RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Chomsky writes: "Howard's remarkable life and work are summarised best in his own words. His primary concern, he explained, was 'the countless small actions of unknown people' that lie at the roots of 'those great moments' that enter the historical record - a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma."

Noam Chomsky was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)
Noam Chomsky was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)

Remembering Howard Zinn

By Noam Chomsky, Al Jazeera

27 January 12


Editor's note: Today, January 27, is the second anniversary of the death of Howard Zinn. An active participant in the Civil Rights movement, he was dismissed in 1963 from his position as a tenured professor at Spelman College in Atlanta after siding with black women students in the struggle against segregation. In 1967, he wrote one of the first, and most influential, books calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. A veteran of the US Army Air Force, he edited The Pentagon Papers, leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and was later designated a "high security risk" by the FBI.

His best-selling A People's History of the United States spawned a new field of historical study: People's Histories. This approach countered the traditional triumphalist examination of "history as written by the victors", instead concentrating on the poor and seemingly powerless; those who resisted imperial, cultural and corporate hegemony. Zinn was an award-winning social activist, writer and historian - and so who better to share his memory than his close friend and fellow intellectual giant, Noam Chomsky? 

t is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian. He was a very close friend for 45 years. The families were very close too. His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvellous person and close friend. Also sombre is the realisation that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars, but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed - which was constant. A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival.

Howard's remarkable life and work are summarised best in his own words. His primary concern, he explained, was "the countless small actions of unknown people" that lie at the roots of "those great moments" that enter the historical record - a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

While teaching at Spelman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years - Alice Walker, Julian Bond and others - and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well. And as always, he did not just support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts - no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organised popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years. Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organising demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death.

By the early 1960s, a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role - and the government had to respond. As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught. A few years later, he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), the major organisation of those "unknown people" whose "countless small actions" played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence - as I am sure he would have been the first to say - and to bring the country to honour the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves - at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there remains a long way to go.

A Civilising Influence

On a personal note, I came to know Howard well when we went together to a civil rights demonstration in Jackson Mississippi in (I think) 1964, even at that late date, a scene of violent public antagonism, police brutality and indifference - or even co-operation - with state security forces on the part of federal authorities, sometimes in ways that were quite shocking.

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration. In later years, however, after his retirement, he gained the public honour and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general community. While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame. His book Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed.

Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast crimes in this case. The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day, its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead.

Significantly, among the general public by the war's end, 70 per cent regarded the war as "fundamentally wrong and immoral", not "a mistake," a remarkable figure, considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion. Howard's writings - and, as always, his prominent presence in protest and direct resistance - were a major factor in civilising much of the country.

In those same years, Howard also became one of the most prominent supporters of the resistance movement that was then developing. He was one of the early signers of the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and was so close to the activities of Resist that he was practically one of the organisers. He also took part at once in the sanctuary actions that had a remarkable impact in galvanising anti-war protest. Whatever was needed - talks, participation in civil disobedience, support for resisters, testimony at trials - Howard was always there.

'History From Below'

Even more influential in the long run than Howard's anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People's History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation. Here he developed with care, lucidity and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it. Later, his "Voices" from the People's History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard's unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of US history, and turning to the record in other countries as well, a very welcome development. It is not entirely novel - there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before - but nothing to compare with Howard's broad and incisive evocation of "history from below", compensating for critical omissions in how US history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard's dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss - though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country. Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight; a light touch of humour in the face of adversity, and dedication to non-violence and sheer decency. It is hard even to imagine how many young people's lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

There are places where Howard's life and work should have particular resonance. One, which should be much better known, is Turkey. I know of no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of the state, and going beyond to engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then returning to the task.

It is an honourable record, unique to my knowledge, a record of which the country should be proud. And one that should be a model for others, just as Howard Zinn's life and work are an unforgettable model, sure to leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and how a decent and honourable life should be lived.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous bestselling political works, including 9-11: Was There an Alternative? (Seven Stories Press), an updated version of his classic account, just being published this week with a major new essay - from which this post was adapted - considering the ten years since the 9/11 attacks. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+56 # tomo 2012-01-27 14:12
This is a really marvelous comment. Currently I teach a text in American studies titled Dissent in America. It's edited by Ralph Young, and is a rich continuation of the Howard Zinn approach. Howard wrote a glowing comment to promote the text. To accompany our work with this text, I've been playing the video Zinn, Matt Damon, and other people of remarkable talent put together titled The People Speak.

