A People’s History of Howard Zinn

Joel Whitney in Guernica:

Zinn10tSince its publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s bestselling A People’s History of the United States has sold more copies every year and has had a tremendous effect on our understanding of who gets left out of traditional histories. Zinn grew up in the slums of New York, and worked as a young man in the New York shipyards. At seventeen, he attended his first public rallies to petition for better working conditions. He volunteered as an Air Force bombardier in World War II and, after the war had effectively ended, was ordered to drop napalm on French villagers and German soldiers who'd already surrendered.

After a doctorate from Columbia University, Zinn took a job at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, where he worked with students as an early civil rights advocate. In 1968, during the United States war in Vietnam, he worked on the North Vietnamese prisoner exchange and at home as an anti-war activist. He ended up at Boston University and published A People’s History and many other books. A documentary released this summer, Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train traces his career and his influence on progressives, historians, and the anti-war movement.

Guernica: I just saw the documentary on your life and career, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Could you explain the title of the film.

Howard Zinn: It comes from something I used to say in teaching when I was starting a new class. I would tell my students, “This is not going to be a neutral class.” I don’t believe in neutrality because the world is already moving in certain directions and wars are going on and children are going hungry. Terrible things are happening. And so to be neutral in a situation like this when things are already moving is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I don’t want to collaborate with the world as it is. I want to intrude myself. I want to participate in changing the direction of things. So that’s the origin of the title, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

More here.