It wasn’t that long ago when the U.S. labeled the African National Congress as a terrorist organization. Its leader, Nelson Mandela languished for years in prison. Then because of massive grassroots movement and international support through boycott and divestment, Mandela is released and South Africa frees itself from its apartheid regime. Throughout history people have overcome tremendous odds to advance the cause of justice. Take the civil rights movement. What were African Americans up against? The entire apparatus of power from the courthouse to the statehouse was controlled by segregationists. And the federal government? Asleep at the wheel. Nevertheless, blacks organized and fought back. The key to the struggle was collective action. There’s an African proverb that captures that spirit, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, was perhaps this country’s premier radical historian. He was born in Brooklyn in 1922. His parents, poor immigrants, were constantly moving to stay, as he once told me, “one step ahead of the landlord.” After high school, he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During World War II, he saw combat duty as an air force bombardier. After the war, he went to Columbia University on the GI Bill. He taught at Spelman, the all-black women’s college in Atlanta. He was an active figure in the civil rights movement and served on the board of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was fired by Spelman for his activism. He was among the first to oppose U.S. aggression in Indochina. His book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was an instant classic. A principled opponent of imperialism and militarism, he was an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience. He spoke and marched against the U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. His masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, continues to sell in huge numbers. Among his many other books are You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian and Original Zinn with David Barsamian. Shortly before his death he completed his last great project, the documentary The People Speak. Always ready to lend a hand, he believed in and practiced solidarity. Witty, erudite, generous and loved by many the world over, Howard Zinn, friend and teacher, passed away on January 27, 2010. He would say, Don’t mourn. Get active. The struggle for peace and justice continues.