Review Essay on Howard Zinn

Books reviewed:

Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New York: The New Press, 2012)

Anthony Arnove, Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963-2009 ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012)


The American Association of University Professors was founded 100 years ago in 1915 to defend academic freedom for professors who were initially under siege during the Progressive Era and World War I. A.A.U.P. is celebrating its centennial and its historic role in defending academic freedom, launching the tenure system and developing comprehensive common law for the academy. Its illustrious founders were Arthur Lovejoy of Johns Hopkins University and John Dewey of Columbia University. Faculty and administrators throughout the United States rely upon A.A.U.P. Policy Documents and Reports, frequently referred to as the Redbook, with its red cover, as the rules-of-the-road in post-secondary education. Unfortunately, the academy has persecuted many scholars, past and present, who deviated from the canon by exercising an independence in scholarship, pedagogy and extramural utterances. Through coercion, the evisceration of the tenure system with only twenty-five per cent of faculty on the tenure stream and the increasingly anti-academic nature of the corporate university, the very principles that inspired the founding of the Association are at risk.

Two of America’s greatest historians of the postwar period were Richard Hofstadter and Howard Zinn. Like Dewey they had a strong Columbia connection. Hofstadter taught at Columbia from 1946 to 1970, and chaired Howard Zinn’s dissertation defense committee. Both were revisionist historians who preferred synthesizing secondary sources over mining archival documents. The claim that only primary sources constitute the gold standard of historiography is undermined by the Hofstadter-Zinn mode of discovery of a new past, thereby creating a more enlightened present. Historiography relying upon printed sources or readily available primary sources can be quite effective in liberation from the predominant accepted discourse on essential matters of national identity and purpose. The towering histories of Hofstadter’s, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, The Paranoid Style of American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Dr. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Postwar America: 1945-1971 and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal are examples of a searing revisionism that discovers a new American past freed from nationalistic hagiography.

While one does not require a university appointment to qualify as a historian, tenured or tenure-track academicians are the freest to challenge the past. Tenure, as developed by the A.A.U.P., is intended to serve the common good, not the tenure holder, by permitting those educators who have demonstrated excellence in teaching, scholarship and service during a six-year probationary period to develop freely those skills that benefit society. Continuous tenure usually results in the issuance of annual contracts until retirement and undergirds academic freedom to explore new pathways of knowledge and teaching that contribute mightily to societal progress. Professor Zinn hoped the granting of tenure would inoculate one from retaliation for “rub[bing] your dean or president or department chair[person] the wrong way, that might get the alumni riled up.”[1]

Throughout Dr. Zinn’s academic career on two very different campuses — an African-American women’s college in the South and a comprehensive Carnegie R-1 university in the North–there was a disturbing commonality. The need to wage academic freedom battles against the institutions’ presidents that included a desperate defense of his livelihood. His mission of giving voice to history’s forgotten also hung in the balance. In Howard Zinn Speaks, the essential Zinn appears through public speaking venues spanning some five decades. While Dr. Zinn’s reputation is derived from his writings and actions during the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, his courageous but frequently overlooked career-long demand for academic freedom and securing basic rights for faculty, students and staff is also significant.

Howard Zinn resisted authoritarian presidents at Spelman College in Atlanta and Boston University who were eager to destroy his academic career, sully his reputation and remove him from campus. President Albert Manley and President John Silber construed Professor Zinn as an existential threat to their authoritarian control of faculty and students. An examination of Howard Zinn’s contribution to an understanding of America’s past must also include revelations of his personal struggles, even as a tenured faculty member at the rank of full professor, to retain his academic appointment. With so few academicians today on the tenure stream, much less at professor rank, Professor Zinn’s tumultuous academic career should alert and energize those willing to defy the assessment police, the demand for common syllabi and the intimidation of faculty who challenge institutional culture and the putative “mission” of a post-secondary institution.

