Legendary Playwright, Historian Howard Zinn Dead At 87

American playwright, teacher and best selling author Howard Zinn has died. He was 87. Zinn was best known for his book "A People's History of the United States" which sold more than a million copies world wide. Host Michel Martin has this remembrance.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, we want to close our program today by telling you about Howard Zinn. He died yesterday. He was no ivory tower academic, as much activist as academic. Zinn made a name for himself highlighting the role of the powerless in American history. Professor Zinn taught at Spellman College, where Marian Wright Edelman and novelist Alice Walker were among his students. Zinn was eventually fired from there for insubordination. He had actively encouraged his students to participate in local civil rights protests. Zinn went on to teach at Boston University, where he mixed scholarly investigation with anti-war protest.

His most popular work was the bestselling "A People's History of the United States." He summed up his professional philosophy as, quote, "I prefer to try to tell the story of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills."

Here's a clip of the late Howard Zinn reading an excerpt from "A People's History of the United States."

Professor HOWARD ZINN (Historian): My focus is not on the achievements of the heroes of traditional history but on all those people who were the victims of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently. To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves - unwittingly - to justify what was done.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It's too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress - Hiroshima and Vietnam to save Western civilization, Kronstadt and Hungary to save socialism, nuclear proliferation to save us all - that is still with us.

One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.