Howard ‘Howie’ Zinn

by Doug Dowd, March 3, 2010

Bologna, Italy -- As most who read this will know, Howard Zinn died on January 27. Like all who knew and worked with him, I called him Howie. As I do so now, I cannot help but smile as, at the same time, tears begin to fall.

I had the good fortune to work politically with him in ways that soon became a precious friendship. We first met in the late 1950s, when Howie began his teaching career at Spellman College in Atlanta, Geor­gia (a college for black students) and I was teaching at the other end of the socio-economic road in the Ivy League. From the first I was struck by his vigor, his marvelous sense of humor and unforgettably broad smile and, not least, his commitment to taking the stink out of the USA.

Howie lived by no “isms.” He fought for decency, a good life for all, and against war, and did so in ways which inspired countless others to go and do likewise. He was always there when needed and led countless others to find the best in themselves and live by it. His masterpiece – A People’s History of the United States – has gone through many printings, many updates. It is still available in shops over on the web, and is unques­tionably the most informative and politically valuable analysis of US history, because it is history as seen from the bottom up. What he also sees from the other end of the telescope – from the top down – is unique and damning. The book has deservedly sold millions of copies. Honor him and enrich you life by reading it.

Howie was born in Brooklyn, of a poor immigrant Jewish family which (like my mother’s) had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Decency was part of his young life, but his political awakening was stimulated in World War II. Howie was a bombardier in Europe. On a mission in northwestern France, it was his duty to drop napalm (its first such use) on a small French vil­lage, just before the war’s end. It was a small scale equivalent of the two droppings of atomic bombs in Japan near war’s end, with one difference: his napalm was dropped from a low height, so he could see its vic­tims burning. (I had something of the same experience, in a low-level fire bombing on a town in Formosa [now Taiwan] in a war already won.

As vets, both of us were able to have a full enough university education to become profs ourselves – radi­cal profs. Our lives began to entwine as blacks orga­nized to fight for their rights. Howie was a vital par­ticipant in the creation and functioning of perhaps the most effective anti-racist organization: SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). We came to know each other because in the same years I was with the 50 or more students from Cornell who (in 1964-‘65-‘66) went to assist the black people of Fayette County (bordering Mississippi). Two of our group joined SNCC in the summer of 1964 and were murdered, with the nonchalant local sheriff looking on benignly.

Howie and I had many occasions to be together, but one put us together for an entire week in 1968. Along with three others, we were asked by he North Vietnamese to come to Paris (as their guests) and meet with them every day and evening as the USA, France, and the North Vietnamese were to be in conference. The other three of us were a journalist (whose name I have forgotten), Prof. George Kahin of Cornell, author of the first major critique: The United States in Viet­nam [1967] and Prof. Marilyn B. Young, author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945—1990 (still the best analysis of that major crime). Every morning at 8 a.m. we were picked up at our paid-for hotel in Paris and taken out to the country for a discussion of what was to be on the table for that day; to be discussed again that evening. We got back to town about midnight. There we left Kahin at the hotel (his doctor had forbidden him to go to Paris, because of a heart problem). When we got back in town after, Marilyn, myself, Howie, and the journalist would set off for a long walk to unwind from always very tense meetings. We would walk, have a wine, walk some as much as 2-to-3 hours; thence to bed. While walking, Marilyn and I would be hand in hand, trying to relax, listening and laughing as, mean­while, Howie and the journalist would argue with each other. Doesn’t sound very exciting; but Marilyn and I have never forgotten that evening.

From our departure from NYC to our arrival back again, that week was memorable. Also memorable and disgustingly so was this. It had been arranged that upon our return to NYC we would have a meeting with rep­resentatives of various newspapers and magazines. This was 1968. The press had evidently been given the wink not to show up. None did. Democracy hard at work.

Since then, Howie’s and my paths have crossed often, whether in the USA or in Italy, where I have also taught over the years and Howie has been a visit­ing prof. A moment, an hour, a day or week with Howie Zinn was always a mix of deep pleasure, learn­ing, and enriched spirit. All who have been lucky enough to know Howie also admired him, learned from him, loved him. He will be missed, not only by those who knew him a little or a lot, but those whose lives he has improved or saved, whether they know it or not.

Howie Zinn was a uniquely wonderful human being: wise, decent, funny, warm, beautiful. If there is a Heaven, he is improving it. And if he could speak to us from there, he would say to us, once more: Don’t mourn: Organize!

Doug (doug@dougdowd.org)

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