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A Memory of Howard

Posted on Jan 27, 2010
AP / Dima Gavrysh

By Daniel Ellsberg

I just learned that my friend Howard Zinn died today. Earlier this morning, I was being interviewed by the Boston Phoenix, in connection with the February release of a documentary in which he is featured prominently. The interviewer asked me who my own heroes were, and I had no hesitation in answering, first, “Howard Zinn.”

Just weeks ago, after watching the film, I woke up thinking that I had never told him how much he meant to me. For once in my life, I acted on that thought in a timely way. I sent him an e-mail in which I said, among other things, what I had often told others: that he was, “in my opinion, the best human being I’ve ever known. The best example of what a human can be, and can do with their life.”

Our first meeting was at Faneuil Hall in Boston in early 1971, where we both spoke against the indictments of Eqbal Ahmad and Phil Berrigan for “conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger.” We marched with the rest of the crowd to make citizens’ arrests at the Boston office of the FBI. Later that spring, we went with our affinity group (including Noam Chomsky, Cindy Fredericks, Marilyn Young, Mark Ptashne, Zelda Gamson, Fred Branfman and Mitch Goodman), to the May Day actions blocking traffic in Washington (“If they won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government”). Howard tells that story in the film, and I tell it at greater length in my memoir, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.”  But for reasons of space, I had to cut out the next section in which Howard—who had been arrested in D.C. after most of the rest of us had gone elsewhere—came back to Boston for a rally and a blockade of the Federal Building. I’ve never published that story, so here it is, an outtake from my manuscript:

A day later, Howard Zinn was the last speaker at a large rally in Boston Common. I was at the back of a huge crowd, listening to him over loudspeakers. Twenty-seven years later, I can remember some of what he said. “On May Day in Washington, thousands of us were arrested for disturbing the peace. But there is no peace. We were really arrested because we were disturbing the war.”

He said, “If Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had been walking the streets of Georgetown yesterday, they would have been arrested. Arrested for being young.”

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At the end of his comments, he said: “I want to speak now to some of the members of this audience, the plainclothes policemen among us, the military intelligence agents who are assigned to do surveillance. You are taking the part of secret police, spying on your fellow Americans. You should not be doing what you are doing. You should rethink it, and stop. You do not have to carry out orders that go against the grain of what it means to be an American.”

Those last weren’t his exact words, but that was the spirit of them. He was to pay for that comment the next day, when we were sitting side by side in a blockade of the Federal Building in Boston. We had a circle of people all the way around the building, shoulder to shoulder, so no one could get in or out except by stepping over us. Behind us were crowds of people with posters who were supporting us but who hadn’t chosen to risk arrest. In front of us, keeping us from getting any closer to the main entrance to the building, was a line of policemen, with a large formation of police behind them. All the police had large plastic masks tilted back on their heads and they were carrying long black clubs, about four feet long, like large baseball bats. Later the lawyers told us that city police regulations outlawed the use of batons that long.

But at first the relations with the police were almost friendly. We sat down impudently at the very feet of the policemen who were guarding the entrance, filling in the line that disappeared around the sides until someone came from the rear of the building and announced over a bullhorn, “The blockade is complete. We’ve surrounded the building!” There was a cheer from the crowd behind us, and more people joined us in sitting until the circle was two or three deep.

We expected them to start arresting us, but for a while the police did nothing. They could have manhandled a passage through the line and kept it open for employees to go in or out, but for some reason they didn’t. We thought maybe they really sympathized with our protest, and this was their way of joining in. As the morning wore on, people took apples and crackers and bottles of water out of their pockets and packs and shared them around, and they always offered some to the police standing in front of us. The police always refused, but they seemed to appreciate the offer.

Then one of the officers came over to Howard and said, “You’re Professor Zinn, aren’t you?” Howard said yes, and the officer reached down and shook his hand enthusiastically. He said, “I heard you lecture at the Police Academy. A lot of us here did. That was a wonderful lecture.” Howard had been asked to speak to them about the role of dissent and civil disobedience in American history. Several other policemen came over to pay their respects to Howard and thank him for his lecture. The mood seemed quite a bit different from Washington.


