fought for and the vision of the world he believed in. It is to work with others, to make common cause, to teach and empower, and to never give up. Howard would not want to be put on a pedestal, but instead be remembered as simply one of many who gave us hope and reminded us of our capabilities as people. He would want us to remember de las Casas, Mother Jones, the farmers of Shay’s rebellion, the students and veterans who organized against the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, among many others. He would want us to use the lessons he used, try to be as human as possible, and go out and act in some way.
Thank you, Howard, for opening our eyes and reminding us just how powerful seemingly anonymous people can be. Hopefully we can all make a little bit of history ourselves.
Fouad Pervez is a writer and policy analyst. He first met Howard Zinn in college. The friendship changed his life. Today, he works on foreign policy and health care policy, contributes to Foreign Policy in Focus, the blog There is No Spoon, and is pursuing his PhD in International Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]