The Lasting Legacy of Howard Zinn

Students and Faculty Reflect on Zinn on the 100th Anniversary of his birth

| in Community, Features


At the 2022 Boston University Department of Political Science graduation ceremony, Jim Gianopulos, former head of 20th Century Fox and chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, spoke of the formative influence of his teacher, Howard Zinn.

“The years I spent at BU studying Political Science were greatly influenced by the teachings of Professor Zinn, and his impact on social and political awareness and activism extended far beyond the campus,”  Gianopulos later said. “He was an inspiring academic, but also instilled in us a consciousness that remains with me to this day. His legacy lives on in anyone who was touched by his writings and teachings.”

Zinn (August 24, 1922–January 27, 2010), a longtime professor in BU’s Department of Political Science who would have turned 100 this past summer, was an historian, author, professor, playwright, political activist, and hero of the political left. He wrote dozens of books focused on issues including race, class, war and history, and is best known for his 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, which countered the premise that history must be written by and for society’s “winners.” A television documentary released in 2009, “The People Speak,” translated Zinn’s work to the screen for yet another generation of progressive thinkers. 

“Howard Zinn was a marvelous lecturer, a seminal scholar, an empathetic teacher, a lover of sweaters and bananas, a stirling human being,” said Joseph Boskin, BU Professor Emeritus and friend of Zinn’s. “Howard would remind us that meaningful change never comes from the top down but always the bottom up,” added BU Professor Emeritus Mark Silverstein.

Zinn also had a lasting influence on his students — both at BU and beyond. He served as a CAS faculty member from 1964 to 1988, and his legacy at BU continues each fall through the Annual Zinn lecture, established in 2008 to be a stimulating and energizing memorial to the progressive political values Professor Howard Zinn. The lecture is made possible by the Zinn Lecture Fund, which is supported by a generous gift from Alex MacDonald, Esq. (CAS’72), and his late wife Maureen A. Strafford, MD (MED’76). 

“He was one of the most authentic human beings I’ve ever met,” said MacDonald. “And that authenticity was on display in the busy, crowded classroom. And it was equally on display in his office when it was just the two of us.” 

On the “Our Favorite Teacher” section on, a collection of Zinn’s students favorite memories, Ginny Hildebrand (CAS `70, `72), wrote: “His natural humility combined with his fervor for peace and human rights helped me believe that we could better people and build a better world.” John Ingersoll (CAS `65) added: “He changed my life.” 

Zinn consistently applied his classroom concepts in the real world. In 1971, Zinn was one of five faculty members to remain on strike after Boston University President John Silver shut down a strike that forced teachers back to work. Zinn and his four colleagues were later known as the historical “BU 5.”

“Howard risked being fired when he helped to break down the front door of president Silber’s office building,” said BU Professor Emeritus Walter Clemens, “I got the political science faculty to call this a creative expression of political dissent.”

Actions like these were also remembered by a student, Robert Dannin (CAS `73). Dannin explained how Zinn led an anti war demonstration that ended up with Zinn and his students being arrested. While Zinn was given the opportunity to pay a fine and leave, he refused to abandon his students, staying the night with them, according to Dannin’s feature on “Our Favorite Teacher”.

And Virginia Sapiro, Professor Emerita of Political Science and Dean Emerita of Arts & Sciences at Boston University, said Zinn did not just have an influence on those on the left. She says she once asked an alum known for his Conservative political views who his favorite professor was. This alum immediately replied “Howard Zinn.” 

”I paused, trying to think about the appropriate response,” she recalled. “He laughed. ‘I see you are perplexed,’ he said. ‘Yes, Howard and I were about as different as we could be politically. But he urged us all to become politically engaged and active. That’s what he believed in, regardless of our political views. And I was very grateful to him for encouraging me to be an active citizen.”

This year’s Annual Zinn lecture will be held at 7 p.m., on September 29th, 2022, in the Tsai Performance Center. The lecturer will be Dr. Mae Ngai, the Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University. Ngai will be honoring Zinn’s passion and focus on human rights, speaking about “The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics.” Her lecture will cover the rise in Chinese and Asian-American hate crimes, illustrating the history of Anti-Asian racism in the U.S.