Zinn was a political and social activist who used his writing and speaking skills to become one of the greatest teachers this country has ever had. Whether you agreed with everything he wrote and said, his skills as a teacher are undeniable.
His books and lectures in the 1960s taught many how to read the history of this country from a very different perspective than the misinformation that too many previous historians and teachers had passed on to most students. There were what some would call "radical" or "leftist" historians before Zinn, many who influenced him from my perspective and I'm sure his. But the main instrument of Zinn's influence came in his book—A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.
I remember reading that book in the 1960s and having a copy for years that disappeared somewhere. But according to all the obituaries I've seen, the publication date for it is given as 1980 so I wonder what it was I remember, or if this is just another of those cases where the internet picks up information that is wrong or just off (like maybe the definitive or revised or publication by a major publisher occurred in 1980).
You can read for yourself the obituaries on line or elsewhere (here's one), I just want to say that I had the great good fortune of knowing him slightly, as a result of our doing a reading together a few years ago at Cooper Union in New York, on the same stage and using the same lectern that Lincoln used when he gave his anti-slavery speech there. Which was ironic in some ways since Howard liked to quote Lincoln's early campaign statement appeasing the South by claiming that he believed "the white race" superior to the "black" one.
But of course Lincoln came a long way in the few short years between that statement and his Emancipation Declaration, because he no longer had to appease the South since it had seceded and he was now at war with it. Howard used that reality to point out that compromising on basic principles of life and liberty only impeded the true course of history.
And in his later lectures, including the one in his book JUST WAR, he made the case that wars could be eliminated the same way slavery was. That we didn't have to appease those who weren't ready to accept that but instead had to push actively for the end of even the idea of a "just" war.
It's what he spoke about at Cooper Union that night we were both on stage. After I had read the long poem I finished on the eve of our invasion of Iraq and named for that date: MARCH 18, 2003. That book had been recently published in a new edition (hardcover and with several illustrations by Alex Katz added) by the Italian art-book press Charta (in partnership with the original published Libellum), and Charta had previously published Zinn's JUST WAR, a transcription of a talk he gave in Rome in 2005.
The proceeds for JUST WAR were donated by Zinn to the organization EMERGENCY, which helps the victims of wars and which was sponsoring our appearance that night. It was a thrill for me, not just to be reading with Howard but to a large audience drawn by his name and reputation, giving me the opportunity to make the case I try to make in MARCH 18, 2003.
But the reality was that I didn't entirely agree with Zinn. I had come a long way from the pure idealism of my youth to the place I'm still in now which is that I absolutely believe in the ideal of eliminating war and the need for war, and I believe it is necessary that we all actively try to bring that about, but until that happens I think there can be distinctions made between the lesser and greater of two evils (ala Hitler and the Axis vs. the U.S. and the Allies).
I disagreed with Zinn publicly that evening in the Q&A session after I had read and he had spoken. And he accepted that difference in our perspectives as understandable and afterwards was complimentary and wanted to get together and talk more. He came across as passionate and informed and warm and generous with his time and attention and ideas and beliefs.
I admired him enormously and feel privileged and honored that I got to have some personal contact with him. And I salute his accomplishments and attempts to influence and change the course of history. Which his writing and speaking and teaching and activism certainly did.
Even though he was in his eighties when I met him, his vitality and intellectual acuity was still greater than not just mine but probably everyone in that lecture hall that night. May his family and friends and many fans, myself among them, be grateful for having known him and been exposed to his reasoning and arguments for making the world a better place, and showing all of us how to base our arguments for our beliefs on well researched and documented facts, as Howard did, rather than on misinformation or deliberate distortions of reality, as is so often the case in the arguments going on among too many of us these days.