Remembering Howard Zinn


I studied with Howard Zinn at Boston University. He was my dissertation advisor, mentor, friend, tennis partner and a pillar of support for me during the eight grueling years when I fought a civil rights battle with Harvard University. Zinn’s passage is a great loss to all who knew him directly or indirectly, including the millions of people in America and around the world who were impacted by his revisionist American history written from people’s rather than elite’s point of view, his exemplary peace activism, as well as his literary works. The “old solider of the left,” as he was once described by the New York Times, was a hero of the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement who spoke at thousands of rallies and sit-ins against the war in Vietnam, as well as America’s invasions of Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., always at the forefront of American peace movement.

As his teaching assistant for his immensely popular class on law and justice in America, I was constantly astonished by the unique love and respect that the charismatic Zinn enjoyed among the students who overcrowded his classrooms, even overflowing into the hallways. Yet despite his popularity, his international fame and the wealth of his scholarly publications, years after years the right-wing university administration would deny Zinn a pay increase and eventually he would retire with a junior faculty salary. Such was the state of disgraceful discrimination against Zinn that he was once even accused of inciting arson on campus after he refused to cross the picket line by striking grounds workers at BU.

My first exposure to Zinn was in his graduate class on Marxism and anarchism back in 1980, when he would occasionally skip classes to fly to other states where his presence for court testimony on behalf of people unjustly incarcerated was needed. Juggling between his teaching duty and his civic responsibility, which often kept him away from home and his beloved wife, Roselyn, was not easy, but Zinn had the good fortune of having a lifelong companion who was an artist and fully shared her husband’s political commitments. They both attended my wedding and repeatedly came to court when, in 1996, I was subjected to a wrongful arrest at my home in Newton, close to Zinn’s residence, by Harvard University police. After proving my innocence, I commenced a civil suit against Harvard, representing myself, which went to a jury trial in 1999, and Zinn was my first witness, followed by CBS’s 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, both expressing their outrage at Harvard’s mistreatment of me. It was largely through the inspiration that Zinn gave me to never lose hope that I managed to take my case all the way to the US Supreme Court — which, in a close vote of 5 to 4 in March 2003, denied my appeal. I never forget Zinn’s reaction when I called and broke the news to him. “Don’t worry Kaveh, you will always be the man who took Harvard to US Supreme.”

Zinn loved tennis and we spent many hours on tennis courts until his sight deteriorated and couldn’t play any more, and he was thrilled when I got him tickets for tennis finals at Longwood one day. His favorites were Lendel, Sampres and Federer. His favorite actor was Gary Cooper and he once mentioned Cooper’s For Whom The Bells Toll as his all-time favorite movie.

Zinn guardedly supported Obama’s bid for presidency and in an interview I did with him for Asia Times in 2008, when asked what recommendation he had for the Obama camp, he urged Obama to forget about Hillary and “talk about changing this country from a war-making country to a peaceful one, talk about the need to discipline greedy corporate America, about true health security with a single-payer system, about learning from the policies of the New Deal — government-created jobs, etc., but going beyond that.” As expected from a pacifist, Zinn opposed Obama’s troop surge strategy and favored an orderly US departure from both Iraq and Afghanistan, devoting his last years to the noble cause of abolition of war, along with an Italian surgeon. After Roz’s death, I wrote a short comedy, Zinn in Jail, to cheer him up.

Zinn’s final communication to me was a couple of weeks ago, in response to my article that called for the creation of a global interfaith peacekeeping force and a parallel, intersocietal UN. “Dear Kaveh, An imaginative and healthy idea. Bypassing governments and national loyalties with an international citizens group makes sense.”

Howard Zinn’s comrade-in-arms, the MIT linguist and peace activist, concurred with his assessment and wrote to me, “I agree with Howard.” Also, I had bounced the idea of a “Chomsky/Zinn International Center” and both men liked the idea but did not see fit to personally intervene in setting it up. It is up to the rest of us, all those who want to see a more pronounced enduring legacy of these two towering voices of peace for generations to come, to make this into a reality.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy and a co-author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11.  This article also appears in The Nation.