Beacon Press has published an new edition of Howard Zinn’s 1994 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History in which Zinn tells his personal stories about 50 years of fighting for social change. This updated version includes a foreword by professor of African American Studies and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. We share an excerpt from the foreword.
This was not a scholastic endeavor for Zinn, even though he was a professor of history. But history was not academic exercise; it was a means to make sense of the world we live in and, if necessary, a guide to action. Zinn, a prolific writer and scholar, tore down the wall intended to separate activism—or partisanship—from the professed objectivity of scholarship. Instead Zinn told his students that he did not “pretend to an objectivity that was neither possible nor desirable. ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train,’ I would tell them. … Events are already moving in certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that.”
Zinn eschewed neutrality, choosing to write reports, news stories, and multiple books from the perspective of the movements that he was active in. Prolific and without pretension, Zinn chronicled the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements for the general public. His writing exposed the broader world to the realities facing ordinary Black people across the South while also challenging the assumptions that the United States, by the sheer volume of its bombing campaign in Vietnam, could impose its will on that tiny country.
Zinn’s magnificent autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is his own telling of the events and experiences within those movements that shaped his people-centered rendering of his history. It is a thin volume, barely two hundred pages, belying Zinn’s extraordinary life from his days as a bombardier in the Air Force during World War II, to his arrest as a civil rights activist in the South, to his negotiating the return of prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The power of Howard Zinn the writer has overshadowed his fascinating history as an active participant in these powerful social movements. As Zinn said in an interview, “[I] had begun to wander out of the classroom to go see some history.”
This is a book written with a purpose that goes beyond touting the lifetime achievements of a well-known and influential person. What makes this an essential read is that Zinn is writing in response to the timeless questions that burn within anyone who cares about creating a more just society and world. Is change possible? Where will it come from? Can we actually make a difference? How do you remain hopeful? Zinn returns to these questions graciously and with humility by exploring his own journey toward radicalism. There are times when leftists disparage liberals for their continued faith in the system, becoming exasperated when they have not yet come to radical conclusions. Zinn makes the simple yet critical point that people make their own way to political consciousness: “You read a book, you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way. No act, therefore, however small, should be dismissed or ignored.” For Zinn, this fluidity of political consciousness—people who may be completely passive in one moment but can be moved to act in a different moment—was the key to the emergence of a mass movement. To write off the possibility of change was to essentially write off the possibility of building the kind of movement necessary to change what was wrong in the world.
Abraham A. Callahan has shared his paper “Two Rebel Historians: Thucydides, Howard Zinn and Telling Truth for Social Good ” with HowardZinn.org. Written as an honors thesis in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, Callahan compares the history writing of Thucydides and Howard Zinn. Callahan argues,
In order for historians to positively influence their readers, they must remove ideologies that distort a clear vision of human history. Thucydides and Howard Zinn sought to do this after being disillusioned by how their respective societies abused history. Thucydides thought that Herodotus’ supernaturalism kept readers from understanding their roles in society. Zinn, similarly, argued that the exceptionalism of American history textbooks prevented readers from participating in society. Both demythologized their writings of history by eliminating those ideologies that prevented the positive influence they thought society desperately needed.
Thucydides and Zinn expected criticism for their histories because they thought that the unpleasant truths of human history would prove of most use to their readers. The following are the main questions of this study: Who are these men? How did they come to produce histories that were antithetical to the mainstream histories of their respective societies? And, lastly, how do their histories try to positively influence the lives of their readers?
Before continuing, it is crucial to examine the purpose and function of history in human society by asking some fundamental questions: What is history? Why do people use or even need it? What events make history? Who should write it? What are the criteria that determine a particular history’s trustworthiness?
