Activist academics are a dime a dozen, but what set Zinn far above most was the balance of a deep commitment to his ideals with both humility and perspective. He refused to replace old dogma with new and resisted the easy mythologizing of the oppressed. While he did not pretend that A People’s History (or any other) was objective, he meticulously researched his facts and readily admitted mistakes and oversights.
The result was a history that could be cheered and argued with, but never ignored.
Zinn did not rest on his laurels. A People’s History went through five new versions, as he constantly incorporated new events and discoveries into the narrative. Tireless in his activism, he fought against new wars and injustices that he saw as part of an ancient pattern. In his final interview, he spoke eloquently of the nigh-total ignorance of America’s long history of involvement in Haiti, and how it shapes our public discourse today.
In 2005, he returned to Spelman College, from whence he’d been expelled in the ’60s for his rabble-rousing, and delivered a passionate speech calling on the next generation to resist the easy urge of apathy. There is one line in particular that stands out, a sharp point on his decades-long struggle to make us more aware of the tales that shape our lives:
“The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies.”
Also, this. A thousand times.