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Howard Zinn Dies

Historian, author, inspiration of political left succumbs to heart attack


Howard Zinn, with James Carroll, at the Howard Zinn Lecture Series in October 2009. Photo by Frank Curran

Howard Zinn, an author, a history professor, and a political activist, whose writings changed the lives and minds of BU students and readers around the world, died of a heart attack yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 87.

Zinn taught in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department for 24 years, from 1964 to 1988. He was a hero of the political left, a consistent and cogent critic of American policies, domestic and foreign. He is best known for his book A People’s History of the United States (1980), which defied the notion that history is defined and written by and for “the winners.” A television documentary released last year, The People Speak, translated Zinn’s work to the screen for yet another generation of progressive thinkers.

Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism and one of the famous BU Five, a group of faculty who with Zinn refused to cross a University picket line in 1979, says that even though Zinn hadn’t taught here for many years, his death would change BU forever.

“He was such a righteous man,” says Rivers. “He was such a gentleman, a wonderful scholar; he had such charm and such erudition. He will be sorely missed.”

Joseph Boskin, a CAS professor emeritus of history and a close friend of Zinn’s, describes his death as “a loss for the entire country.”

“Howard will be hard to replace as a political figure, a sterling individual, and as a person of vision,” Boskin adds. “Also, as a person of guts.”

BU President Robert A. Brown describes Zinn as “an iconic writer and educator who impacted generations of students at Boston University.”

“Hopefully,” says Brown, “his spirit will live on at the University through the Howard Zinn Lecture Series in the College of Arts & Sciences, which has been established by grateful and admiring students.”

National Book Award winner James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist and former University chaplain, says he is crushed by Zinn’s death.

“What a helluva last act he had,” he says. With the documentary, which was produced by Matt Damon, among others, “he became beloved by yet another generation of people. It’s astounding for a man of his time and the length of his days to still be doing what he was doing at BU so many years ago: offering young people a vision, a way to see the world.”

In October 2009, speaking at the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, with Zinn, Ellen Goodman, and Mary Gordon, Carroll said that during his early years at BU, he was one of those who sat in, without permission, on Howard Zinn’s history lectures. “In those lectures I heard a language,” he said. “I heard a rationale, an ethical argument that defined the feelings I was having, and enabled me eventually, still timidly, to claim them as my own.”

Alex MacDonald (CAS’72), a former student of Zinn’s, and his wife, Maureen A. Strafford (MED’76), made the gift that endowed the annual Howard Zinn Lecture Series.

“Howard Zinn’s teaching style was a dynamic one: that students should learn history in the classroom, but also make history in the public square, on the Ellipse in front of the White House, on a packed Boston Common, and on the sidewalks of Commonwealth Avenue,” says MacDonald.

Zinn grew up in a working class family in New York City, and at 18 landed a job as an apprentice shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At 21, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and flew combat missions in Europe during World War II. Following college and graduate school, he became chairman of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, in Atlanta, where he was active in the civil rights movement and encouraged African-American students to fight racial discrimination. Soon students were challenging the restrictions they faced, and the administration viewed Zinn as “an instigator rather than supporter,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. In 1963 the college fired him for insubordination.

He joined BU’s political science department in 1964, at the beginning of the anti–Vietnam War movement. “War is not complicated,” Zinn said. “War is simple. It’s like a drug. It’s like crack. You get a high from victory in war . . . My conclusions about war led me to become an activist against the war in Vietnam and to write about the nature of war.”

His tenure at BU was marked by crowded lecture halls and legendary clashes with the administration, as well as teach-ins, debates, and rallies. He testified for the defense at the 1973 Pentagon Papers trial of his friend Daniel Ellsberg. He retired from BU in 1988.

Zinn leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, of Lexington, a son, Jeff, of Wellfleet, three granddaughters, and two grandsons.

“There’s plenty to say about my dad,” says Jeff Zinn, “but other people can say it better. I’ll just say he was a great father and I loved him very much.”

Get the Flash Player to see this media.

In the video above, taken from his last public appearance at Boston University, in October 2009, Howard Zinn offers President Barack Obama some advice.


47 Comments on Howard Zinn Dies

  • Carax on 01.28.2010 at 12:50 am

    Howard Zinn, was an American original who I will miss.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 6:38 am

    oh no! how sad.

  • Lynda Houston on 01.28.2010 at 8:13 am

    Back in the 60s....

    Oh, that’s sad! I took his course at BU back in the 60s and I guess he was part of the reason that I got involved in the anti-war protests in ’69.
    And he lived near us in Auburndale so I saw him for many years. He had a gentle manner yet he had a lot of fire!