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By Caring H. Beings, February 9, 2010 at 7:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We all love you Howard Zinn.  You live in our hearts and minds, ever strengthening and encouraging us, giving us hope in this seemingly hopeless time of unthinkable violence and greed.  I can still hear your voice, from times I’ve heard you speaking.  Thank you for all the love and courage you expressed in your life, in so many ways.
This is the first comment I ever made on the internet.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, January 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Three hour talk with Howard Zinn from 2002 at:
http://www.booktv.org

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By Henry Pelifian, January 30, 2010 at 9:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Howard Zinn was the kind of scrupulously honest thinker and historian the country needs more of as we stumble along putting our great forward in one quagmire after another using the national credit card by elected officials who despite all the rhetoric are as much collectors of welfare money as the most needy in our country requiring financial assistance and namely they are not better than the poor, they just have more public money to utilize.

Mr. Zinn and I exchanged emails and he was always very considerate and he was kind enough to take a look at my play Thoreau which I sent him less than two weeks ago.

His contributions to the country have been immense.

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By Magda, January 29, 2010 at 8:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Don’t mourn. Organise! He had a great and long life. A man and life to celebrate. Be inspired by his example and go out and live and love and connect with others and ORGANISE together!

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By YMR, January 29, 2010 at 4:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

and regarding “Columbus Day” humbug:

It had been a distinct honor to have my UH sociology students read aloud in class, relay fashion, Zinn’s chapter about Columbus over the course my 16 years teaching.

Some students cried, and all were utterly shocked.

Many, many thanks Howard Zinn.

ymr

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By NYCartist, January 29, 2010 at 2:36 pm Link to this comment

What wonderful comments.  I only will add that my favorite book is “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”, Zinn’s autobio.  It’s a masterpiece of social activism, starting with the intro.  And the photo in the book’s front is one of Howard and Roslyn Zinn, his wife who died in May, 2008, taken by Daniel Ellsberg, long ago.  H. Zinn would write that you never know what action you take, even small, might have an effect on someone, to do something for peace and justice.  There’s a great line in the article/obit on Howard Zinn (the one on Roslyn Zinn was so good, I saved it), by James Carroll.  After saying how Howard Zinn loved people, Carroll said, “How much we all loved him back.”.  Indeed.  He saw each one of us as people to make change happen.

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By NYCartist, January 29, 2010 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment

To Mike 789: there’s a Yiddish word for what you just said, mensch, a real human being.  You captured Howard Zinn, the person, perfectly.

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By Norman Birnbaum, January 29, 2010 at 7:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Howard was a man of inner steadfastness—for an earlier generation one of those inner directed Americans dewcribed in David Rieman’s The Lonely Crowd as representative of an earlier and certainly not worse nation. I recall his reflecting on his wartime experiences as a member of a bomber crew in the USAF: only later, he said, did he come to question the morality of bombing cities. I also remember the vulgarity of the spiritually impoverished John Silber, who as President of Boston University kept Howard’s salary low as a punitive gesture. John interpreted academic freedom to mean the freedom of university administrators to set limits on what was taught and said. So Howard’s salary as time went on was relative to that of others, smaller and smaller—-but the sales of his books and the impact of his ideas and person were undiminished.even larger. Howard wasted no time or energy on his would be adversary, rendering his antagonism even more contemptible.

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By Mike789, January 29, 2010 at 7:06 am Link to this comment

A genuine “human being”. In the truest extistential interpretation in the modern era, sustaining a mental toughness based on Truth and Justice, is not an easy task. Prof. Zinn taught responsibility for one’s actions, without the convenience of subterfuge. He lived that ethic and for that honestly, for me, he will always be a symbol of what nobility ought to be founded upon.