I feel the ghost of Zinn hovers over the enterprises of me and my students--a veritable Holy Ghost. And I was delighted by the tribute here--so appropriate--to this wonderful man which Chomsky has written.
+38 # bluepilgrim 2012-01-27 14:12
Note that Zinn's books are among those banned from Tuscon's classrooms.
+4 # mhog jones 2012-01-29 18:26
"a government that is ruthless about what it does to other people is often ruthless in what it does to our own people..."
ZINN 2002 (gone but never forgotten!)
+37 # politicaleconomist 2012-01-27 14:49
I was a student at MIT in the late 60s and a witness to the radical change in the limits of acceptable discourse. When I arrived at MIT i was told by upperclassmen of the last time that MIT had increased tuition (it was not given that tuition would go up annually), the president of the college had dispersed a crowd simply by saying that names would be taken with the implicit understanding that chances for employment were reduced.
I remember on two occasions going to hear Chomsky lecture where the cultural change that had occurred by the late 1960s was hilariously apparent. The smashing of the limits of acceptable discourse that Chomsky and other true intellectuals had achieved at least at the university level was very much apparent.
In the first instance Chomsky was discussing the Israeli-Palesti nian situation when someone in the question-from-t he audience phase challenged the audience "Are we going to let this Jew-Commie tell us to follow the Commie line in the Middle East?" After five seconds of silence spontaneous laughter filled the room for several minutes.
-31 # 2012-01-27 15:46
Politicaleconom ist: What is your point?
+21 # ER444 2012-01-27 16:52
His point is obvious. If you don't get it immediately explaining won't help.
+11 # historywriter 2012-01-27 16:59
Maybe you should read it again.
+1 # politicaleconomist 2012-01-27 19:27
Duplicate see below.
+16 # politicaleconomist 2012-01-27 19:55
Sorry if there was some confusion but unfortunately my total comment exceeded RSN's word count.

Here's the rest of the story.

The second was a "debate" over the morality of the Viet Nam War, where Chomsky and Zinn carried the day for morality. In that case the same blind allegiance to what the opposing debater assumed was the only acceptable discourse led him to say something like: "Are we going to let these men attack the morality of our great nation?" There was no brief silence before the laughter that time.
+2 # barbaratodish 2012-01-30 23:41
I believe that back then (late 1960's) we all still had our senses of humor. What we need to do is find our lost senses of humor. Even Chomsky could take himself less seriously!
+20 # Mickeyfilm 2012-01-27 15:03
Thank you Prof. Chomsky for this insight. My work and the goals of my life have been so seriously influenced by both of you. I've spent many long hours interiviewing average people in both North and South Korea attempting to develop a story of what really happened, "trying to learn those critical omissions."
+20 # sandyboy 2012-01-27 15:16
Many years ago a kid who I knew who worked in a comics store and who'd grown up in a famous UK commune told me Noam Chomsky was his favourite writer, and in my profound ignorance of social matters I hadn't a clue who he was talking about at the time. Looks like he made a good choice. What a great article.
+21 # D.J. Scholtz 2012-01-27 16:14
What a pleasure to read the words of one of my heroes, Mr. Chomsky, praising another of my heroes, Mr. Zinn. I routinely used the People's History in my courses and, last year as I was debating membership in a peace and justice group (Jewish Voice for Peace), when I saw both Zinn's and Chomsky's names on the Board of Advisers, it was an easy decision. May their words and actions live forever. . .
+23 # DurangoKid 2012-01-27 17:13
People like Howard Zinn are always in danger of being silenced. Chomsky's opinion that we are in a Weimar-like situation where the center does not hold rings true when Zinn's works are censored. If Zinn's works are being censored in Tucson, then we might conclude that at least in some parts of the country, the center has fallen. As usual, it's up to the 99% to keep history alive. The 1% seem bent on keeping us from the value of our labor, our health, and our past. In a few years, there will be a reckoning.
+11 # Glen 2012-01-27 17:40
Howard Zinn is rather much my hero. I held a private memorial to him when he died, and plan to make sure my family understands his contributions, in the same way I will make sure they understand the downfall of this country, most especially under George W.

