In Memoriam of the anti-war warrior
By RAYMOND MUNGO
February 3, 2010
Howard Zinn was like a daddy to Boston University students of the
Vietnam War era the students who protested and resisted the war,
that is. He arrived on campus in 1964, when I was a sophomore, and
within two years was the most publicly outspoken and visible member
of the faculty, much to the consternation of conservative
administrators. The mere mention of his name could send BU presidents
into apoplexy. But they couldn't drive him out or shut him up.
The author of A People's History of the United States, which has sold
two million copies, has been revered by generations of students,
reviled by more conventional academics, and, mostly, re-read. His
literary career started modestly with SNCC: The New Abolitionists,
about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which he was
a founding member in the years when white people were included. As a
professor at tiny Spelman College in Atlanta in the late '50s and
early '60s, he thoroughly integrated himself with black students
ultimately, his uncompromising views got him canned. Then BU took him on.
Born poor in Brooklyn in 1922, Howard had a working-class
perspective. He worked in the shipyards before joining the Army Air
Force as a bombardier. The young man who bombed innocent civilians
evolved into the pacifist professor who simply did not believe that
any war was good or just. And while other teachers were terrified to
go beyond signing petitions, the guy put his body on the line for his
Howard actually organized a petition on behalf of us student
journalists when, in 1966, the BU News student paper that I edited
called for a campus ban of ROTC. The idea of kicking ROTC out of BU
was utterly outrageous to many, but Howard succeeded in persuading 43
other teachers to join him in signing a faculty petition backing our
demand. The Record American (Boston's moronic Hearst tabloid) called
for his head, but Howard stood his ground. The anti-ROTC movement
soon spread to other campus newspapers, resulting in a ban that still
holds at elite Ivy League schools. We couldn't have been successful
without his leading the faculty to our support. Student editors can
be dismissed as youthful radicals, but middle-aged teachers willing
to get fired or jailed for their beliefs have gravitas.
Despite that, however, Howard was a sweet, funny, likable, relaxed,
easygoing kind of regular guy. He managed to become an important
person without ever developing an inflated ago. You could sit with
him in Dunkin' Donuts. I remember his gleeful, almost childlike
amazement when A People's History started taking off in sales. He was
shocked but delighted with the relatively big bucks coming in he
never thought he'd make any serious money publishing his tracts about
the history of ordinary Americans. "All my other books send me a
royalty of, like, $7.29," he said.
He quit BU at age 66 because, he said, "I was still loving teaching
and had 400 students in my class, but you know how you get tired of
doing something, even if it's really good? You've been doing
something for a long time and you really need a break. I needed to be
free." He took up writing plays, including Emma, about Emma Goldman,
which had a long run in Boston and was produced in New York.
Howard became a big man on campus forever. His name is invoked in
popular movies. He perfectly embodied the radical professor who leads
the young into idealistic thinking and hopeful values. But he was
also a family man with his reliably cheerful wife Roslyn ever by his
side, and his kids, and us kids who adopted him. We felt safe under
his care. We could count on him.
Roslyn died in 2008 and Howard died in a hotel swimming pool in sunny
Santa Monica on January 27, of an apparent heart attack. My e-mail
inbox is bulging with letters from other lost children of the Vietnam
era, Howard's children now together sitting cyber-shiva.
While administrators railed against him, BU's librarian
extraordinaire Howard Gotlieb patiently collected Howard Zinn's
papers, which now share a vault in the archives with that other BU
legend, alumnus Martin Luther King. Way to go, Howard!
Ray Mungo wrote for the Phoenix in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He
now lives in California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.