The fifth annual Howard Zinn Book Fair will take place on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the San Francisco City College Mission Campus from 10am-6pm. This year’s theme is “Fighting for the Air We Breathe.” Theme description:
The effects of human-caused environmental devastation have become impossible to ignore. The land we live on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe are under threat by relentless fossil fuel extraction and the toxic byproducts of profit driven mass production. The suffocation of our natural world is paralleled in society at large. Persistent poverty, racism and sexism are exacerbated by countless mass shootings, police violence, escalating wars, and the violence of an emboldened far right. While conventional politics often expect market forces or new technologies to solve the world’s problems, we know the real solutions will come from the collective action of everyday people, through the very struggles chronicled by historian Howard Zinn under the banner of “a People’s History.”
Get updates and learn more at howardzinnbookfair.com.
The University of Georgia Press has published Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary: Sit-Ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women’s Student Activism by Robert Cohen with a foreword by Alice Walker. The book includes diary entries from Howard Zinn’s time teaching at Spelman College (1956-1963). Historian Robert Cohen offers a substantial overview of Zinn’s role at Spelman and other archival documents.
Below are excerpts from Cohen’s overview and the diary entries. Visit the Zinn Education Project to read a transcript excerpt from Zinn’s debate with E. Fulton Lewis III, House of Un-American Activities Committee research director.
This excerpt (pages 3-6) is from Robert Cohen’s overview, “Mentor to the Movement,” in Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary.
. . . [Howard] Zinn’s involvement with the Atlanta student movement and his closeness to Spelman’s leading student and faculty activists gave him an insider’s view of that movement and of the political and intellectual world of Spelman, Atlanta University Center, and SNCC. Thus it was no surprise that Zinn would write the first nationally circulated accounts of the Spelman movement in the Nation and then in his book The Southern Mystique (1964); the most detailed contemporary report on the black freedom struggle and its segregationist foes in Albany, Georgia (for the Southern Regional council), Albany: A Study in National Responsibility (1962); and the first book-length history of SNCC, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). Zinn would always view his years at Spelman (1956-63), which connected him to the civil rights movement and a remarkable generation of Spelman students, as among the most significant in his life, which is why he devoted the first three chapters in his memoirs to that time.
It is only now, however, well after Zinn’s death in 2010, and the opening of his papers at New York University’s Tamiment Library, that we can see that some of his most memorable writing on his Spelman days are from a daily journal he kept in his last semester there, during the winter-spring of 1963, which he never published. Not even his close friends, students, and colleagues at Spelman in that era were aware at the time that Zinn was keeping a diary. It was only with the publication of Zinn’s memoir in 1994 that the existence of the journal was even mentioned publicly–when he quoted from it as he narrated the story of his escalating conflict with the Spelman administration that led to his firing in June 1963. Similarly, historian Martin Duberman, drew on the diary to go over this same story in his biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (2012). Most recently, historian Staughton Lynd, a close friend and colleague of Zinn in his last three years at Spelman, used excerpts from the diary in an insightful essay on Zinn in his book Doing History from the Bottom Up (2014), in which he shows that Zinn thought strategically and deeply about the ways that legal change and interracial contact could overcome old patterns of racial discrimination.
Mere excerpts from the diary cannot, however, do justice to its historical significance. Read from start to finish, the diary, which has more than fifty entries on the student and faculty conflicts with the Spelman administration, is one of the most extensive records of the political climate in in a historically black college in 1960s America – a time when students at those colleges were on the cutting edge of that decade’s new student activism. Insightful as Zinn’s memoir and Duberman’s biography of Zinn are on his battles at Spelman, the unabridged diary offers a more in-depth view than either of the book chapters – recording in real time the free speech, academic freedom, and student rights battles that rocked Spelman in 1963 and led to Zinn’s firing and the abrupt ending of his Spelman years. The diary, in other words, merits publication because it illuminates far more than Zinn’s own story. It captures a pivotal time in the history of student protest in the 1960s, foregrounding the activism of African American young women and capturing the way race was lived in Atlanta–the relationships between that city’s black and white academics and activists and their generational and ideological tensions when the most idealistic among them were engaged in historic desegregation struggles. Zinn in Atlanta during the early 1960s was, as his wife Roslyn wrote their friends Ernie and Marilyn Young, “in the right place and at the right time.” Zinn had been at Spelman since 1956. But beyond this, he was a gifted writer and searing social critic who would go on later in the 1960s to write widely circulated books opposing the Vietnam War and defending civil disobedience, and in the 1980s he published the best-selling radical history of his time, A People’s History of the United States. So by 1963 even his immediate responses in his diary to the events he observed and was a part of in Atlanta, both on and off campus, were written with great clarity, and carried with them the insights of a veteran movement activist who had longstanding friendship in black Atlanta and had lived and taught in that community for years. For Zinn, living and teaching on a historically black college campus had opened a window onto black America to which few whites had access. Even when the Zinn diary’s accounts of events are incomplete or less than entirely persuasive, they often raise important questions about social and political life at a historically black women’s college and how this conversation institution navigated a time when its students became central actors in a revolution in southern race relations.