I'm glad Howard Zinn will not see the violence against citizens that is being carried out and will be much worse than when he was an activist.
+27 # noitall 2012-01-27 19:00
Noam Chomsky, an American hero of near if not equal stature to Zinn, speaks the truth. "Logic of Withdrawal" should be bedtime reading for Obama and all the so-called leaders of this country AND read by us all. To ignore history is to doom oneself to repeat it and as Reagan did, take Civics classes out of the classrooms, and today, to cut funds from education (and the already sorry content of history classes)is catastrophic to our future. Fantasy versions of history, designed to glorify guys like Reagan and policies such as those that lied us into Nam, Iraq, and will soon into Iran, will have grave consequences and we will pay dearly for each and every one. The last time I spoke with Zinn was only 3 or 4 months before his passing and it speaks to the MAN that me, NOBODY, was received by him gratiously and understandingly even as he was getting out of his car and unlocking the house door. I only mention this because these men of the people are ALL like that; they need no thrones, red carpets, or microphones with large audiences. They do not tire when their words go seemingly unheard. The wisdom and analysis written by the Howard Zinns, Noam Chomsky's, and many others speak the true history of our country and we all owe it to our cause to make sure that they are read. Zinn's "People's History of the United States" should be THE history book in our schools. Without TRUE knowledge of our history, we think that what we see today is normal when, in fact, it is criminal and SICK!
+29 # amye 2012-01-27 20:05
Zinn and Chomsky are two of the greatest intellectuals of our time! They belong in our history books next to Martin Luther King and so many other great people who are struggling now and have struggled in the past for a more peaceful world where equality, honesty and goodness exists for all people!!
+7 # jbrecher 2012-01-28 03:02
Like most here, Zinn and Chomsky have had a tremendous influence on the way I see the world. They have helped me understand my country as it is - stripped of its doctrinal cover - not a comforting view. The strength and truth of their analysis has moved me to activism and provided direction in my life. My occupation now allows me to travel around the world and interact with people on every continent. I know that every personal interaction I have is partly influenced by the moral and intellectual voices of these two great men. I can't thank them enough for their unfortunately rare intellectual courage of "telling truth to power."
+10 # leslie griffith 2012-01-28 05:54
A people's history of the United States should be in the homes of every family in this country. On this second anniversary of Zinn's dead, if you have not read it, do so. Then pass it down to your children. Zinn and Chomsky are heroes of this country. To ignore them diminishes us all. Book banning may be next--and Kinn's History would be one of the first to go.
+4 # deedeehalleck 2012-01-28 07:38
Here is a short puppet show by Amy Trompeter based on Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, with mic check by the audience:
+9 # lark3650 2012-01-28 09:09
Men like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.. who have character, integrity and the ability to reason are proof that....
"Character is more valuable than wealth..wealth is material and dissolves but character is moral and has lasting effects. If is was not for character whereby man would make every known sacrifice, even to giving up life itself for the sake of principle, human beings would be no better than the beasts of the field. ...the will to do right creates the master character." - Alfred W. Lawson
+3 # Capn Canard 2012-01-28 19:43
Noam, thanks for being Noam... Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", is still, hands down, the best book on American History. Bar none.
+4 # EileenFlemingforHouse 2012-01-28 20:53
"I would never have become an historian if I thought that it would become my professional duty to go into the past and never emerge, to study long-gone events and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to events going on in my time."-Howard Zinn

I have no doubt Zinn would have been most interested in what Israel's Nuclear Whistle Blower, Mordechai Vanunu told me:

“The French were responsible for the actual building of the Dimona. The Germans gave the money...

“President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons.’

“When Johnson became president, he made an agreement with Israel that two senators would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit, the Israelis would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ’69, the senators came, but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

“Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986, there were over two hundred bombs. Today, they may have enough plutonium for ten bombs a year.”
+1 # motamanx 2012-01-29 12:45
How I wish A People's History of the United States had been written when I was still a kid in school! Thanks, Noam Chomsky for remembering Howard Zinn.
+4 # reiverpacific 2012-01-29 18:36
Sadly, most "Average Americans" have never even heard of Zinn, or Chomsky or so many others at the forefront of progressive activism, writing and speaking, thanks to the infotainment dominant owner-media who are ushering in the age of "Idiotocracy" and submissive, blanked-out drones.
0 # carioca 2012-01-30 23:39
Howard Zinn, Chalmers Johnson, Gil Scott Heron: all great Americans we lost recently, who the gods of genetics will have a hard, hard time replacing.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.