  • Christopher Robinson on 01.28.2010 at 8:38 am


    Is it possible to get the Howard Zinn video captioned so the Deaf and hard of hearing community may know what Prof. Zinn is saying here? He was and will continue to be an important figure to all of us.

  • Karl Gerds on 01.28.2010 at 8:58 am

    Howard Zinn was a good man, a fighter and affected me greatly in a very positive way. The world is lessened today by his passing.

  • Humberto Reynoso, PhD on 01.28.2010 at 9:06 am

    Last BU public appearance Nov 11, 2009

    Actually, the last public appearance of Professor Howard Zinn at Boston University was on November 11, 2009, when he talked about the “Holy Wars.” The event was organized by the Coalition for Social Justice and the video can be watched on Democracy Now website.



    Humberto Reynoso, PhD
    Boston University School of Social Work

  • Dr. Doreen on 01.28.2010 at 9:15 am

    Howard Zinn

    It was only this Sunday that I watched the Howard Zinn Lecture Series 2009 on the internet. I can hardly believe this outstanding professor of political science and activist of social justice has gone. But what a colourful and remarkable life he had and has left this world with a legacy that will continue in his absence. RIP Professor Zinn.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 9:27 am

    I'll miss you!

    Ever since I saw his play Marx in Soho when I was an undergrad, I was in love. I was very saddened to hear of Zinn’s passing today. He will be sorely missed.

  • DRC on 01.28.2010 at 9:28 am

    Zinn was a marxist who hated the U.S. and spent his life demeaning it. I won’t miss him much.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 9:32 am

    He was a teacher in all the best senses of the word. He insisted that we pay attention.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 9:56 am


  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 11:05 am

    Rest in peace!! There will be few that can fill his shoes. Another inspiration gone!

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 11:17 am


  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 11:27 am


    So sad, RIP I believe you achieved your purpose in Life. You will be missed

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 12:13 pm

    Another Great Appearance

    Howard Zinn was also at the school post October when he came on November 5 to speak about his TV special The People Speak which was to play shown on the History Channel in December. He was there with David Strathairn and Chris Moore. I had heard of him before but going to this event really opened my eyes as to what an amazing person he really was. It was a wonderful experience being able to see him speak live about what he has done with history, and it is a shame that he has left us but as many have said his legacy will live on!

  • Letcher Eley on 01.28.2010 at 12:29 pm

    Howard Zinn

    If not the best, one of the best professors of all time at Boston University. I took two courses with him and found them to be truly thought provoking and interesting.

    In a strange way, Zinn and Silber together did more to make BU the great institution it is today than any other BU personalities.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 12:57 pm

    Howard Zinn, the legend

    Howard Zinn was a BU Legend and will be sorely missed. We have lost a truly good person and a wonderful human being. RIP Howard Zinn.

  • Sohail on 01.28.2010 at 1:22 pm

    What a great human being we have lost as a global community. Truly saddening. Chomsky’s comment on Zinn’s passing:

    “His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives. When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.”

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 1:59 pm

    Howard Zinn, BU and Free Speech

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 2:25 pm

    what a loss.

  • Sofia on 01.28.2010 at 2:46 pm

    We love you

    I think he was a great man.
    We love you,
    Sofia, 8 years old

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 2:52 pm

    no, Zinn wasn’t a marxist who hated the US. He only wanted to improve it. He was one of the GREAT Americans, in fact.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 4:02 pm

    Howard Zinn Dies

    BU Today Uses Sensitive Headlines

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 5:29 pm

    I had Zinn as a teacher. He loved students and made them think (even if you thought he was wrong). He was also a wonderfully decent human being who always championed the underdog.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 5:31 pm

    RIP Howard Zinn. I had Zinn as a teacher. He loved students and made them think (even if you thought he was wrong). He was also a wonderfully decent human being who always championed the underdog.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 8:06 pm

    Read you, met you, even waited on you !
    Thank you for your simplicity.
    Thank you for always saying like it is.
    Thank you for letting the little children know the truth.

  • Anonymous on 01.28.2010 at 8:36 pm

    Howard Zinn you will live on in the hearts of many. Thank you for your sense of justice. I love you.

  • We r BU! on 01.28.2010 at 11:59 pm

    Howard Zinn's Last BU Playlist


  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 12:52 am

    Howard Zinn

    I took a course co-taught Dr. Zinn and a Dr. Robert Cohen at Boston University way, way back in 1970 which was about radical movements of that time during which the war in Viet Nam was raging, while there was much ferment both on and off of college campuses. Dr. Zinn had different guest speakers from movements and groups come in for almost every class.