Martin Duberman’s biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, is a somewhat random, uneven effort to construct an intimate portrait of Professor Zinn and present a separate American history as well. While at times illuminating, Duberman’s criticism of Dr. Zinn’s “vacuuming” documents of a private, intimate nature from his personal papers, and daring “to pull the veil over the personal side of his life” is self-serving for a biographer’s prying eyes. Duberman invades gratuitously but rather ineffectively Dr. Zinn’s zone of privacy by culling from family and anonymous “close friends” tales of alleged extramarital affairs.[2]  One would anticipate that Duberman, a former director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY Graduate School, would appreciate that one’s private sexual encounters need not serve the impulses of public scrutiny. Howard Zinn did not want his private life exposed in a seedy published biography and Duberman, who refers to his subject by first-name intimacy, should have respected his “friend’s” wish, and not whine about the dearth of juicy peccadilloes in the Zinn papers

Spelman College in Atlanta offered Howard Zinn his first tenure-track appointment. He became a tenured full professor and chair of the Department of History and Social Sciences at the African-American women’s college. Dr. Zinn was intent on liberating Spelman students from a confined, regimented existence behind an imposing college-constructed wall of isolation and self-segregation from the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement. President Manley, Spelman’s first African-American president, fired Dr. Zinn after seven years of service in 1963.

Facts are facts. Dr. Zinn was fired in violation of the American Association of University Professors guidelines on dismissal of a faculty member. Although Duberman throughout the text and index repeatedly misidentifies A.A.U.P. as the Association of American University Professors, he explores in depth its efforts to help the beleaguered historian.[3]  The iconic A.A.U.P. 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings permit the firing of a tenured faculty member only for cause. The burden of proof shifts to the administration, after the probationary period, and an adversarial hearing before a faculty-hearing committee is required. President Manley in a craven manner sends a letter to Dr. Zinn in June 1963 after the semester had ended with students and faculty no longer on campus, that “you are relieved of all duties after June 30, 1963…The college’s check for your termination pay is enclosed.”[4]  There was no explanation, no warning, no opportunity for grievance, and no face-to-face meeting. Such egregious presidential abuse of power led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors forty-nine years earlier.

Professor Zinn contacted the A.A.U.P. and they investigated the disruption of his continuous tenure. Duberman indicates that Spelman claimed that only upon promotion to full professor does the six-year time tenure-track time clock begin. That is risible. Dr. Zinn was at Spelman for seven years from 1956-1963 and rightfully claimed he was tenured: The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms “the probationary period should not exceed seven years.” Despite the anarchy at Spelman in which a formal-tenure review process was not granted, A.A.U.P. agreed with Professor Zinn that he had earned de facto tenure and that Manley could not fire him. Professor Zinn, with a family to support and no other faculty appointment, asked for an explanation of his dismissal. Manley tersely replied, “it is not necessary for the college to give reasons when it is decided not to renew the contract of a faculty member.”[5]

Today such arbitrary abuse of the professoriate’s new majority of full-time non-tenure track, and part-time faculty is not uncommon. Even tenured faculty, as seen in the Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are increasingly vulnerable in the post-Zinn era to arbitrary revocation of tenure or dismissal due to trumped up charges of misconduct, lack of civility and faked financial exigencies. President Manley and subsequent university presidents should have a copy of the Redbook on their lavish desks in their corner offices and consult the Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings. It contains specific due process requirements to precede dismissal including a formal charge brought before a pre-sanction review faculty hearing committee:

Commencement of Formal Proceedings. The formal proceedings should be commenced by a communication addressed to the faculty member by the president of the institution, informing the faculty member of the statement formulated, and also informing the faculty member that, at the faculty member’s request, a hearing will be conducted by a faculty committee at a specified time and place to determine whether he or she should be removed from the faculty position on the grounds stated…. Hearing Committee. The committee of faculty members to conduct the hearing and reach a decision should be either an elected standing committee not previously concerned with the case or a committee established as soon as possible after the president’s letter to the faculty member has been sent.

