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Howard Zinn’s Life on the Frontlines

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Howard Zinn's life was a model for left-wing intellectuals to both produce and take action to transform the world.

Howard Zinn in Los Angeles, 2000. Slobodandimitrov / Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Historian Howard Zinn died in 2010. Today, he remains a model for left-wing intellectuals in how to both convey ideas to a public beyond academia and how to take direct action to transform the world.

Teaching at Spelman, a black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Zinn supported and advised the student sit-in movement. During the war on Vietnam, he traveled to Hanoi to receive American prisoners whom the North Vietnamese had shot out of the sky. And he published A People’s History of the United States, a book that prompted many readers to, for the very first time, see the United States’s foundational myths of American innocence and meritocratic reward as lies.

As Eric Foner wrote in an obituary for the Nation, “Few historians managed to reach a broad non-academic audience. Those who do generally write monumental history, works that celebrate great men or heroic events. Zinn’s history was different. . . . Zinn’s public learned about ordinary American struggles for justice, equality and power.” Foner continued,

I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People’s History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson — that despite all too frequent repression, if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, has written a foreword to a new edition of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn’s autobiography. Daniel Denvir spoke with Taylor about Zinn’s life and legacy for his podcast the Dig. You can listen to the episode here and subscribe to Jacobin Radio, which hosts the Dig and several other podcasts, here.


You write in your foreword, “The power of Howard Zinn the writer has overshadowed his fascinating history as an active participant in these powerful social movements.” What stuck out to you most about the various roles Zinn played across so many eras of the American left?


Probably the two most interesting and perhaps most formative, for him, was the role he played in the civil rights movement and then his role in the anti-Vietnam War movement, which stemmed from his service as an air force bomber pilot in World War II. The former would probably be surprising to people, because most people are familiar with him through A People’s History. But that whole framework of A People’s History — to look at history from below — really comes from his participation in that movement.

Zinn was part of the on-the-ground, daily grind of the Southern movement that often gets eclipsed in our celebrations of Martin Luther King, our celebrations of the big marches, the spectacular confrontations. He was involved in many unspectacular confrontations. But you can see through his writing that the movement was really held together by the actions of ordinary activists, people who had everything to lose (including life itself), but who learned and weathered the ups and downs of what any social movement produces to really transform themselves and transform the South.

The South, after a period of time, could no longer maintain Jim Crow because black people refused to be ruled in that way. So he charts, in a very granular way, the process by which people go from being afraid to becoming aware that they are really the only people who can change their circumstance. That can come with great sacrifice, but it can also come with great heroism — and important lessons for those of us who deal with this question about social movements, how they work and what makes them effective.


Though Zinn’s histories did overshadow his personal history, you write that his writing and life were also echoes of each other, in the sense that his life modeled the kinds of lives of committed struggles that he held up in his books. You mentioned his most famous is A People’s History of the United States. Why do you think that has become one of the most popular American history books ever?


There’s something about getting a more complicated view of history that puts regular people at the center of it that not only makes for a more interesting rendition of history, but demystifies the perennial question that all of us who care about the condition of the world have: “how can this change?” Zinn both takes the mystery out of that and debunks the central mythologies of American history that history is moved along or motored by the actions of white men and the governing institutions of our great democracy.

It’s not enough just to say that, “Well, that’s not true,” and “History is more complicated.” He turns the story upside down and puts millions of ordinary people — who are often rendered invisible in history — into the center, to say that change is complicated and hard, but through the collective intelligence and abilities of regular people, it can actually happen. It’s not miraculous and it’s not magic; it’s these small struggles that can turn into larger struggles. They often fail, sometimes they take us backwards. But then the conditions that put so much pressure on people’s lives compel them to go forward.

Then you hear about the role of radicals who bring themselves together in organizations to try to learn from the lessons of the past, who try to learn from history as a way to shape their strategies and tactics for contemporary social movements. In that way, it’s very dynamic and alive and makes more sense to people than the typical histories which are told from the top down and are shrouded in mystery. He cuts through a lot of that.


You write that he not only makes ordinary people the protagonists of his histories but also makes ordinary events more central to the plot of history. You say that he reads the impact of political actions in an unconventional way.