Zinn’s journal offers a vivid view of Spelman student activism during one of its most significant yet least well-known phases. Most of the historical writing on and commemorations of the Atlanta student movement and Spelman student protest have been devoted to the sit-in movement, especially in 1960, the historic first year when demonstrations in downtown Atlanta brought about the initial cracks in the Jim Crow line in Atlanta stores and eateries. By the time Zinn was recording his diary during the winter-spring semester of 1963, Spelman students and other activists from the Atlanta University Center, joined by a core of white progressives from Emory University, were engaged in a series of sit-ins and demonstrations to follow up on those of prior years, since the majority of restaurants and hotels in Atlanta—despite the desegregation agreement brokered by the city’s Chamber of Commerce president on 1961—were still racially segregated. While for Spelman students this ongoing struggle for racial justice remained central, they became increasingly engaged with a second kind of freedom struggle—one that occurred not downtown but on their own campus and that was about personal freedom, gender liberation, and free speech. They were seeking to end the paternalistic policing of their social lives by an overbearing administration, which treated them as though they were immature girls who needed constant chaperoning and rigid curfews and sought to suppress their free speech rights whenever they dared to protest these and other restrictions.
Here, as Zinn’s diary shows so clearly, you had Spelman students who had played very adult roles, committing civil disobedience downtown, getting arrested, and even risking their lives in sit-ins against Jim Crow, but on their own campus these young women were still regimented like children. This contradiction seemed increasingly glaring and intolerable to the college’s student activists. As Spelman civil rights activist Brenda Cole recalled, after the second wave of sit-ins during the fall of 1960-61 secured the rights of African Americans to be served on a nondiscriminatory basis at some of Atlanta’s largest commercial establishments, such as Rich’s department store, she and her classmates “started looking around saying ‘what has it profited us to go to Rich’s when [because of Spelman’s restriction on students traveling downtown] we’ve got to get five or six girls to go with us? We can’t even leave campus after a certain time or . . . .ride in cars . . . Then we started looking at the . . . rules on campus . . a lot closer and said . . . ‘we’re still not free.’” Activists at Spelman became convinced, as student movement veteran Lana Taylor (Sims) explained, that their college was “just too paternalistic. That you have women who. . . couldn’t go around the corner by themselves . .. The institution was just working against the thing that they were supposed to be fostering—growing up and maturity.’” And so the struggle against racial discrimination downtown, and its liberatory ethos, fostered a critique and revolt against gendered restrictions of their campus lives at Spelman.
Excerpted from pages 155-156 of Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary.
Thurs. May 9
David McReynolds of FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] visiting Staughton [Lynd] so he visited our class. Spoke to my Russian class on lawn, on disarmament. Realized at one point how many members of this 12 person class involved. Guy and Candy Carawan just back from Birmingham jail. Anna Jo Weaver just out of Fulton Cy. Jail. Betty S. a veteran of 14 days in jail. One fourth of [the] class.