Spelman’s Manley travels to Washington to meet with the Howard Zinn A.A.U.P. case officer, associate secretary Robert Van Waes. Confronted with a burgeoning A.A.U.P. investigation, Manley raises a moral turpitude violation four years after the alleged incident. Duberman finds it necessary to investigate this matter despite Dr. Zinn having previously disclosed with considerable detail in one of his best if underappreciated works, The Southern Mystique. Dr. Zinn was alone in a car with a student; white police officers arrested him for “disorderly conduct” and in the words of the police for sitting “in a car with a nigger gal.”[6]  From jail he called Don Hollowell, an African-American Civil Rights attorney in Atlanta. Hollowell paid their bond and Professor Zinn and the student were released. All charges were dropped a few days later. Duberman is needlessly preoccupied with an unproven, sensationalized sexual dimension of his dismissal. While Duberman considers it probative that the car was on a dead-end street, there was no complaint, no charge, no plea bargain, no trial, no plaintiff and no conviction. Duberman cites a draft account of this incident when Howard Zinn was preparing The Southern Mystique. Yet the draft appears identical to the book version. I think Duberman was incorrect to use December 1959 as the date of the encounter since Zinn writes it was January 1960 in the released publication of The Southern Mystique. It is very unlikely Duberman had access to additional primary documents. With ironic prescience, Dr. Zinn described the matter as a “Kafka-like episode, a relic perhaps for future historians.”[7]

After Manley cynically raises this encounter to justify his summary dismissal of Professor Zinn, A.A.U.P. becomes diffident in pursuing further an investigation of Howard Zinn’s complaint despite the absence of any evidence of professional misconduct. Both A.A.U.P.s general secretary (now the position is called executive director) and Professor Zinn mutually agree to end the inquiry as he prepares to undertake the ultimate challenge of his heroic, storied career: protecting his appointment at Boston University. (Disclosure: I graduated from Boston University, majored in Dr. Zinn’s Department of Government, matriculated in three of his classes, including Political Theory that Duberman mentions and was one of his advisees during senior year. I saw him for the last time at a Historians Against the War conference in 2006. We spoke for about twenty-five minutes prior to his anti-Iraq War keynote address in ironically the cavernous L.B.J. Auditorium at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.)

Professor Zinn left Spelman during the Civil Rights Movement and arrives at Boston University “just in time for the beginning of the big American escalation of the war in Vietnam.”[8] At Spelman he resisted American apartheid and at B.U. the genocide and mass murder during the Vietnam War consumed his activism. No other historian, and only a few academics such as Noam Chomsky, commanded such influence during the uprising against the war. Professor Zinn’s demand for change and human rights placed him once again in the firing line of Boston University president John Silber: an arrogant, powerful, ruthless, determined reactionary who had recently stepped down as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

A seminal American Association of University Professors document defines in depth the concept of shared governance. The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities requires that faculty play a significant role in institutional governance. It refers to an “inescapable interdependence” between faculty, governing boards and administration. In defining the role of the president, it emphasizes sharing faculty views, even when dissenting, with the governing board. In particular the professoriate retains primacy in many key areas. These include determining faculty status that encompasses “appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal. The primary responsibility of the faculty for such matters is based upon the fact that its judgment is central to general educational policy.” [Emphasis added]

At Spelman there was no faculty involvement in the egregious dismissal of Howard Zinn. At Boston University, Silber rejected any role for faculty whom he construed as underlings and vicariously defined as dead wood and mocked the very concept of shared governance–a core principle of A.A.U.P. and the sine qua non of academic democracy. Silber intoned about “a natural hierarchy among men…[and] no university can be run except on an elitist basis.”[9]  Such a position is a baneful attack on academic freedom. If college and university faculty are subaltern, at will employees without a voice, their students, to be sure, will not explore new pathways of knowledge. Without critical thinking students cannot challenge the white-privileged cannon. Academic freedom to teach, publish and engage freely in extramural utterances is censored.

Professor Zinn during the worst excesses of apartheid in South Africa explores the essence of academic freedom in a daring speech at the University of Cape Town. With a brilliant twist of rhetoric: “To me, academic freedom has always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic…we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions.”[10]  At home, Dr. Zinn supported the unionization of B.U. faculty, staff and maintenance workers. He supported civil disobedience rallies against military recruiters and racism. He went to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan to free American POW and shielded Berrigan when he was a fugitive from America’s secret police, the F.B.I. He invited students voluntarily in his last class lecture to join a picket line on campus. Professor Zinn’s spoke truth to power not only with provocative lectures in a B.U. classroom, but also leading resistance to university transgressions outside the classroom.

