The fame of Howard Zinn, who died a week and a half ago, rested on his long record of challenging the status quo. As a young professor, he was a leader of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and throughout his career he was an inveterate demonstrator and speaker at rallies and strikes. His writings brought formerly obscure events like Bacon’s Rebellion, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the Philippine-American War into the light, arguing that such popular uprisings – and their brutal suppression – were central to the American story. It’s a vision that resonated with readers: Zinn’s 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” has sold more than 2 million copies. Zinn was an unabashed political radical, but much of the appeal of his work stemmed from something conceptual: He took a story that generations of American schoolchildren had had drilled into them and he turned it on its head. Rather than the Founding Fathers or politicians and generals, he saw the nation’s fed-up farmers, rebellious slaves, women’s libbers, labor leaders, and other agitators as our national heroes. By taking history outside the halls where treaties are signed and bills debated and instead writing the story from the streets, he cast a new light on a familiar narrative, exposing elements – about the costs of the country’s expansion, the mixed motives of its founders, and the role of its suppressed dissenters – that the traditional narrative had left in shadow.
more from Drake Bennett at the Boston Globe here.