ArtRage: The Norton Putter Gallery

505 Hawley Avenue Syracuse, NY

Howard Zinn Memorial Service, February 7, 2010

Howard Zinn, admired, respected, beloved friend and teacher died Wednesday, January 27th. He was 87.

ArtRage hosted a Memorial and Celebration of the life of Howard Zinn.

Howard spent his life working for social justice as an author, teacher and political activist whose book “A People’s History of the United States” became a million-selling alternative to mainstream texts. Zinn charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

“I can’t think of anyone who had such a powerful and benign influence,” said the linguist and fellow activist Noam Chomsky, a close friend of Zinn’s. “His historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past.”

Born in New York in 1922, Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and responded strongly to the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on by some young Communists in his neighborhood, he attended a political rally in Times Square.

“Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound, and I looked around and saw the policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people. I couldn’t believe that,” he said. “And then I was hit. I turned around and I was knocked unconscious. I woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times Square quiet again, eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired. I was ferociously indignant. … It was a very shocking lesson for me. I was stripped of my illusion that we lived in a democracy where people could protest peacefully.  At that moment I moved from being a liberal to being a radical, understanding that there was something fundamentally wrong with the system that I had always thought cherished freedom and democracy.”

War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: “Never again.”

He attended New York University and Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history. In 1956, he was offered the chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, an all-black women’s school in then-segregated Atlanta.

During the civil rights movement, Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Zinn also published several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students – among them a young Alice Walker, who later wrote “The Color Purple” – but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for “insubordination.” (Zinn was a critic of the school’s non-participation in the civil rights movement.) His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by feuds with the school’s president, John Silber.

Zinn retired in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines. He will be sorely missed.