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By craigkelly, January 28, 2010 at 10:49 pm Link to this comment

By cmarcusparr, January 28 at 1:56 pm #
I never met Howard Zinn but he was a part of my life. I became a public school teacher late in my life and was fortunate to teach in a small school, that gave me freedom to teach.  I used Zinn’s A Peoples’ History in my Contemporary World Problems class..

I am proud that a number of the students purchased copies of this book for their personal libraries and shared it with friends. 

So,cmarcusparr, share his works with your grandkids and hope for the future.

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By FreeWill, January 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm Link to this comment

Voice of the people, for the people and with the people.  Stood tall, committed to airing truth in history as apposed to politically correct interpretations of history.
An inspiration to all who are oppressed. Reminding us that real change never comes from the so called leaders at the top, but is created by the people at the bottom.
The people have lost a very great man.  It’s very sad, but for the many lives he has changed for the better and people he has inspired; which is just about the most
any one could hope to accomplish.

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By Ouroborus, January 28, 2010 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker
on Howard Zinn;

http://www.democracynow.org/

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, January 28, 2010 at 6:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In his last published piece of writing which he did
for this weeks issue of The Nation, on Obama’s first
year, Zinn said that he wasn’t disappointed in Obama
because he never expected much to begin with.  He
said he thought Obama would be a mediocre president
and that a mediocre president is a dangerous
president.  For that reason he said the left has to
keep pressure on him.

Zinn is a good antidote to the sense of hopelessness
that seems to afflict everybody these days.  In his
later years he was very clear about his belief that
there is no such thing as a just war - that war can
never be justified.  We need to keep telling our so
called leaders that.

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By Samson, January 28, 2010 at 5:35 pm Link to this comment

By the way, you know what’s odd about this.  For all the praise lavished on him now that he’s gone, I don’t ever remember Truthdig publishing any of Zinn’s writings on this site.  I guess he was just a little too far left for this site that so loves WaPo Democrat propaganda writers instead.

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By Samson, January 28, 2010 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment

Howard Zinn is a hero to me.

Years ago, I subscribed to some magazine, I forget which one.  I didn’t even know the subscription came with a book, until ‘The Howard Zinn Reader’ arrived in my mailbox.

What an amazing book.  I was in the midst of my 20 year stint in Atlanta then, and the history that book helped to teach me about the civil rights movement in that town was alone well worth the subscription to whatever magazine that was.

Thank you very much Profesor Zinn!!!!!!!!!!!

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By john, January 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Lectures on civil disobedience can be good.  There will be a lot of it if the fines and prison terms pass for the health care bill.

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By Tom Degan, January 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There will never again be anyone like him - or will there? We can always hope, can’t we?

http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

Tom Degan

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By radson, January 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment

Thank you Professor Zinn for all your efforts and wisdom ,may your spirit emanate from the heavens ,to help guide us all .Your conclusion in stating that Wars through all the tumultuous reasons for being waged
have not changed the Fundamental erroneous enterprise is correct. The famous Quote “You can’t stand still on a moving train ” is so true and I wonder how long we will Stand Still?

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By marlene share, January 28, 2010 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In addition to being saddened by the loss of this giant, I feel a personal loss since in 1 short week, on A Nation Magazine Cruise, his warmth and friendliness gave me a much needed shot of adrenaline at a tough time in my life.  My favorite gift to any young people - I believe I’ve purchases 100 or more - has been “Voices of a People’s History”.  The world will miss Howard, but we’ll have his wisdom, courage and leadership forever.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2010 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

We have lost the man but not his legacy. That will still stand as will all the people who have been touched by him and have yet to be touched. May your ideas inspire many generations, especially this one. So long but not good by.

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By 7man, January 28, 2010 at 10:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Howard Zinn gave a lecture at my high school, some forty years ago, on the nature of radicalism. Mr. Zinn explained that “radical meant ‘root’- a radical seeks the root of an issue, nothing more, nothing less”. In a world of spin,distortion, and plain old B.S., Howard Zinn’s words still speak with clarity- not to be ashamed to seek out the truth. A radical concept.

