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One of the best tombstones ever is said to include the last words of a young, out-gunned gunslinger in Arizona: “I was expecting this, but not so soon.”
Now I learn that our friend Howard Zinn has died, something I was not expecting at all, even though he was 87. Way too soon. When I say “our friend,” I mean everyone who believes in percolate-up, grassroots democracy; every working stiff who ever even thought about rebelling against the system; every soul who realizes that their worth is not measured in accumulated wealth, but in the fieriness of their democratic spirit.
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Zinn was a human volcano of fieriness. He inspired countless thousands of us to battle the bastards and implement our country’s historic commitment to the common good. A son of poor immigrants, he worked as a ditch digger, brewery worker, pipe fitter – and he was a decorated World War II bombardier. Howard then earned a PhD in history on the GI bill. He didn’t believe that America’s history is the benevolent work of “Great Men,” but the ongoing story of rebels, mavericks, and mutts who dare to force change on the Great Men.
Zinn compiled these stories into one of America’s most important books – “A People’s History of the United States” – and Zinn himself lived its message, joining picket lines, civil rights protests, anti-war marches, and other actions. “I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed,” he said, “but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, and to act against injustice. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Without troublemakers, Americans would still be singing “God Save the Queen.” Zinn has died, but his example has not. Spread copies of his “People’s History” – and make trouble for the power elites. That’s a fitting epitaph for our friend, Howard Zinn.
“Howard Zinn, 87, Author Who Revised U.S. History and Inspired Students, Dies,” The New York Times, January 29, 2010.
“People’s Historian and Progressive Hero Howard Zinn Dies,” www.alternet.com, January 27, 2010.