For historian Howard Zinn, who has died at 87, the story of the United States was hardly a majestic tale of enlightened Founding Fathers and liberty for all. Rather, it was a 200-year exercise in oppression by slaveholders, robber barons, and white men in general against minorities, women, and the powerless. Zinn expressed his thesis most memorably in A People’s History of the United States (1980), which sold more than 2 million copies.
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Zinn came to his progressive views early, said The Washington Post. Born to working-class parents, he was 17 when, during a communist-led protest in Times Square, he was “clubbed and beaten by police even though the rally was peaceful.” After serving in World War II, he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia and, in 1956, became history department chairman at Atlanta’s Spelman College, where he was active in the civil-rights struggle and was “jailed more than a half-dozen times for civil disobedience.” Fired for insubordination in 1963, he joined the faculty of Boston University, where he frequently clashed with its conservative president, John Silber, who said Zinn was trying to “poison the well of academe.”
Zinn vigorously protested the Vietnam War, traveling to Hanoi in 1968 to get American POWs released. But it was A People’s History that made him famous. “To describe it as revisionist is to risk understatement,” said The New York Times. Zinn emphasized “the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the bloodlust of Theodore Roosevelt, and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln.” Simultaneously, he championed “the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, and resisters of slavery and war.” Many of Zinn’s fellow historians took issue with his relentlessly left-wing tone; the liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called him “a polemicist, not a historian.” But A People’s History was used widely in high school and college classrooms and found its way into popular culture. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck plugged it in Good Will Hunting, and it helped inspire “the starkest of Bruce Springsteen’s many albums, Nebraska.”
Zinn readily acknowledged that his masterwork had a distinct point of view. “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated,” he said, “it’s a different story.” He is survived by his wife and two children.
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