Fri. May 10
An unprecedented meeting, from about noon to about 4 PM, took place today out on the Emory [University] quadrangle. A few Liberal Club students called it, to discuss informally, with no specific program of action, the events in Birmingham and elsewhere in connection with integration. About ten of our students went, including Anna Jo Weaver, Davis Satcher, Dot Myer, Robt Allen. Ralph Moore spoke at length. They had expected some trouble but there was none. Antagonistic questions, but nothing approaching violence. At one time 150-200 students were sitting on the grass listening. All in all, far more successful than anyone had anticipated. And Emory Univ. officials made no move to break it up. After it was over a faculty couple invited the Negroes home, followed by a score of white students. They brought in a keg of beer and had a ball.
Jeff gave an oral report in his class on Thoreau’s Walden. His teacher gave him an A plus, asked him to repeat it at her 11th grade class. The 11th graders gave him grades and comments on it—almost all A’s and praising it. One girl gave him an F, saying, “No eighth-grader could read Walden and understand it. I don’t believe you read that book.”
Myla’s English teacher told the class to write on “something I care deeply about.” Most wrote on integration—something that wouldn’t have happened two years ago (maybe not even two weeks ago—maybe the headlines have had this effect). Most against. But four or five for, and very bold. One girl said: “If I had Martin Luther King here I’d shoot him, and a few paragraphs on spoke of Negroes committing murder and said, ‘Don’t they know the Bible says Thou Shalt Not kill.‘” The class snickered at her obvious inconsistency, and the teacher called attention to it too.
Jeff’s math teacher mentioned I’d been quoted in Newsweek, got into [a] discussion with Jeff on integration. Turned out she’s from Albany, Georgia.
Purdue University faculty has created a Howard Zinn Memorial Research Award Fund in American Studies. This award is open to all Purdue University students majoring in American Studies, and offers at least $1,000 annually to “support interdisciplinary American Studies research focusing on the ways in which forms of social, cultural, intellectual, and technoscientific expression circulate among, between, and beyond the geographical borders of the United States. The resulting research will highlight the interconnected roles that gender, race, sexuality, class, science, technology, medicine, music, art, and design play in the continual redefinition of the United States.”
In 2013, the Associated Press published an article disclosing that Purdue University President Mitch Daniels tried to ban Howard Zinn’s books in public schools while he was governor of Indiana. Fundraising for this award began in 2014, with endowment funding secured in 2017, as an effort to counter this censorship and to increase the type of scholarship Howard Zinn promoted: “on the men and women typically left out of the master narrative — dissenters, African Americans, Native Americans, women, working people, and other underrepresented groups or a derivative area of research.”
The next award will be given in 2019. For updates and more information, visit Zinn Memorial Research Award.
Howard Zinn was the faculty adviser for the Boston University (BU) student newspaper, bu exposure.
In 1977-78, the administration of John Silber demanded that Zinn agree to review the contents of the paper before it was published and act as a censor. Zinn refused. The newspaper was then banned from campus. Given that BU’s campus is in the middle of a city, it was impossible for the BU administration to stop distribution of the paper. However, all student governments were prohibited from providing funds, the journalism department banned internships, student organizations could not reserve rooms for the paper, the paper was prohibited from registering as a student organization, and no fundraising events could be held on campus.
This screen print (right) features a story from the bu exposure about censorship on campus. After that issue came out, the student government voted to fund the newspaper, in violation of the banning order. The administration vetoed that allocation, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a First Amendment lawsuit charging censorship.
Zinn stood behind the paper, supported the lawsuit, and helped students who worked on the paper in defiance of the administration’s dictates. The lawsuit was eventually settled. The paper continued to publish for a number years, but ultimately could not survive the banning order.
Our thanks to Stephen M. Kohn, one of the founders of the paper, and David Colapinto, a key staff member, for providing the photos and captions. The screen print is by Leslie Rose with Dennis O’Neil of the Handprint Workshop, Alexandria, Virginia. Kohn and Colapinto work at the National Whistleblower Center, where Howard Zinn served on the board.
