Howard Zinn, historian, activist, and a member of the National Writers Union and the Boston Chapter for almost 20 years, died on January 27, 2010. But his life and writing will inspire grassroots activists for many future generations.
His 1980 The People's History of the United States documents grassroots struggles for economic and racial justice, democracy, free speech, led by the people whom textbooks ordinarily describe as either mere victims or as dangerous agitators: women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. His 1994 memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train chronicles his experience as a World War II Air Force bomber, an historian, a Civil Rights and anti-war activist.
When Zinn spoke at the Boston Chapter's 2005 book party, he focussed on the increasing challenges for writers in the face of wartime censorship, and encouraged writers to send 700-word op-ed pieces for the Progressive Media Project, which distributes them to publications around the country. As he said in his 1993 book, Failure to Quit, "When one voice speaks out against the conventional wisdom and is recognized as speaking truth, people are drawn out of their previous silence."
He was both fierce and funny - and people listened and were moved to action. NWU-Boston Chapter co-chair Barbara Beckwith recalls: "Howard would get up in front of an audience of 100 or 1000 or 100,000 with scraps of paper in his hands, mostly news items from the morning's paper -- and then he'd talk. He'd ponder aloud the deep import of such small news items, dig out the falsities and name the power dynamics. He would appear amused -- and was always amusing -- but also fierce in his belief that ordinary people are powerful and their voice must and will be heard."
Here's a quote from his memoir, You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train:
No pitifully small picket line,
no poorly attended meeting,
no tossing out of an idea
to an audience and even to an individual,
should be scorned as insignifiant.
The power of a bold idea uttered publicly
in defiance of dominant opinion
cannot be easily measured.
Those special people who speak out
in such a way as to shake up
not only the self-assurance of their enemies
but the complacency of their friends
are precious catalysts for change.