    Thanks to Dr. Zinn, our often naive middle class eyes were opened wide to real American history, about those to whom great suffering was caused. He increased our scholarship, and inspired our activism.

    Along with his humility, personal warmth and friendliness, his lessons will always remain with me.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 8:34 am


    will there be any sort of commemoration here at BU?

  • Barbara on 01.29.2010 at 10:34 am

    Howard Zinn was a truly great thinker and activist who changed my perspective on government and America in the 1970’s. A wonderful professor and extraordinary human being.

  • Adele on 01.29.2010 at 11:30 am

    Howard Zinn will be missed

    I went to BU in the early 70’s when the Vietnam War and Professor Zinn were at their height. Unfortunately, I was never able to get into one of his always filled political science classes. However, I did hear him lecture many times around campus. And, yes, I did participate in more than one of the anti-war rallies he led. He embodied what few teachers possess –the passion, knowledge, and drive to have everyone around him thrive. For me, he helped to shape the University and my college experience. I know many people feel this way. He will be missed.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 12:30 pm

    Zinn: Fraud extraordinaire

    For those acolytes of Mr. Zinn, I ask this: Where was the wonderful humanitarian voice of Mr. Zinn(the self-accaimed world citizen), while his friends, the Communists, were slaughtering a hundred million innocent people? If you have a decade or so on your hands, see if you can dig up a few syllables. (I won’t hold my breath) I spoke with Mr. Zinn on several occasions. After one B.U. lecture, I confronted him about Daniel Ellsberg, who Zinn described as a courageous individual for his law-breaking exploits with the Pentagon Papers. I reminded Mr. Zinn that Daniel Ellsberg was a military adviser to the Kennedy Administration; Ellsberg was so gung ho about prosecuting the Vietnam War that he volunteered to go into the field with an M-16, even though field battle was not allowed for his administrative rank. So, while the war looked winnable with the unparalled hardware advantage of the U.S., Ellsberg was gung ho warhawk extraordinaire promoting the war. But oops, when the war became a gruesome slog(Was Ellsberg aware of Korea?)–but more importantly–politically untenable for his party–Ellsberg reversed gears 180 degrees, joining the anti-war activists, and with his high security clearance, gathered thousands of pages of classified military documents and leaked them to the lefty New York Times which couldn’t fall over itself fast enough to publish them, weaking the U.S. position to work behind the scenes with allies. (What head of state would deal with a country whose secrets are being sold to the N.Y. Times by the bucketload?) I said, “Mr. Zinn, if this is your idea of a courageous man, I’d love to see who your cowards are?” Ellsberg is with you while you’re winning; and against you when you’re losing–this is Howard Zinn’s idea of a paragon of virtue?

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 1:58 pm

    Brilliant. One of the best...

    I had the pleasure of having Howard Zinn’s as a professor at BU in the late ’70s. His lectures were riveting. His passion was electric. His students loved him and he loved them back. Many years later, I revisited Howard Zinn by reading his beautifully written and researched “People’s History of the United States” and “Voices of a People’s History.” Then he was back again, with the documentary “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” It was truly amazing how much this brilliant man produced in his lifetime. He’s continues to be an inspiration.

  • Alum on 01.29.2010 at 4:10 pm

    Coverage of Zinn's death by BU

    I attended one of Howard’s fascinating, crowded classes in the 1980s. I just went to the BU website out of curiosity to see if Howard Zinn would even be mentioned given John Silber’s antagonism toward him.

    It makes me feel better about BU to see this — to not suppress information, or laudatory statements, about Howard Zinn, say as a function of directives from active or emeritus leadership.

    I’d like to think that Silber, even, appreciated Howard Zinn at least for dialectical value.

    On a related topic, BU in the 1980s was on the main a hostile, unwelcoming place for someone struggling with being gay, in great part due to the attitude of its leadership.

    I hope the editors of this website will have the courage, honesty, and openness — in the spirit Howard Zinn — to print my comments in full.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 6:37 pm

    Howar Zinn, a real American Patriot

    Howard Zinn was a real American Patriot,
    As a young man, he volunteered for war, and later thought about what that meant. He realized that even in the “good war” bombs dropped from on high killed innocent people below. It made him think about what it all meant.. and he tried to pass that along to his students… Stopping and thikning about what you are doing when you are given an order rather than just following it.. that is courageous.

  • Anonymous on 01.30.2010 at 3:12 am

    A Towering Figure

    Howard Zinn was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. He was filled with love for humanity and he took what has always been the best about American ideas and thought and made sure the rest of the country not only knew about those ideas, but understood them and how to apply them in their own lives in order to improve the world and make it a better, more peaceful, more humane place. I was his student in the late 70’s. I loved and respected this man as so many others did and still do. God bless him and may his work continue to touch every new generation until finally we put an end to war and racism and poverty.

