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Remembering Howard Zinn

African American news from PasadenaWhen Howard Zinn passed away on January 27 at age 87, the nation mourned the loss of a pioneering historian and social activist who revolutionized the way millions of Americans, especially young Americans, understand our shared history. His writings and work inspired millions of readers, but I was among the generations of students privileged to know him as a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend. His first academic job after graduate study at Columbia University was at the historically Black, all-women Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, my alma mater.

The tall, lanky professor and I arrived at Spelman together in 1956, I as a freshman and he as chair of the history department. He and his beautiful wife Roslyn and their two children, Myla and Jeff, lived in the back of Spelman's infirmary where students always felt welcome to gather, explore ideas, share hopes, and just chew the fat.

Howie encouraged students to think outside the box and to question rather than accept conventional wisdom. He was a risk-taker. He lost no opportunity to challenge segregation in theaters, libraries, and restaurants, and encouraged us to do the same. The Black Spelman establishment did not like Howard Zinn any more than the White establishment did. Later, after he joined the faculty at Boston University, its president, John Silber, disliked him just as much as Spelman's president Albert Manley did, because he made some teachers and administrators uncomfortable by challenging the comfortable status quo.

He conveyed to me and to other students that he believed in us and that we were powerful and not helpless to change what we did not like. He conveyed to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose voter registration and organizing efforts he chronicled in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists that he believed in, respected, and supported our struggle. He was there when two hundred students conducted sit-ins and seventy-seven of us got arrested.

He provided us a safe space in his home to plan civil rights activities by listening and not dictating and always kept our secrets from the administration. He laughed and enjoyed life and taught us that it could be fun to challenge the status quo. What fun it was to visit the Georgia state legislature, sit in the Whites-only section, watch the floor proceedings screech to a halt, and hear the frantic gaveling and demands to "move those people to where they belonged." With Howie, we would then saunter out with smiles on our faces to dream about the next adventure.

He spoke up for the weak and little people against the big and powerful people just as he did his whole life. An eloquent and prolific chronicler of The People's History of the United States, of the Civil Rights Movement, and of the longings of the young and the poor and the weak to be free, his most profound message and the title of one of his books is that "you can't be neutral on a moving train." You can and must act against injustice.

Howie listened and answered questions. He reassured us of the rightness of our case when uncertainty and fear crept in. In short, he was there for and with us through thick and thin. He taught us to be neither victims nor passive observers of unjust treatment but active and proud claimants of our American birthright. Howie helped prepare me to discover my leadership potential. I will miss him deeply. Read "Saying Goodbye to My Friend Howard Zinn," by Alice Walker, published in the Boston Globe on Jan. 31, 2010.

[Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.]

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