Howard Zinn grew up in Brooklyn in a working-class, immigrant household. At the age of 18 he became a shipyard worker; three years later, he joined the Air Force. He flew bomber missions during World War II, after which he returned to Brooklyn, got married, and occupied a basement apartment. His experiences in the shipyard and in the Air Force helped shape both his opposition to war and his passion for history.
He went to college under the GI Bill and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in history. He taught at Spelman College, where he served as an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked with young Civil Rights Movement activists including Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman. He was fired from Spelman for his support of the students, but returned in 2005 to give the commencement address. [See video clip below by Spelman president for more on this story.]
Zinn led antiwar protests, went to Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan, and testified in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers trial. His politically engaged life brought him into many arenas: imprisonment for civil disobedience, fights for open debate in universities, and activist work from the Vietnam era to the present.
Zinn is the author of dozens of books, including the classic A People’s History of the United States and Declarations of Independence. His essays have appeared in over 20 books and his plays include Emma, Unsafe Distances, and Marx in Soho.
Zinn’s life is also the subject of an award-winning documentary, Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, narrated by actor Matt Damon. Featuring rare archival materials and interviews with Zinn and colleagues such as Noam Chomsky, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train captures the essence of this extraordinary man who was a catalyst for progressive change for more than 60 years.
Zinn lectured extensively across the United States as well as in Asia, Africa and Europe. He was a visiting professor at the University of Paris, and a Fulbright Distinguished Professor at the University of Bologna.
Zinn won numerous awards, including the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the Haven’s Center Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship, and the New York University Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award.
His best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, earned the New England Book Award for nonfiction and was nominated for an American Book Award.
A People’s History and the companion volume, Voices of a People’s History of the United States provided the key sources for the film The People Speak which aired on History Channel in December of 2009.
The stories of the people and events that inspired Zinn’s faith in the possibility of historic change are woven through his books and public speaking as he discussed the need for a critical understanding of our history and the daily events that shape all of our lives.
Read stories by former students about the extraordinary influence Zinn had on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world.
Biography modified and reprinted with permission from www.SpeakOutNow.org.