Howard Zinn was supposed to have spoken in Olympia, Washington on February 6th. So we chose that day to do a celebration of life memorial for him. About 150 people attended. We showed a video of a talk he was going to give called "The Three Holy Wars" where Howard Zinn examined the U.S. Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II. In each of these wars, Howard supported the cause but questioned the wars. Many people also spoke about the inspiration and importance that Howard Zinn was for them including two anti-war Iraq veterans. We decided our best gift to Howard is to carry on Howard’s work.
My comments at our memorial follow!
My Reflection on Howard Zinn
by Peter Bohmer, February 6, 2010
Welcome!! Howard Zinn came to Olympia in 1993 and spoke to 1500 people over three days to audiences, big and small, at the United Churches, to union activists, and to an overflowing crowd in this very room. He spoke clearly about the lessons he drew from his study of history. For example, he said we might think the U.S. war against Vietnam was just a mistake or the First Gulf war was a mistake unless we saw the continual pattern of U.S. intervention and the countless wars waged by the U.S. throughout the Americas and other parts of the world—and in westward expansion across this continent over the last 200 plus years, and the lies used to justify these continual wars planned by our leaders to benefit the elites. We have learned so much from Howard Zinn.
My favorite story about his visit here in 1993 was when Howard spoke at Capital H.S. to a group of 100 high school students. After he finished discussing how the U.S. economic system was organized to meet the needs of the wealthy and the corporations and was stacked against workers, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and immigrants a few students who were immigrants themselves challenged him. They said, Mr. Zinn, aren’t you destroying the American dream? He said in a totally respectful way if I told you the lottery was fixed would I be destroying your dream? Howard then said, we must replace this false American dream of upward mobility thorough hard work with one of a dream for building and working for a humane and equal society based on cooperation and concern for each other.
Howard Zinn contributed in so many important ways to creating an understanding of U.S. history that put at the center the struggles of oppressed people for dignity, and for economic and social justice. His classic, A People’s History of the United States, has had a profound effect in this regard. His brilliant first chapter changed millions of people’s understanding of the colonization of what is today, the United States, and the colonialists’ mass murder of indigenous people. Zinn wrote: “To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done. … Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization”. It is my favorite book. I have given away 25 copies, usually to people who know from their experience something is terribly wrong with our society and want to learn more.
Howard was a very wise, courageous and humane person who relentlessly criticized our unjust capitalist system while believing in and giving us historical examples of individuals and movements who in ways big and small worked and struggled against all injustice and for an equal and participatory democratic society. For example, he wrote about the courage and significance of the four students from North Carolina A and T University who demanded to be served at a segregated Woolworth counter, 50 years ago this week and how this action inspired so many others to sit-in. What is so valuable in A People’s History of the United States is that it demonstrates both the systems of oppression that have been a continual part of U.S. history but what is equally important, the continuing resistance by oppressed people to their situation.
In language and analysis that was simple but not simplistic, radical but accessible, Howard Zinn’s anti-racism and anti-imperialism and his strong identification with working people stood out. So did his strong anti-war commitment and perspective. He listened to and respected the non-elites, those usually omitted in the mainstream histories. This was true in his writing, his talks and his personal life.
While motivated in his writings by his values of the dignity of all people and their right to self-determination, and by his belief in the centrality of ending poverty and all forms of oppression such as sexism and racism, and for peace and justice, Howard told the truth and did not exaggerate and omit facts that were uncomfortable to his perspective. He also acted on them by participating in countless demonstrations and other forms of activism from the 1930’s until the present. I first met Howard when he was a major organizer of a sanctuary in 1968 at the Boston University Chapel for a brave GI resister, Ray Kroll, who refused to fight in Vietnam.
Based on Howard’s profound historical understanding of U.S. history and his respect for people and his understanding of the obscene inequality and militarism that marks the United States today, Howard Zinn continued to have hope and believed that we, the people, of the United States, could and would transform this society from capitalism into some form of democratic socialism that lived in harmony with the rest of the world. Our best memorial to Howard is to carry on the struggle for a world without hunger and poverty; where all human beings are valued equally and respected, where there is justice and peace– for us to work in ways small and big for this world. Howard never stopped doing this until he died. Let us continue on this path.
Howard Zinn aptly named his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”. We can all learn from this truly outstanding thinker, historian and inspirational human being. Howard Zinn presente!