Last week, we lost one of the great original voices in the nation, 87-year-old historian and peace activist Howard Zinn. His was a unique voice -- of truth, clarity, wisdom, sanity, humanity. He was the first of his kind, and his history lessons influenced millions.
A combat veteran of World War II, Howard Zinn taught political science at Spellman College and Boston University and authored dozens of books. A long-time activist, he addressed peace rallies, wrote countless essays against militarism, and repeatedly committed civil disobedience against war and landed in jail.
But it was his breakthrough, two-million-copy-selling masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, that opened the door for many to embrace a new vision of peace. In this classic work, he told not an “alternative” history of our nation, but the real history -- the story of the movements that resisted slavery, oppression, sexism, racism, greed, the story of ordinary people who changed the country. It is a history that few knew about it, much less taught.
We’ve all been told that history is the story of the rich, the powerful, the warmakers. Howard Zinn taught us that true history is the story of the nonviolent, the peacemaking, the resisters who struggled for justice and peace, from Jesus to Dr. King. With this truth, we know that each one of us can make history, as Howard himself did.
“People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government,” Howard wrote in his book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. “Our history runs deep with the stories of people who stand up, speak out, dig in, organize, connect, form networks of resistance and alter the course of history.
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I knew Howard for more than 20 years through our friend Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan. Howard wrote a chapter for my 1996 book of essays in honor of Dan, Apostle of Peace. There, Howard told in detail the story of their famous January 1968 journey to Hanoi, where they suffered under U.S. bombs and received three U.S. airmen who had been held as prisoners of war. Later in Boston, in 1970, Howard hosted Dan while Dan evaded FBI agents hot on his trail. Like Dan, Howard took bold risks for justice and peace. He practiced the lessons of history he taught.
“Of course Dan violated the law, but he was right,” Howard wrote about Dan’s “Catonsville Nine” action.
Over the years, I met him on various occasions -- at events and gatherings -- and I invariably found him friendly, warm, and kind. He always encouraged my efforts to make peace. Last month, I sent him my new book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, which I knew he would enjoy.
That warm smile, shock of tousled hair, the truth that he spoke so casually -- Howard was an original. He belonged in that rare pantheon of original voices who despite long odds somehow keep the disparate parts of the movement moving -- Amy Goodman, transforming the media through “Democracy Now;” Michael Moore, transforming film through documentary; Paul Farmer, transforming medicine through his preferential option for the poor; Helen Prejean and Kathy Kelly, transforming charity work into powerful advocacy for justice and disarmament; Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon transforming celebrity into activism; Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, transforming music into political action; Thomas Gumbleton, Joan Chittister, and Daniel Berrigan transforming church routine into steadfast peacework; and so many others.
Howard laid the groundwork. He showed us that the purpose of academic work and research, in his case, history and political science, is to help the global grassroots movements of social change for justice and peace. He taught us the past, precisely that we might all work to create a new future.
“The challenge remains,” he wrote.
“Look for a peace movement to join,” he told students last November in a talk. “It will look small, pitiful and helpless at first, but that’s how all movements start.”
Over lunch in Santa Fe a few years ago, Howard told a group of us that after a lifetime of studying the history of U.S. social movements, he had come to a conclusion. He said every major movement for social change in our history was hopeless. Here, I thought, was a discouraging word.
Hopeless from the beginning, hopeless through the middle, hopeless up to the very end -- people laboring toward a hopless goal. But then, like a bolt out of a blue sky, a breakthrough. The key, he said, was that ordinary people kept at it despite all evidence. Ordinary people doing their small acts for justice every day -- here was the key. Over time peaceful acts add up to something big. What the powerful fear most, he said, are the grass-roots movements that won’t go away.
So our job is not to give up, give in, or go away. Take action, speak clearly as you can, and trust the lesson of history -- a kind of holy principle in the nature of things. Truthful, nonviolent movements are destined to win.
“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power than can transform the world.”
Over these last painful years, Howard became a true prophet to the nation. He preached that we mustn’t depend on governments to abolish war -- national and economic interests are too entangled in militarism. He preached a radical inclusiveness, where we regard the world’s children as our own. He preached the end of war isn’t just desirable; it’s necessary for the survival of the world. With that, Howard joined a long legacy of prophetic visionaries who reclaimed the imagination for a disarmed world.
How abolish war? he asked.
In his 2005 commencement speech to Spellman College, where he began his academic career in 1956, he encouraged the graduates to look beyond government chicanery and media deception. He told them to trust the resiliency of truth -- and trusting truth, work toward building a world we can be proud of. “My hope,” he said, “is that your generation will demand that your children be brought up in a world without war.”
Howard did his part by giving us hope and vision. He’s gone from us now. Now it’s our turn. Let’s do what we can for a future of peace. And like Howard, let’s never give up.
To contribute to Catholic Relief Services’ “Fr. John Dear Haiti Fund,” go to: http://donate.crs.org/goto/fatherjohn. John’s latest book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings (Orbis), along with other recent books, A Persistent Peace and Put Down Your Sword, as well as Patricia Normile’s John Dear On Peace, are available from www.amazon.com. For further information, or to schedule a lecture, go to www.johndear.org