The Brooklyn native flew bomber missions during World War II, during which he bombed targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and Hungary. Partly because of his experiences, he became vehemently anti-war and passionately interested in history. He later attended New York University courtesy of the GI Bill, and then went on to get a master’s and a PhD in history from Columbia University.
Upon graduating, he began teaching at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. There — where he said he learned more from his students than they from him — he became active in the civil rights movement. When he supported student protesters (like Alice Walker, who went on to write The Color Purple, and Marian Wright Edelman, who would later found the Children’s Defense Fund), he was fired and moved on to Boston University, where he taught political science until he retired in 1988.
In his book Failure to Quit, Zinn wrote: “Civil disobedience … is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Taking a Different Perspective
While Zinn — who died in 2010 at the age of 87 — wrote more than 20 books, lectured at countless universities, and was influential in the civil rights movement and anti-war efforts, he is perhaps best known for his textbook A People’s History of the United States. Instead of espousing the traditional view from the people in power throughout history, this book tackles a range of perspectives, from the Native Americans who struggled as men from other continents came and took over their land to unionists standing up against their employers to women and African-Americans fighting for equal rights. The textbook was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981 and is still widely used in high schools and colleges to provide an alternative point of view compared with so many other history textbooks.
Novelist Howard Fast called A People’s History of the United States “one of the most important books I have ever read in a long life of reading. … It’s a wonderful, splendid book — a book that should be read by every American, student or otherwise, who wants to understand his country, its true history, and its hope for the future.”
For more on Zinn, visit www.howardzinn.org.