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Howard Zinn
Let the People Speak
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December 11, 2009

Howard Zinn died at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010

"They're willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don't want people to think that we could actually transform this country."

Howard Zinn has long been known as the historian of the American everyman and woman. His groundbreaking work, THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, turned history on its head — concentrating on the power of the people to effect change, not just the deeds of great men and those in political power.

Now selections from his collection of voices from the American past are performed by actors, poets and writers in a new documentary directed by Matt Damon which is airing on The History Channel. Find out more about some of those voices below, and delve further into American history through the JOURNAL's coverage of American history on-air and online.


Howard Zinn grew up in the immigrant slums of Brooklyn where he worked in shipyards in his late teens. He saw combat duty as an air force bombardier in World War II, and afterward received his doctorate in history from Columbia University and was a postdoctoral Fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

Howard Zinn, photo by Robin Holland His first book, LAGUARDIA IN CONGRESS, was an Albert Beveridge Prize winner. In 1956, he moved with his wife and children to Atlanta to become chairman of the history department of Spelman College. His experiences there led to his second book, THE SOUTHERN MYSTIQUE. As a participant-observer in the founding activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he spent time in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and wrote SNCC: THE NEW ABOLITIONISTS. As part of the American Heritage series, he edited NEW DEAL THOUGHT, an anthology. His fifth and six books, VIETNAM: THE LOGIC OF WITHDRAWAL, and DISOBEDIENCE AND DEMOCRACY, were written in the midst of his participation in intense antiwar activity. In 1968, he flew to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan to receive the first three American fliers released by North Vietnam. Two years later came THE POLITICS OF HISTORY. In 1972, he edited, with Noam Chomsky, THE PENTAGON PAPERS: CRITICAL ESSAYS. In 1973 appeared POSTWAR AMERICA. In 1974, he edited JUSTICE IN EVERYDAY LIFE.

In 1980 came his epic masterpiece, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, "a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically and whose plight has been largely omitted from most histories" (LIBRARY JOURNAL). Through the 1980s and '90s, Zinn continued to write books — including Declarations of INDEPENDENCE: CROSS-EXAMINING AMERICAN IDEOLOGY, FAILURE TO QUIT: REFLECTIONS OF AN OPTIMISTIC HISTORIAN, and YOU CAN'T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF OUR TIMES —and in this period also wrote three plays: EMMA, DAUGHTER OF VENUS, and MARX IN SOHO.

As the lasting impact of A PEOPLE'S HISTORY set in, the monumental work inspired publication for many different audiences: LA OTRA HISTORIA DE LOS ESTADOS UNIDOS brought Zinn's words to Spanish-speaking audiences in 2001; a companion book of primary sources edited with Anthony Arnove, VOICES OF A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, was published in 2004; and in 2007 young adults were exposed to the historian's ideas through the two-volume A YOUNG PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, adapted with Rebecca Stefoff (with a single-volume edition released in 2009). An audio CD, READINGS FROM VOICES OF A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, and a documentary film, THE PEOPLE SPEAK, have brought the historic words of Zinn's subjects to multimedia audiences. Other recent Zinn books include HOWARD ZINN ON HISTORY, HOWARD ZINN ON WAR, TERRORISM AND WAR WITH ANTHONY ARNOVE, THE UNRAVELING OF THE BUSH PRESIDENCY and A POWER GOVERNMENTS CANNOT SUPPRESS.

Zinn is professor emeritus of political science at Boston University.

Photo by Robin Holland.
Related Media:
View Bill Moyers 2002 conversation with Howard Zinn.

Medical practitionersThe JOURNAL on American History
View a collection of online and on air reports on American history.

The JOURNAL on Working America
BILL MOYERS JOURNAL's complete and continuing coverage of the issues facing America's workers.

James Thindwa
James Thindwa, whose campaign for economic fairness for working people in Chicago has brought him up against the city's powerful political establishment and corporate giant Wal-Mart.

Deepening the American Dream
Several years ago Howard Zinn wrote an essay on how to "deepen the American Dream." Visit our online project to find out how Zinn and other JOURNAL guests view the future of the American Dream.
References and Reading:
Howard Zinn's site contains essays by Zinn, interviews (print and video) and information on upcoming projects and speaking engagements.

The Web site for the film contains photos of many of the performers and an email update sign-up for more information.

The History Channel: THE PEOPLE SPEAK
The History Channel's site for the film contains numerous clips as well as a classroom guide.

Voices of a People's History
In addition to the documentary, the Voices of a People's History Project performs selections from the book around the nation. This site contains information for setting up performances, a calendar of upcoming events, and an sign-up for additional teaching materials.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence - by Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City
"I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: 'A time comes when silence is betrayal.' That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

Also This Week:
Renowned historian Howard Zinn has chronicled centuries of people's struggles against oppression. He joins Bill Moyers to discuss the voices of today's people — facing big interests' outsized influence — and his new film THE PEOPLE SPEAK.

Explore American history, from the long tradition of dissent to Lincoln's life in pop culture.

Organizers George Goehl and Heather Booth on turning anger into action.

View profiles from BILL MOYERS JOURNAL of people who are making a difference in their communities.

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