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By cmarcusparr, January 28, 2010 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

We’ve lost a true American hero. My tribute to Howard Zinn will be to purchase his books for my grandchildren to read when they enter the public school system. They’re three- and two-years-old. My hope is, through the despair of these times, a new generation of Americans will wake up and take to the streets and wrench our democracy back from the corporations, Supreme Court, and a Congress run by venal self-interest. But, I have to admit, it seems a blighted hope lately.

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By Bubba, January 28, 2010 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

Thank you for leading your life as you did. Godspeed.

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By Lyn LeJeune, January 28, 2010 at 7:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

He was the kindest man I ever knew.  He took time for anyone who needed him and gave his honest and true self. He was much loved; he changed many of us for the better; he will be missed and remembered as a friend to democracy, goodness, and peace.
Lyn LeJeune

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By idarad, January 28, 2010 at 5:56 am Link to this comment

Howard -  truly a man of peace, you weren’t an American you were a moral compass for the world.  For you, no person’s achievements were too small, and no leader above reproach when criticism due, for in your eyes all are equal. 
Amazing life - amazing human!  I will miss you greatly!

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By photoshock, January 28, 2010 at 5:46 am Link to this comment

To one and all, My heartfelt condolences on the untimely death of a GREAT American and Patriot. This is a blow to all who knew him, and to those of us who only knew his words.
I am deeply saddened at this great loss! An American Patriot who had given his life for the cause of the people, peace and progress. We, the ones left behind cannot begin to estimate the gravity of the loss of Howard Zinn.
A voice of compassion and true patriotism has been silenced. I am at a standstill as to how to continue, but continue I will to defend the cause of peace and justice in the Americas and around the world. I will not be silenced by any act of Congress that goes against the Bill of Rights, as does HR 1955.
The struggle must continue, we must use all means at our disposal, except violence, to continue the struggle of peace and justice. For the memory of Howard Zinn, I pledge my life, my body, my very being
to continue this struggle.
Nothing more be said, only more be done to fight the powers that be. WE ARE ONE! WE ARE INVINCIBLE! WE ARE THE PEOPLE! WE cannot be denied, we cannot lose, we will win. Always in the end the people win.

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By ardee, January 28, 2010 at 5:41 am Link to this comment

That Americans like Howard Zinn exist, Daniel Ellsburg too, gives the lie to hopelessness and despair. This nation can and will be saved, exactly because of people like these.

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By Ouroborus, January 28, 2010 at 4:55 am Link to this comment

I envy that you actually got to know him; alas, I only
knew him through his writings. But that alone was
awesome.
Here’s what I wrote on my blog for Howard;
This is truly a huge loss for America and the world.
Historian, activist, and author; Howard Zinn is the
person who woke me up to the real history of the U.S.
and thus, the world. Thanks to him I’ll never be fooled
again.
RIP Howard; you’ll be missed; you were truly one of a
kind. Thanks.

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By bmeisen, January 28, 2010 at 1:32 am Link to this comment

Thanks for this rememberance. Howard Zinn was a great American, a true patriot and generous defender of a work in progress - the Constitution. 3 books are at the center of my identity as an American: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the US by Beard, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by Williams, and A People’s History of the US by Zinn.

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By Ruth, January 28, 2010 at 12:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Howard Zinn was one of the greatest minds of all time.  He made such a great difference in the world by presenting history as those who lived it saw it.

I remember that he endorsed Dennis Kucinich for President, showing that he understood that America needed a President they could trust.  He also spoke highly of Cyhthia McKinnney and her courage to stand up against the First Gulf War in “A People’s History…”

I hope that schools will continue to encourage students to read his books as there are no substitutes for “A People’s History…” and “Voices of a People’s History…”

I also recall that Howard Zinn was a very nice man who was easy to speak with. He was always trying to help others and was a genuine hero.

There are no words that can adequately describe how tragic a loss this is.

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