Author and Activist Howard Zinn, 87, Dies

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist, died yesterday at age 87.

The Associated Press reports that Zinn died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California, while traveling with family. Home for Zinn was Auburndale, Massachusetts.

His book, A People's History of the United States, published in 1980, was a best seller used as a teaching tool at schools nationwide, and had a mainstream following from celebrities, too, including Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck.

In a 1998 interview with The AP, Zinn acknowledged he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one, when he wrote the book.

"There's no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete," he said. "My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times."

Born in New York in 1922, Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants. He grew up 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, according to The AP.

During World War II, he served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. At age 27, Zinn began to work nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his undergraduate studies at New York University, according to The Boston Globe. Then he attended Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history.

In 1956, he became chairman of the history and social sciences department at Atlanta's all-black women's Spelman College. Many of his students there, including poet and author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker, and future head of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, were Zinn fans.

At Spelman, he was on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, according to The Globe. That activism, along with his criticisms of Spelman for its lack of participation in the civil rights movement, led to his being fired from Spelman in 1963. Zinn subsequently moved to Massachusetts where he taught political science at Boston University (BU). At BU, he attended rallies against the Vietnam War.

One of Zinn's last public writings was a brief essay published last week in The Nation, about President Barack Obama's first year in office.

"I've been searching hard for a highlight," he wrote. "I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction."

Zinn's longtime wife and collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. The Zinns are survived by two children, Myla and Jeff.

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