Howard Zinn Papers, 1956-1970


Historian and social activist Howard Zinn was born in New York City on August 24, 1922, the son of Edward and Jennie Zinn. Following military service as a bombardier-navigator in the European Theater during World War II, Zinn completed his undergraduate education at New York University, receiving a B.A. in 1951 in history and English. The following year, Columbia University granted him an M.A. in history and economics, and in 1958 a Ph.D. in history and political science. During the period 1953-1956, he also taught as an instructor at Upsala College and Brooklyn College.

Zinn moved to Atlanta in 1956 to become chair of the department of history and political science at Spelman College, a predominantly black college in the Atlanta University system. Zinn's years in Atlanta coincided with the burgeoning southern civil rights movement, with which Zinn became increasingly involved as a participant and historian. In 1959 he worked with black and white Atlantans to desegregate public facilities and published several articles on civil rights topics for such magazines as Harpers and The Crisis.

In the early 1960s, Zinn became the unofficial historian of, as well as adviser to, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization which had been formed in the spring of 1960 to coordinate the rapidly expanding southern protest movement launched in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 when four black college students sat in at a Woolworth lunch counter. In late 1961, the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council asked him to research and write a study of the Albany (Georgia) Movement, organized by black community leaders and SNCC field workers. Zinn's research resulted in two reports on the Albany Movement published in 1962, detailing the consolidated efforts to end segregation in that southwestern Georgia city.

Subsequently Zinn did further research on SNCC and authored the book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, initially published in 1964 and expanded slightly in the 1965 edition to include a discussion of the events in Mississippi during the historic summer of 1964. Zinn sat on SNCC's executive committee, but as an adviser he did not view his role as that of a primary decision-maker within the organization. With SNCC's evolution toward Black Power after 1964, Zinn's direct involvement with SNCC, like that of other white supporters, diminished, although he continued to write sympathetically about it. He viewed SNCC's increasing militancy as an expression of a radical analysis of American society, rather than a racist development.

Zinn's personal and scholarly interest in mass movements continued through the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, his book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was published. Almost all his other books deal with the history or the philosophy of social activism: La Guardia in Congress, 1959; The Southern Mystique, 1964; New Deal Thought (editor), 1965; Disobedience and Democracy, 1968; The Politics of History, 1970; The Pentagon Papers, Critical Essays (editor, with Noam Chomsky), 1972; Postwar America, 1973; Justice in Everyday Life (editor), 1973; and A People's History of the United States, 1980. Since 1964, Zinn has been a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Boston University.