For example, the way that he looks at the civil rights movement’s “failure” in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and ’62 and the disappointingly small anti-Vietnam war protests in 1965. Talk about the way he viewed these seemingly failed movements in left mobilization.


The first thing is understanding why that is an important observation, because a lot of people who are unfamiliar with organizing, through no fault of their own, have little idea that it’s often the failed attempts that lead to the bigger successes. Big, successful marches that are connected to social movements — especially in the 1960s — don’t come from heaven. They have to be built and organized. And sometimes that lesson today can be distorted, because you can have lots of money from foundations that swoop in and make all of these resources available, but you still have the same problem: if it’s not connected to ongoing organization or organizing, then it’s a flash in a pan that can bring attention to a particular issue but doesn’t create the means to actually do anything about it.

Zinn is trying to do two things. One is to distill the way that consciousness develops. The Albany, Georgia, example is perennially held up as one of the failures of the civil rights movement because it didn’t create the kind of spectacle that Martin Luther King relied on to bring the news media in and gain the attention of the federal government as a way to pressure federal officials to force Southern officials to comply with federal law. In Albany, the sheriff just put people in jail without a huge confrontation, and he was lauded for not beating local activists.

Because of this, it’s seen as an unsuccessful campaign in comparison to Selma or Birmingham or other well-known victories. But Zinn, as a participant in the Albany campaign, had a different viewpoint: he recognized how the efforts of local people to involve themselves in movement activities that involved overcoming an enormous, at times crippling, fear of the political, legal, and economic establishment in that town meant that even though, in these particular campaigns, there was not a quote victorious outcome, local people were transformed. They had overcome their fear. And once they had overcome their fear, they were halfway there. Because the political establishment in that town and across the South relied on fear that had been developed over decades of brutality to maintain the status quo. With that fear broken, and people realizing that they could actually dismantle the status quo locally, there was a victory.

The bigger question is, how do people overcome the reluctance that stems from the idea that we can’t change our own circumstance? That’s a crucial part of consciousness — that willingness not just to participate in a march here and there but for people to really invest themselves in a social movement and a political project aimed at transforming their own conditions.

With Vietnam, he talks about the frustration of organizing demonstrations early on in the war that get very little traction. Hundreds of people may show up to a demonstration, but clearly that is not enough to pose any kind of challenge to the American war machine. So he walks readers through two things.

One is that there are things that organizers can do over a period of time that can make for more effective organization. There’s a process by which people learn how to better get the word out about a particular action. Over time, relationships can develop that put you in a position to be able to reach wider numbers of people than you may be able to initially.

But there’s also social factors at play that have nothing to do with your organizing ability. And it’s voluntarist to believe that organizers can just call mass movements into being. Those are shaped by forces outside of our control.

But this is the utility of this book. It’s explaining that social change is a combination of objective and subjective factors. And if we are positioned in such a way that we can take advantage of that, we can sometimes make change happen, but many times it has nothing to do with us.

So the acceleration of the Vietnam War is a factor that helps to drive the growth of the anti-war movement. But because you had committed activists that had been involved from the very beginning, they were able to take advantage of that situation to not just watch the demonstrations get bigger, but call the demonstrations. Someone had to be willing to organize the teachings that Zinn participated in. So you see all of the different elements that go into creating the conditions for an effective movement.

Zinn could have written an autobiography that was a thousand pages long. But he wrote a relatively modest volume, two hundred-some pages. In those pages, he focuses on these different campaigns. Because he’s not just writing to celebrate himself, he’s not writing to celebrate himself — he’s writing, based in his experience, to be useful to a new generation of activists, of people who would be radicalizing, who asked, “What do we do? How do we do it?” There’s no prescription or map to having a successful movement, but there are things that we can learn from history about organizing, how consciousness changes, and how the convergence of those things can create the conditions for a movement of ordinary people that holds the power to transform a situation.


Zinn was a professor at Spelman, a black women’s college in Atlanta during the time that he was participating in the Albany campaign. He was a model for how to be a left-wing public intellectual engaged with the political world. That is a role that you’ve really embraced. How do you think about approaching your role as a public-facing scholar and what lessons do you take from Zinn’s life?


