Howard Zinn was a world-renowned historian, author, playwright, and social activist best known for A People’s History of the United States. His many highly acclaimed books include his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, published by our own Beacon Press, and Three Strikes.
He was not, let me repeat, he was not (or as far as I could research he was not), a congregationally-attached, pledge-making, dues-paying Unitarian Universalist. He was however, as I just noted, one of our published authors, whose “personal history of our times” has been called an inspiring autobiography in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the story of more than 30 years of fighting for social change and an argument for hope.
He was not a UU, but he spoke often in our pulpits, and I heard him speak a few years back at one of our annual General Assemblies, to a packed hall, delivering his insistent message, in his words, that what he had learned in his long life, from his experience as a bombardier in the Second World War, from his seven years teaching at Spelman College here in Atlanta, living in the black community and participating in the southern movement for racial justice, from his involvement with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Daniel Ellsberg in protesting the war in Vietnam, was that small acts of resistance to authority, if persisted in, may lead to large social movements, that those in power who confidently say never to the possibility of change may live to be embarrassed by these words, that the most important thing he learned was the meaning, the true meaning, of American democracy.
Howard Zinn was not, as far as we know, a Unitarian Universalist, but when he died early this year at age 87, the celebration of his life was held at our own Arlington Street Church in Boston, a place where he had spoken several times. My colleague Kim Crawford Harvie welcomed about 250 invited guests, the crowd full of scholars, writers, editors, actors, poets, activists, and neighbors — friends all, saying how fitting it was to hold his memorial service there, since this congregation had been in the forefront of progressive issues for decades, including the first legal same sex marriage in the country.
Marian Wright Edelman, longtime head of the Children’s Defense Fund, told how she was a student of Howard Zinn’s at Spelman and what an influence he had on her there. He taught me I could do anything, she recalled, and that there were more important things to do than getting a man at Morehouse. At Spelman, she said, he made her teachers and administrators uncomfortable because he challenged the status quo. He was passionate about justice and the ability to make a difference. He believed in us and that we were powerful.
He taught the young, the poor, and the weak to be free. What a lot of candles he lit!
Zinn arrived at this historic black college in 1956, and it was not a particularly deliberate choice — close to finishing his doctorate work in history at Columbia University, he was contacted by its placement bureau for an interview with the president of Spelman, who was visiting New York. Spelman, Zinn recalled, was virtually unknown at the time outside the black community. He was offered the chairmanship of its history and social sciences department and $4,000 a year. He summoned up his courage: I have a wife and two kids, he said, Could you make it $4,500?
So he came to what he described as a different world, a universe apart from the sidewalks of New York, a city thick with foliage, fragrant with honeysuckle, with air that was sweeter and heavier, where people were blacker and whiter, where when he told potential landlords he was teaching at Spelman, apartments were no longer available.
Where what for him and his family was an inconvenience was, as he wrote in his memoir, for blacks a daily and never ending humiliation. He had been in his first and new teaching position for six months when in January of 1957, he and his students had what he called a small encounter with the Georgia state legislature. They decided to visit one of its sessions and instead of sitting in the “colored” section of the gallery, ignored the signs and sat in the main section. Panic broke out and the Speaker of the House, in Zinn’s words, seemed to have an apoplectic fit. Only when they moved back into the colored section, Zinn included, were they then warmly welcomed as the visiting delegation from Spelman College.
One of Zinn’s favorite poems by Marge Piercy was read the day of the celebration of his life in our Arlington Street congregation:
The Low Road
It starts one at a time,
It starts when you care to act, it starts when you do
It starts again after they said no,
It starts when you say We
And know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.