Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College and Boston University where he had an extraordinary influence on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world. The “Howard Zinn: Our Favorite Teacher” series highlights Zinn’s lasting impact as a professor.
I remember the first day of class with Howard Zinn. I walked into a lecture hall that had about 150 seats. There were more than 300 people sitting on the desks, in the aisles, on the floor—all eagerly wanting to be in his class. His reputation of telling the truth, like it was never told before, was all over the school.
Howard told us that according to the administration’s roster, he was not supposed to admit more than 125 students. But then he paused, and smiled, and said, “What do they know” and told us to bring him our add slips after class, and we’d all be admitted. He explained that he could not, with good conscience, deny students who were thirsting for information, knowledge, explanation, and understanding—that we were deserving of the truth, especially at a time when many of our generation were being drafted into the Vietnam War.
In the many weeks that followed, he went on to tell us about history, power, corruption, and lies. He was an incredible story teller. All of us were riveted. I quickly understood why so many students were vying to take his courses.
As the weeks went on, the class size got bigger, not smaller, like my other classes. People came, without credit, just to watch him. Howard Zinn’s classes were better than the local movie theater. He made history and politics entertaining.
I thought I knew history from my high school classes. I knew George Washington’s birthday; I knew Lincoln’s birthday. But I didn’t know about Emma Goldman; I didn’t know about Fannie Lou Hamer; I didn’t know the truth about Eugene Debs or the real story about Frederick Douglass.
Howard Zinn also told stories about his own experiences, as a bombardier in WWII. He told about his own transformation, when he realized that what he was doing was wrong—bombing civilian populations was wrong—the war concept was wrong.
When he left the military, he dedicated himself to teaching history and teaching the truth. He would often echo, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Howard Zinn tried to teach the history that we should never repeat, and he related all of it to current politics. He talked about the military industry complex and its ties with the university system. He talked about how BU was invested in Apartheid. He would tell us, “The problem is not civil disobedience—the problem is civil obedience.”
I had the privilege of getting arrested with Howard Zinn and 60 others (the “BU 62”) at an anti-war demonstration. We had many meetings in preparation for our trials. Howard would remind us, “We’re not disturbing the peace, we’re disturbing the war.”
He was a thorn in the side of the Boston University administration and they would have loved to have gotten rid of him. They tried several times, but they couldn’t, because they knew there would have been an uprising. His students loved him—students all over Boston loved him, because he stood up for us—he stood up for the truth.
Today, I make videos and write political and social commentary songs. Check out our latest music video, “We’re Going To Change Everything,” on YouTube.
Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College and Boston University where he had an extraordinary influence on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world. This series highlights Zinn’s lasting impact as a professor. Read more stories and submit your own.