Howard Zinn, the distinguished American historian and professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, died on January 27, 2010 in California. He was 87. Zinn went on to become an activist in the people’s movements for civil rights, civil liberties and peace, and he wrote extensively about all of those things, among which is the most celebrated A People’s History of the United States. Below are excerpts from a commencement address that Zinn delivered on May 15, 2005 to students of Spelman College in Atlanta.
The lesson of 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. I know you have practical things to do — to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.
Remember Tolstoy’s story, “The Death of Ivan Illych.” A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism.
My hope is that whatever you do to make a good life for yourself — whether you become a teacher, or social worker, or business person, or lawyer, or poet, or scientist — you will devote part of your life to making this a better world for your children, for all children. My hope is that your generation will demand an end to war, that your generation will do something that has not yet been done in history and wipe out the national boundaries that separate us from other human beings on this earth.
I learned something about democracy: that it does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice. I learned about race. I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point — that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornel West has written), it only matters because certain people want it to matter, just as nationalism is something artificial. I learned that what really matters is that all of us — of whatever so-called race and so-called nationality — are human beings and should cherish one another.
Really profound words from a really profound individual.