Several weeks ago, my wife and I were invited to see a little baby, who had recently become a new member of our family. When we arrived, several people at the baby-gathering were huddled in animated conversation. I barely had my coat off when I overhead the name, “Howard Zinn.” I was instantly dumbfounded that a discussion about Howard Zinn was taking place – in a modest home in a small community in the middle of central Illinois. Yes, he had just recently died, but I did not think that anyone from my neck of the woods would take note of that sad event, nor did I believe that he would inspire any discussion. What was going on here? Apparently, an amazing book of his was being discussed
I perked up and stopped the conversation a little cold when I interrupted to say that I had known Howard Zinn. Actually, I was stretching it a bit. I met Howard Zinn a long time ago, only had a few conversations with him, usually in the company of Professor Robert McShea. my mentor. Nevertheless, I felt that I had developed a kinship with him. Over the past several years I had rediscovered and had come to fully appreciate, indeed revere, Howard Zinn. However, that had not always been so.
When I arrived at Boston University as a freshman in the fall of 1968, it was the largest private university in the United States. It was a long way from my home of Tremont, Illinois, and it felt eerie at first. I had never before visited Boston, yet it was to be my home for the next 4 years. I didn’t know anyone there and felt like I had been spun out of a bottle. I was somewhat frightened by the dramatic change of environment in my life, but I relished the opportunity to see where I fit in. What better place to be than in the Athens of America with such a diverse and enlivening atmosphere. The Boston area boasted a whopping 250,000 college students, and I was one of them!
Shortly before my arrival at BU, I decided that I would declare a major in “political science.” I had more than a passing interest in politics and law, and hoped to eventually establish a career in one or the other. That would be a long way off though. My immediate task at hand was to plan my course schedule. I enjoyed spending day after day browsing through the college catalog, mapping out all the different possibilities. I had plenty of time to do so. Freshmen were required to arrive one week ahead of the rest of the student body for orientation purposes. It was a long week. Classes, though, did eventually began, and I thought I was ready. The first course of my college career was to be a political science requisite entitled, Government 101.
As I quickly discovered, Gov 101 was the most popular course at BU. When I walked into class for the first time, I was shocked to see a mass of students in the largest lecture hall at the school. As I plopped into my seat near the back of the auditorium, I asked a nearby student how many students were in this course. He replied, “1,200 – and that’s just this section!” There were 1,050 people in my hometown.
The big question that Gov 101 students asked each other was, “Did you get Levin or Zinn?” The course was taught in two separate sections by two professors, Murray Levin and Howard Zinn. Murray Levin was the most popular. He was a cigar-chomping, rotund, balding entertainer, who loved an audience, any audience. Levin had a particular interest in Massachusetts politics, and required reading for his course included, The Compleat Politician: Political strategy in Massachusetts, which he published in the early 1960’s. Howard Zinn was also very popular, known to be a fierce advocate for students but, more intriguing, renowned as a firebrand radical. He presented as a gangly, long-striding, frenetic sort — always on-the-move. By reputation, he never hesitated to immediately get actively involved if he thought the issue was important. Nonetheless, in 1968, I don’t think that many students on campus were aware that in 1965 he had organized the first public anti-Vietnam War rally in the United States. There were only about 100 people on the Boston Common during that first rally, and Zinn was in later years fond of noting that important events in history usually start quite small. Things happened quickly after that first rally, however. In 1969, Zinn and Dr. Daniel Ellsberg led an anti-war protest of over 100,000 people on the Boston Common. Both Zinn and Ellsberg were singled out as leaders, badly beaten, and arrested. By then, everyone in Boston knew who Zinn was.
But back to the fall of 1968. It was pure chance that I was placed in Levin’s rather than Zinn’s section. Students were allowed to transfer between the sections at first if they had a preference, and many did. I was happy to be in the comfort of good-ole Murray. An additional plus was that his graduate assistants were known to be fairly forgiving graders. Zinn’s reputation as a radical, on the other hand, put me on edge from the beginning, and I was happy that I could keep my distance from him. He was not just an academic, he was a political activist, who was not afraid of the streets. Not only was I afraid of the streets, I was afraid of the sidewalks. In fact, I was afraid that I would get lost on the MBTA. Zinn just didn’t seem to be my kind of guy.
At the end of my first semester, I ended Murray Levin’s course with an uninspired B. Maybe I didn’t like Massachusetts politics. Maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe I should have gone for Zinn’s section from the beginning. Maybe I should have switched majors. Actually, I did switch majors, but just slightly. Four years later in 1972, I graduated with a major in “Political Science and Philosophy.”
30-something years later. . . while browsing at a local bookstore, I saw a book entitled, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. Somewhat stunned, I wondered if the Howard Zinn that I knew had a son by the same name. No, I looked at the bio blurb, and it was the Howard Zinn of old. After thinking about it for quite a while, I broke down and bought the book, read it, and was astonished to have discovered a masterpiece . This book was an unprecedented look at history from a completely different perspective — from the view of the average person, the underdog, and from the people who were on the receiving end of the bully stick. After reading the book I was saddened that I had not gotten to better know this man when I had the chance.
Howard Zinn lived a courageous life, and feared no one in the arena of advocacy for the betterment of all the people. He was fearless in debate and fearless in action. I cannot begin to memorialize his life here. I just never got to know him well enough to do that effort justice. However, I do want to say that he was a very good man who, at 87, died too young. He sparkled until the end. You may want to take some time to see and hear the great man give an interview on April 20, 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley. I recommend it:
Professor Zinn, I wish that I would have had the other section of Gov 101. I am certain that it would have vastly enriched my life.