“Public intellectual” means different things to different people. Zinn was an active participant in a social movement, he was teaching at a historically black women’s college in the South, and his students were trying to find ways to be active in this movement. So he became an active participant, both on his campus and then within the movement at large — so much so that it cost him his job. He was fired from his job at Spelman. When he went to Boston University and began to speak out and actively organize against the war, the university president, John Silber, tried repeatedly to have Zinn fired.

That’s a level of commitment and sacrifice that is rarely seen among the class of people we usually talk about as public intellectuals. He leveraged his position as a professor to write reports that were published in the New York Times and the Nation which helped to elevate the political issues at stake in the movement and to frame them in such a way that was important when the dominant discourse was that civil rights activists wanted too much, too soon.

He writes in the book that he would tell his students that he’s not a neutral person, that all ideas do not carry the same significance, that the level of injustice and inequity in the world requires that we take positions. Those positions should absolutely be rooted in facts, in history. But life is really too short to equivocate. We have to take positions on things and then fight for them.

For me, that’s important. It’s an ethos that I carry with me into the classroom. We have to engage in respectful debates about ideas, but there are also points of view in history. I am certainly someone who’s trying to figure out, with other people, how do we win? What is the most effective way for our side — the oppressed, the working class, black people, immigrants — how do we win in this struggle for the survival of the planet?

When you understand the stakes of things, it’s also hard to talk about neutrality. We are talking about how we win for the sake of the survival of the planet and our species. It requires some level of urgency to figure out. I hope that there is a social movement of weight and significance and of depth and breadth that emerges during my teaching life that I can also be an active participant in.


You cite Zinn to make a point that you also made after the women’s march: radicals shouldn’t be down on ordinary liberal people for their lack of radicalism. You note that Zinn’s own experience getting attacked by police during a demonstration is what radicalized him.


That’s a crucial lesson to take from Zinn. He believed in the potential of everyone to come to radical conclusions, and that you can’t write people off, because everyone comes to those conclusions based on a set of personal experiences.

Some people read Howard Zinn and decide, “Oh, that makes sense to me. I’m a socialist.” There’s probably lots of people for whom that happens to. But for every one person that happens with, there’s hundreds of more who don’t read the book, who try to get through life every day the best that they can, and are radicalized when they identify a gap between what they were told is possible in this country and what actually takes place. In that gap emerges questions about why is there this disparity between being told that this is the greatest country in the world if you work hard, and the fact that many people work hard and don’t succeed. So you can’t write people off.

The vast majority of, if not all, radicals, begin as liberals. They begin with liberal illusions in the ability of the American state institutions to solve the problems of this country. It’s only through experiencing that and then seeing those institutions fail over and over again to deliver the change that people need that people begin to ask deeper questions about why that is. Why are we still fighting to against police murdering black people? Why was there anticipation or controversy around Jason Van Dyke over whether or not he killed Laquan McDonald? We watched him shoot this child sixteen times, yet everyone wondered whether or not he would actually be convicted of a crime. So it’s seeing our institutions fail over and over again that opens up the possibility of thinking differently about where change comes from.

If we just write those people off because they haven’t come to the conclusions we have already, then we’re not talking about building a mass movement. We’re talking about a handful of friends who all think the same way charging into a wall for social change. That’s not gonna happen. If we’re actually talking about transforming American society into a democratic society, then that requires a mass movement, and a mass movement requires that the consciousness and the ideas of a mass of people transform.

That deep questioning of the arrangements within US society is unfolding before us. We can point to the Ferguson uprising; the Baltimore uprising; the thirteen million people who vote for an open socialist, Bernie Sanders; the dramatic growth of the Democratic Socialists of America. There’s many things that show that there is a radicalization underway in the United States. Included within that are people who’ve held liberal illusions. Those ideas will change, too.

For those of us who have thought about these things and come to a different set of conclusions, if we just write those people off as not coming to the right ideas quick enough, then we’re never gonna actually build and develop the kind of movement that’s necessary to not just to tinker with the United States but to fundamentally change it.