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The People's Historian: Howard Zinn

June 21, 2002

He overturned the sacred myth of Christopher Columbus as a courageous hero. He unmasked military leaders like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt as racists, war-lovers, imperialists, and Indian-killers. He revealed our most liberal presidents–Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy–as more concerned with political power and national might than the rights of non-white people. And he exposed the cold war as a competition fueled by thirst for empire and domination.

He re-wrote history from the perspective of the people, turning victors into villains and retrieving generations of unsung heroes from the historical record: the farmers of the Shays’ rebellion, the black abolitionists, conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war, striking factory workers.

I am speaking of Howard Zinn, the great scholar, activist, teacher, author. No other historian has attacked the distortions and myths about the history of the United States as forcefully as he has. In book after book, he has stood the traditional "great men" approach to history on its head. He has shown that historical change occurs more though mass movements of ordinary people than through the decisions of world leaders. His groundbreaking book, ??A People’s History of the United States, was one of the first major looks at American history from this perspective. It transformed the field of historical research, going through 25 printings and selling more than 400,000 copies.

But Zinn did not confine his revolutionary work to his scholarship. While he was overturning history, he was also making it–adding his voice to the movements for peace, civil rights, social justice, and equality. As a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s, he joined his students on the picket lines and at sit-ins, traveling throughout the south as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He headed north to Boston University in the 1960s and took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. He was arrested numerous times for his anti-war actions, but he could not be silenced. He traveled to North Vietnam and Japan to speak out against US policies, and he testified at some dozen trials on the importance of breaking unjust laws.

More recently, he has been an outspoken critic of the so-called war on terrorism. This spring he published ??Terrorism and War, a book exploring the loss of civil liberties during war and the history of American resistance to wars from World War I to the war in Afghanistan.


  • Howard Zinn, radical historian, activist, and author of numerous books include ??A People’s History of the United States, ??You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and most recently, ??Terrorism and War. He is Professor emeritus at Boston University.

Related link:


  • Metahistorical Disquisition–Paranoise featuring Noam Chomsky, ISHQ (
  • The World We Live In–Cleopatra, Comin’ Atcha! (Maverick Recording CD).

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