Celebrating the 100th Birthday of People’s Historian Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn being arrested at an anti-war protest outside of the JFK Federal Building in Boston, May 1971. {credit: Tom Shetterly}

(August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010)

Today, August 24, marks the 100th anniversary of Howard Zinn’s birth. Many of us may know Zinn as a great historian, but he was more than just that. He was also a fighter and critic of the system of exploitation and war that poor and working people confront every day. His book, A People’s History of the United States, challenged the official history of the U.S. and put forward a radically different set of stories than the usual ones about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the American Revolution, and the Civil War. Zinn’s heroes were working people, Native Americans, slaves, immigrants, and women fighting for their rights, not the rich and powerful. Zinn showed that it is ordinary people like us, not the big name politicians and generals, who make history.

He Never Stood Aside From History

Zinn was from a working class family in Boston. His parents were factory workers and he grew up poor in a tenement apartment in Boston. As a young man, Zinn never stood aside from the history around him. In the 1930s, workers all over the U.S. rose up during the Depression. They organized against evictions and layoffs and low wages. Zinn was one of them. He knew which side he was on.

Zinn was horrified at the rise of fascism in Germany. The Nazis and Hitler were threatening to overtake all of Europe. Like many young working class people, he joined the war to fight against the Nazis. But as a bomber in the Air Force, Zinn watched bombs being dropped on civilians. He watched the U.S. military test napalm on French villagers. His experience made him realize that ordinary people were always the ones who suffered in war.

A Fighter for Civil Rights

Zinn returned from the war, and set his goal to study history in order to change it, and to figure out where the struggles of ordinary people fit into the story. He later became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the few all-African American colleges in the country. At Spelman, Zinn became intensely involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. As students all across the South sat-in at lunch counters and public places to tear down racial segregation, Zinn still knew which side he was on. He helped students organize, even acting as an “adult advisor” to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), along with Ella Baker. This activism led to his firing from Spelman in 1963. It was clear he was one of the few adults that the young rebels trusted.

A People’s History

In 1980, Zinn published his book, A People’s History of the United States. The book takes the side of the Native Americans against their extermination. It takes the side of the slaves in their fight for freedom. It takes the side of workers fighting against poverty and for a better world without exploitation. It takes the side of revolutionaries and rebels against politicians and rich people. And above all, it shows that like the workers and unemployed people in the 1930s, and like Zinn and his students at Spelman University in the 1960s, ordinary people are the ones that make history through their struggles.

Today with the many attacks we face, from the destruction of the environment to the threat of increasing wars to the attacks on reproductive rights, and voting rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, and so much more, this is something we need to know more than ever. Zinn’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to change this society. There can be no question – it is up to us to write the next chapter with our own struggle.

For the 100th anniversary of his birth, publishers Beacon Press, Haymarket Books, The New Press, and Seven Stories Press have put together a collection of excerpts from Zinn’s writing, titled A Life of Activism. You can find the free eBook here. You can also find a digital collection of his works on the Howard Zinn website, and purchase many of his books on Haymarketbooks.org.