  • Bart on 01.31.2010 at 11:20 am

    Howard Zinn: Rebel with a cause

    Ironically, the day before Howard Zinn died, I had used him and his writing as an example in my class of how insurgent scholarship can and must be used to change things in our society. The principles he stood for and emulated – justice, equality, freedom, truth, fearlessness, governmental, corporate and institutional accountability to the people – are timeless. Now we must use his life and work to teach a whole nation and the world to stand in solidarity with him.

  • Esteban A. Calderón, Stockholm, Sweden on 01.31.2010 at 4:08 pm

    From Stockholm, Sweden...Zinn will be missed

    I guess I qualify among those “readers around the world” whose mind and life Howard Zinn has changed.

    I first ran into this Great Man in my early twenties as I happened to find “A Peoples History of the United States” in a public library here in Stockholm. A truly life-changing experience that has had a crucial impact in defining me as a human, as a thinking person and as a free individual, as well as a person with a strong moral obligation and as a history-maker in motion. I consider my “meeting” with Mr Zinn as a true revelation and intellectual awakening which I will always have Mr Zinn to thank for. I therefore naturally took the news of his death with sadness, but also with joy, since few men deserved their final rest more than Howard Zinn did.

    To me, Mr Zinn will always be present and and inspiration and represents the best of America.

  • John Vasquez on 02.01.2010 at 10:19 pm

    Howard Zinn

    I had the great honor of being Zinn’s student both in the classroom and in the movement. Both were an education of a lifetime.

  • Michael Telzer on 02.04.2010 at 11:38 pm

    Howard Zinn was my professor at Boston University. He was a kind man with a gentle manner.
    Like Mona Lisa, he always seemed to be smiling. As he grew older, he appeared to become more confident. Psychologists believe that as we age there are four tenets necessary to bring us fulfillment, represented by four words that begin with the letter L. LIFE (to live it to the fullest), LOVE, LEARNING, and LEGACY.
    Dr. Zinn’s life clearly had an abundance of all of these L’s. However his legacy reminds us to add one more L word to the vernacular: LIBERTY.

  • Anonymous on 02.05.2010 at 2:22 am

    Our loss of Howard Zinn

    All peace and justice loving people have lost a great American hero with the passing of Howard Zinn. Howard helped us all to see through the empty power of the ruling class and their frequent use of the machinery of war externally, and the machinery of oppression of minorities and the working class internally. His words inspired common people not to kill others or to despair, but to organize and fight for their rights and appreciate the power of their potential. He was not a Marxist idealogue but an American patriot speaking truth to power – a defender of the US Constitution and a defender of American freedoms. Howard “walked the talk” putting his body on the line so many times over his long life. Amazingly, after witnessing these many decades with so many wars and so many struggles for justice; he was still an optimist who perpetually saw the glass half full – even after 8 years of Bush/Cheney crimes. A teacher in so many ways, a voice for those that others would silence, a courageous and honorable man who will be sorely missed but not forgotten.

  • J R Nowak on 02.06.2010 at 7:52 pm

    Howard Zinn

    I worked with Howard at BU during his tenure. We always met on Commonweath Ave on the way to his classroom in the basement of 602. One day he had a tall gentleman with him by the name of Dan. He would say come join us. I watched him from the sidelines and often sat with his wife Roz and enjoyed his presentations in manner of Rabbe with secular overtones. My sister met him at a dinner at the University of Bridgeport. The two of them had their heads together and as I neared the intimate discussion it was of the details of the Algerian Civil War.
    I have other rememberances which I shall always keep as fond memories of Boston University and of Howard. I hope the Chapel will have some posted event to his memory.

  • Anonymous on 08.09.2010 at 2:51 pm


  • Anonymous on 01.23.2011 at 3:15 pm


    Even if we disagree or hold negative opinions on the man, let’s respect thee condolences that appear in this comment thread and keep things civil. Prof. Jaime

  • John on 03.03.2011 at 8:28 pm

    This is so sad, I think he was a very intelligent character worth remembering and honouring. In a time where people are obsessed with celebrities and empty opinions rendered in mainstream media, it is important to remind ourselves that there are people worth listening to who can help us become better critical thinkers. online casino

  • Gabe on 03.08.2011 at 6:07 pm

    a great man!

    I read “A People’s History of the United States”when I was on college he inspired me to see things in another way. His method of teaching brought freshness to the history classes. Zinn was an admirable man and a pacifist, he was also one of the first ones to start the debate about the green manufacturing . Great man, great life. Zinn’s legacy will live on.

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