Passing the Torch
Howard Zinn’s legacy will live on in Eugene
By Cheyney Ryan
Howard Zinn loved Eugene. He loved our grassroots politics, our crazy-quilt community of activists, educators and oddballs. He loved our energy and our hope. In his many visits, he never failed to remind me of the Northwest’s radical past, with groups like the Industrial Workers of the World. He identified with the IWW’s rough-and-tumble spirit, its joyful culture of resistance, its merging of principle and pragmatism. I assured him that things were alive and well in Oregon. He always looked forward to coming back soon.
Howard’s advancing years and personal losses forced him to curtail his travels recently. But he’d planned to be in Eugene this spring to mark the beginning of a new community initiative — called “Future Peacemakers.” He planned to speak of his own journey from a poverty-stricken youth in Brooklyn to a World War II bombardier to a civil rights activist, anti-war leader and renowned author of A People’s History of the United States. I told him the aim of “Future Peacemakers” was to support the next generation of activists in learning the arts of community building and social change.
“Passing the torch,” he laughed. He was coming through in April, after spending the winter in California. He died last week of a heart attack in Santa Monica, at age 87.
Howard was one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate persons I have ever known. He was tall and lanky, almost Lincolnesque in stature; but with an infectious smile and a sharp sense of humor. His generosity showed through in his writings, which is why they touched so many. And his life was one of unwavering commitment to principle. He was fired from his first academic job for participating in civil rights demonstrations; he was harassed for years by the Boston University administration for his anti-war activism. How ironic that he became a celebrity late in life, due to the success of A People’s History, for his writings concerned the struggles of ordinary people, the outcasts and the forgotten — and how they were the true movers of change. During one of his visits, over breakfast at the Glenwood, he joked about having money for the first time in his life. Boston University recently named a lecture in his honor.
He considered himself a teacher, first and foremost, and that is how I knew him. We met when I was a graduate student at Boston University. I was his assistant for two years in his course on “Law and Justice in America.” With others, we organized a progressive faculty-graduate student group called Concerned Faculty and Students that sponsored classes, teach-ins, and speakers on the Vietnam War and radical politics generally. He was a member of my dissertation committee, always urging me to write in ways “people can use.” But my greatest education from Howard came from a night we spent in jail together, after protesting a visiting military recruiter. He spoke of flying bombing runs over Europe in World War II, how they’d been ordered to bomb cities in France for no apparent reason, and how he’d visited one of them after the war — where he’d talked to the people and seen the faces of those he had bombed.
“Even the ‘good’ wars are about killing innocent people,” he said. After the war, he put his medals in an envelope and scrawled across it “Never again.”
Waiting for us the next morning when we got out of jail was his wife, Roz Schechter Zinn. She was a vibrant presence and an accomplished artist; together they raised two children and were companions in political struggle for their 64 years of marriage. She succumbed to cancer in 2008, and Howard was never the same. “I’ve never lived by myself,” he told me. “I went straight from home to marriage, with a short detour in the Army Air Corps.”
The death of Howard Zinn is an irreparable loss for those of us who loved him. “If I want to be remembered for anything it’s for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality,” he once said. “I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.” One of Howard’s heroes, IWW leader Joe Hill, is famed for saying “Don’t mourn, organize!” Look for the announcement of “Future Peacemakers” this spring.
Cheyney Ryan teaches philosophy and conflict resolution at UO. He is also a fellow of Oxford University’s Changing Character of War program.