I met Howard Zinn when I entered Spelman College in January 1962, after I was expelled from Albany State College along with 39 other students who were either suspended or expelled for participating in the Albany Civil Rights Movement.
Due to the efforts of Irene Asbury Wright, former dean of students at Spelman and at Albany State, Spelman College opened its doors to three of us and offered us partial scholarships. Since none of us had any money, Irene Asbury Wright then asked Howard Zinn, her former Spelman colleague and friend, to search for funding to finance our education. He found it and made it possible for me and the other two students to finish college.
We arrived at Spelman, attended a welcome luncheon hosted by Howard, and met history professor Staughton Lynd (who later became my classroom history teacher) and many student leaders and activists. A study in diversity, Howard was gracious, humble, enthusiastic, humorous, and steadfast in his beliefs about fighting for justice and equality. He was the center of attention, a magnet at the head of the table drawing all of us to him.
We were all from different backgrounds and some from different states/countries, but he spoke about the things that made us more alike than different. He attached more significance to our activism than we did. As I listened to him I no longer saw myself as just a tiny part of an isolated struggle to end discrimination in Albany, Georgia. His words and vision painted a picture of us as some of the necessary pieces to be added to the work-in-progress puzzle of an America where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would play out on an equal basis. He made us feel good about ourselves.
I was never in any of his classes, but he was my favorite teacher, albeit outside of the classroom. As a guest in his on-campus home many times I met his family. I saw him as a teacher, father, and husband. His free-spirited family was open with no off-limits topics of conversation. The children’s questions were answered honestly in such a way that often allowed the children to discover answers to questions for themselves. The children were always included in conversations, and Howard made sure that they were able to follow what was being discussed by using his engaging technique of imparting knowledge in such a way that one does not always know that a lesson is in progress. The children were never sent out of the room, told to be quiet, or criticized for mistakes. Treated with love and respect, they were free, inquisitive, and happy. Their parents complemented each other, agreed on childrearing methods, and appeared to have a deep understanding of and an appreciation for each other’s interests. Howard opened a door for me to another way of seeing, learning, and interpreting everything. After each visit, I felt energized, able to confront challenges and to hold my ground.
Often, he would play some of his albums. That is how I was introduced to a young Bobby Dylan (before he became Bob Dylan) and his song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Howard watched me as I listened and although I did not make a sound or move, I felt that he knew how deeply I was affected and that he had played the song so that I would be affected. How can one so young write with such insight? I wondered. That song changed me in many ways—it opened my eyes to unspoken truths, strengthened my resolve, deepened my vision, and wrapped itself around my heart and soul. Playing that song was a gift that Howard gave to me. He later gave me Odetta, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. Music had always been a part of my life, but I had never heard the kind of truth music that Howard offered. It fueled my desire to make a difference, to help balance the scales.
Howard always listened to me and then asked questions that allowed me to solve my own problems, to see issues from different points of view, to connect dots that once had seemed random and to see my life and actions in a historical mirror. He was an amazingly patient, generous, down-to-earth person with a hands-on take action approach, a great sense of humor, and a passionate love of life, people, and of teaching.
He always made me feel that I mattered in the scheme of things, that what I did was important. Over the years, we kept in touch—-I saw him at a conference at the Smithsonian, got a note each time the family moved, got a note saying he hoped I could come when he returned to Spelman to receive an honorary degree, received from him a copy of the DVD “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”
I learned life lessons from him and his influence followed and still follows me. He was a great teacher and a great man. No matter how high he soared, and wow, did he soar, he remained a “real person” who still stayed in touch with this thirsty-for-knowledge student who he met in 1962 from the segregated roads and back roads of southwest Georgia. I never told him, but I think he knew what a positive and lasting effect he had on my life.