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Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

The passing of historian and activist Howard Zinn has been well publicized in the media the past few days.  Many students know of Howard Zinn through the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, wherein Matt Damon mentions Zinn’s most famous work,  A People’s History of the United States , as required reading.  Zinn’s New York Times Obituary summarizes this polarizing text succinctly:

“A People’s History” told an openly left-wing story. Professor Zinn accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

Pointed to as the zenith of his career, A People’s History often overshadows the rest of Zinn’s contribution to the fields of history and civil rights.  One of Zinn’s earliest works, The Southern Mystique, was penned during his time as a professor at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college, in Atlanta, Georgia.  Reflecting on the political and cultural climate of the South in the early sixties, Zinn challenged the notion that the South is different or “distinct” from the rest of the United States:  more provincial, conservative, fundamentalist, violent, and conformist.  Specifically pointing towards the the racial climate in the South during the civil rights era,  Zinn argued that the Southern Mystique is an unfair stereotype projected on the American South in an attempt to localize racial prejudice as a regional problem.   Racial prejudice, Zinn argued, is a national problem.

Works such as the Southern Mystique and Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology are some of the lesser known texts in Zinn’s canon, but these texts are arguably the most important in understanding his humanitarian approach to the study of history.  An approach that garnered him the 2010 New York University Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award for embodying and exemplifying the characteristics promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  – “a vision of peace, persistence in purpose, and inspirational action.”

Joshua Finnell

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