The Summer 2017 issue of Bostonia, the Boston University alumni magazine, features a profile of Zinn Education Project co-founder William Holtzman and the recent book drive undertaken in response to a proposed Zinn book ban in Arkansas.
Hundreds of Arkansas teachers now own new copies of books by historian and longtime BU professor Howard Zinn—thanks in part to BU alums who took action against an effort to ban Zinn’s writings from their classrooms.
This spring, Republican state representative Kim Hendren filed a bill in the Arkansas House to prohibit the state’s public schools from including materials by or about Zinn in their curricula. Hendren told media outlets that he was not personally opposed to Zinn’s writings but that some of his constituents had raised concerns about Zinn’s approach to American history.
Zinn, who died in 2010, taught in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department from 1964 to 1988. His best-known and sometimes controversial book, A People’s History of the United States, tells the American story from the perspective of women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrant laborers, and others who are often underrepresented in traditional textbooks.
The Arkansas bill died in committee, but not before it drew the attention of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a nonprofit that offers teaching materials to help middle and high school teachers present Zinn’s brand of history in their classrooms. After hearing of the Arkansas legislation, ZEP offered to send a book by Zinn and a teaching guide, A People’s History for the Classroom, to any Arkansas teacher who requested them.
On March 1, 2017, Arkansas Representative Kim Hendren (R) introduced Bill HB1834 to prohibit any publicly supported schools in Arkansas “from including in its curriculum or course materials any books or other material authored by or concerning Howard Zinn.”
This is not the first attempt to ban books by Howard Zinn in public schools. In 2010, Governor Mitch Daniels tried a similar move in Indiana. In 2011, A People’s History of the United States was removed from schools in Tucson, Arizona, as part of the ban on Mexican American Studies.
The Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, responded by offering a free book by Howard Zinn and A People’s History for the Classroom to any Arkansas middle or high school teacher who requested one. There was an enthusiastic response with close to 800 requests in just five days. The teachers and school librarians wrote inspiring notes such as this one from a Little Rock middle school social studies teacher:
We must stand against censorship in Arkansas’ classrooms. Our students are bright and appreciate being challenged. They want to be exposed to all points of view, not shielded from those others find abhorrent.
The proposed book ban caught national attention with coverage on WBUR, Melville House, Democracy Now!, Bill Moyers & Company, Huffington Post, Common Dreams, Boston Magazine, and many more. More than 400 people have donated to help send books to Arkansas, and some included comments about why they contributed. Publishers Haymarket Books, Seven Stories Press, The New Press, Beacon Press, and HarperCollins donated books to ensure all requests were met.
The bill was sent to the Education Committee where it eventually died. Read “Arkansas’ Howard Zinn Witch-hunt Fizzles.”
In a Washington Post article on February 9, 2017, Fareed Zakaria compared Steve Bannon and Howard Zinn, concluding that,
In a strange way, Bannon’s dark, dystopian view of U.S. history is closest to that of Howard Zinn, a popular far-left scholar whose “A People’s History of the United States” is a tale of the many ways in which 99 percent of Americans were crushed by the country’s all-powerful elites. In the Zinn/Bannon worldview, everyday people are simply pawns manipulated by their evil overlords.
In response, two letters to the editor of the Washington Post were sent. The authors have given us permission to publish them here. Read More
The third annual Howard Zinn Book Fair was held in San Francisco on December 4, 2016. Historian Carl Mirra shared with us a description of one of the sessions at the book fair. Mirra describes the panel “Making of a Radical Historian: Howard Zinn & War” where he was one of the presenters along with Ambre Ivol and Luke Stewart. Read More
Nov. 22 marks the birthday of Staughton Lynd, longtime friend of Howard Zinn. They both taught at Spelman College and can be described as long-distance runners for justice.
