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Dissident historian Howard Zinn leaves a legacy of truth and justice

It’s been said that only the good die young. But sometimes, the good live long, fulfilling lives during which they enrich the world in innumerable, invaluable ways.

The popular dissident, author, playwright, educator and activist Howard Zinn died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 87 years old.

I first became aware of Zinn through his associations with one of my then-favorite authors, Noam Chomsky. Somewhere in the upper reaches of my satellite channel guide was a network called FreeSpeechTV, and occasionally Chomsky and Zinn’s speeches or media appearances would be highlighted. Their words were a revelation to me.

Somehow, these mild-mannered, kind-faced, white-haired old men spoke with enough authority on their subjects to shake me as a 13-year-old. For the first time, it wasn’t the presentation that mattered, it was the material presented. And what they presented was a dissident alternative to the commonplace worldview with which I had been educated, one which I had no choice but to adopt.

Zinn was an extraordinary man. He started his long career in academia at Spelman College, the nation’s first established institution of higher education for black females, and played an important role in civil rights demonstrations.

In 1980, he published his highly popular “A People’s History of the United States.” A revolutionary work, it offered a rewrite of history told not from the perspective of the tycoons and politicians, but from ordinary, working-class people. Last November, the History Channel turned the book and its companion piece, “Voices of a People’s History,” into a documentary special with readings by prominent actors, musicians and activists. It was the closest Zinn ever came to any kind of mainstream breakthrough.

But Zinn never had any real chance for mainstream success, nor desire for it. He was an occasional guest on news shows, particularly those like Charlie Rose’s, but he could never be an effective guest on a show like “Hannity.” Zinn would never win a shouting match, but give him the time to make his case and he could convince anybody — not with cheap tricks or intimidation, but with words carrying an uncanny resonance of truth.

He was utterly fearless throughout his life. A relentless crusader for peace and equality, the phrase “Speak truth to power” meant nothing to him. Power already knew the truth; they didn’t need Zinn to tell them. Instead, he spoke truth to people, which he knew were the real vehicles of social change.

Feelings of sadness at Zinn’s passing are only natural, but I can’t imagine Zinn himself spending too much time in mourning. His legacy is intarnishable. A life dedicated to the advancement of human justice and understanding is a life well spent, and nobody better exemplified that life than him.

Now, he belongs to the ages. In the coming centuries, when consequent volumes of “A People’s History” are being written, Zinn himself will have a permanent, crucial position in its pages.

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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