Professor Zinn excoriates Silber for exercising “dictatorial power” in the 1970s and 1980s in his suppression of faculty, administrators, students and staff who defied his commands.[11] Silber’s treatment of Professor Zinn was bullying and a clear violation of A.A.U.P. guidelines and policies. Duberman reveals the Department of Political Science in 1979 recommended Dr. Zinn receive a merit salary increase of $2,400. Silber personally blocked any raise even though B.U. salaries were already among the lowest nationally for comparable institutions. Silber, however, was the highest paid university president in the United States whose salary was twice as much as the president ofHarvard.[12] Administrations are obligated to honor a departmental salary-increase recommendation unless there are bona fide financial developments that mandate austerity. The Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities rejects this display of presidential unilateralism: “The faculty should actively participate in the determination of policies and procedures governing salary increases.” Boston University faculty, librarians and clerical workers formed unions as the insurrection mounted against the loss of academic freedom, the notoriously chattel-wage structure and the shredding of shared governance in the kingdom of John Silber.

Although post-secondary presidents are not usually afforded academic freedom protection–it applies to faculty and supposedly for students–they have rights. Most avoid taking positions on matters of public concern for fear of alienating financially powerful constituencies and board members who may sanction an outspoken president. I believe university presidents should engage issues of public concern in addition to university matters. Silber, to his credit, was outspoken on a full array of public-policy issues but when he attacked publicly Dr. Zinn’s scholarship, ideology and general character, it degenerated into an existential threat to academic freedom. Such egregious public rebuke of a faculty member serves intentionally as a general admonition to the professoriate: back off, remain meek and conduct your professional exploration of the truth within prescribed limits.

Dr. Zinn and other faculty met their classes outdoors during a spring strike of clerical workers along Commonwealth Avenue, a major street in Boston that abuts much of the campus. The administration wanted to fire the tenured “B.U. Five” for a breach of contract that prohibited “sympathy strikes.”[13] According to Duberman, Silber called Dr. Zinn a liar during this labor-solidarity campaign. Silber charged, “His apparent belief that it is proper to distort the truth for political purposes.” He castigated the people’s historian for failing to achieve, “standards of scholarship that were very high.”[14] Such invective is disruptive of academic freedom as developed in the epochal 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” A university president’s public scolding of a professor is unacceptable. If there are issues related to scholarship, then a faculty committee should be empanelled to investigate.

Silber also accused Professor Zinn of arson! When told by a colleague that Silber accused him of setting fire to the president’s office, Professor Zinn exclaimed, “You’re not serious.” While Silber later apologized and claimed he was mistakenly referring to an incident prior to his tenure as president, it demonstrated, as he was losing control, his determination to silence and destroy the reputation of Professor Zinn. The A.A.U.P. Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure contains procedural requirements if a charge of misconduct is filed against a faculty member. Silber, of course, had no intention of investigating Dr. Zinn but was merely mouthing off to muzzle progressive activists on the Boston University campus.

At the age of eighty-two, he was invited to give an antiwar lecture in Rome. On the duty of the historian, he proclaimed, “We need, all of us, to become teachers, to spread information…We need to teach history…”[15] Indeed, teach history without university presidents threatening dismissal or immiseration. Indeed, teach history without university presidents demanding that the teacher-student relationship remain purely academic and not subject to civil disobedience coalition building. Indeed, teach history with tenured historians and not proletarian marginalized contingent faculty who may empower students to think critically about issues on their own campus and society at large. A.A.U.P. was established to serve the common good in protecting freedom of inquiry for university and college professors. Our challenge is to insure that there is an academy to protect so the next Howard Zinn may arise who exemplifies the cri de coeur of the 1955 Bertrand Russell-Albert Einstein Manifesto: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”



[1] Anthony Arnove, Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963-2009 ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 31.

[2] Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New York: The New Press, 2012), xii, 188.

[3] Ibid., 78, 346.

[4] Howard Zinn, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 42.

[5] Duberman, Zinn, 84.

[6] Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002), 136-37.

[7] Duberman, Zinn, 87; Ibid.

[8] Howard Zinn Speaks, 111.

[9] Duberman, Zinn, 206.

[10] Howard Zinn Speaks, 46.

[11] Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 202.

[12] Robert D. McFadden, “John Silber Dies at 86; Led Boston University,” New York Times, September 27, 2012.

[13] Zinn, You Can’t be Neutral, 191.

[14] Duberman, Zinn, 221.

[15] Howard Zinn Speaks, 203-04.


Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University, and vice-president and chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1