“I have admired [Lynd] enormously ever since I first met him,” Zinn wrote shortly before his death, because he is an “exemplar of strength and gentleness in the quest for a better world.” Read more about Lynd in this tribute by Andy Piascik.
by Andy Piascik
Suddenly Staughton Lynd is all the rage. Again. In the last several years, Lynd has published two new books, a third that’s a reprint of an earlier work, plus a memoir co-authored with his wife Alice. In addition, a portrait of his life as an activist through 1970 by Carl Mirra of Adelphi University has been published, with another book about his work after 1970 by Mark Weber of Kent State University due soon.
In an epoch of imperial hubris and corporate class warfare on steroids, the release of these books could hardly have come at a better time. Soldier, coal miner, Sixties veteran, recent graduate—there’s much to be gained by one and all from a study of Lynd’s life and work. In so doing, it’s inspiring to discover how frequently he was in the right place at the right time and, more importantly, on the right side.
Forty-nine years ago, during the tumultuous summer of 1964, Lynd was invited to coordinate the Freedom Schools established in Mississippi by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The schools were an integral part of the Herculean effort to end apartheid in the United States and became models for alternative schools everywhere.
The Zinn Education Project collects stories from former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by Suzanne Baker, Class of 1985 and 1995. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
By Howard Zinn
This essay, written for Z Magazine in 1990, and reprinted in my book Failure to Quit, was inspired (if you are willing to call this an inspired piece) by my students of the Eighties. I was teaching a spring and fall lecture course with four hundred students in each course (and yet with lots of discussion). I looked hard, listened closely, but did not find the apathy, the conservatism, the disregard for the plight of others, that everybody (right and left) was reporting about “the me generation.”
I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility. Read More
The Zinn Education Project collects stories from Howard Zinn’s former students at Spelman College and Boston University about his role as a teacher. Here is one example, a story by David Detmer, class of 1980. If you are a former student of Zinn, please contribute your story here.
We revisit Howard Zinn’s essay, “If History Is to Be Creative,” published in A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, a collection of essays from The Progressive magazine. The following excerpt is a reflection on the role and responsibility of the engaged historian, and is an inspiration for us all to continue the fight for justice. Zinn writes, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”
By Howard Zinn
America’s future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act. By writing, I hope to awaken a great consciousness of racial injustice, sexual bias, class inequality, and national hubris. I also want to bring into the light the unreported resistance of people against the power of the Establishment: the refusal of the indigenous to simply disappear; the rebellion of Black people in the antislavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people all through American history in attempts to improve their lives. Read More
Actor and activist Jesse Williams, best known for his role on Grey’s Anatomy, won the BET Humanitarian Award on June 26, 2016. Williams, who read in the 2014 Voices Performance in Los Angeles, and serves on the board of the Advancement Project, is the son of public school teachers and a former U.S. history teacher (in Philadelphia) himself. He acknowledged the role of teachers and students learning history (outside the textbook) in his acceptance speech. Here is an excerpt,
I want to thank my parents for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, they made sure I learned what the schools are afraid to teach us. Read More
The filmed stage performance of Howard Zinn’s play Emma is now available for rent or purchase.
Emma dramatizes the life of Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist, feminist, and free-spirited thinker who was exiled from the United States because of her outspoken views, including her opposition to World War I. Read More
Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869–May 14, 1940), was an anarchist and early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality, and unions. After reading Richard Drinnon’s biography of Emma Goldman, Rebel in Paradise, Howard Zinn read Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life.
As a historian with a PhD, Zinn was astonished he had never learned about Goldman in his studies. “Here was this magnificent woman, this anarchist, this feminist, fierce, life-loving person.” Read More
French filmmakers Daniel Mermet and Olivier Azam of Les Mutins de
Pangee have released part one of a three-part documentary about Howard
Zinn. Only available in French, it can be rented or purchased on
Vimeo.com. The 1:40 hour film, called Howard Zinn une histoire
populaire américaine, features interviews with Howard Zinn, Noam
Chomsky, and Chris Hedges.
Proceeds from film sales will help fund production of parts 2 and 3.