Filmmaker Anthony Giacchino‘s film, The Camden 28, featured historian Howard Zinn. Upon hearing about Howard Zinn’s death last week, Anthony sent in this tribute to “the People’s Historian.”
Just last Saturday, I emailed Howard Zinn to tell him I was going to attend a performance of his wonderful play, Marx in Soho, outside Philadelphia. I had planned on following up with him this week…
Like most people, I first encountered Howard through his writing. For me, however, it wasn’t A People’s History, but rather, a short piece in which he criticized the movie Mississippi Burning for portraying J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as heroic warriors for civil rights (I’m not sure if this is exactly what I read — it probably is — but click here to read “The Federal Bureau of Intimidation.”) I could feel my mind turning — I don’t know any other way to describe it — as I read Howard’s words. His personal perspective, his contextualization of events, and his cutting humor just blew me away.
Fast forward a year or two, and a few of his books, and I’m working on my documentary about the Camden 28. “Oh my god — Howard Zinn testified at the C28 trial!!” Howard’s testimony was crucial for the defense’s case, and not just because he explained to the jury the importance of civil disobedience throughout American history, or because he retold the history of the Vietnam War as chronicled by the Pentagon Papers. His testimony was also significant because it had a tremendous impact on Betty Good, mother of C28 defendant Bob Good. Mrs. Good had lost another son in the war and actually left the courtroom in tears during Howard’s testimony. But the power and clarity of his words helped produce an incredible personal testimony from Betty Good, who took the stand the next day in what became the emotional highpoint of the trial. After hearing Howard detail the war’s secret history, and particularly its economic underpinnings, Mrs. Good asked: did my son die in Vietnam for (as Howard put it) “tin, rubber and oil?”
We had to get Howard for the film.
So I called him at home, since his number was listed. I’m not sure why I was surprised that he answered the phone — it was his home after all — but I think I was a bit awestruck. I introduced myself, stumbled through an explanation of what I was doing, and asked if he’d be in the film. “The Camden 28,” he said, rattling off a number of the defendants’ names. He was happy to help and ended up doing two sessions for the documentary. But what really struck me about Howard was that despite his world-renowned reputation as the “People’s Historian,” he was so down-to-earth, so likable, a deeply modest human being. I think everyone who has known or met him will tell you that.
The well-known Marxism that “Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” shows up in Howard’s play, Marx in Soho. The line stuck with me when I saw the play last week, and it seems appropriate now. Howard’s life of teaching, writing, and personal activism (his testimony at the C28 trial included) surely went beyond interpreting the world.