By Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive – 7 April 2010
It was beautiful in Boston last Saturday, April 3, as about 250 invited guests gathered at the Arlington Street Church to celebrate the life of Howard Zinn, who died on January 27. The crowd was full of scholars, writers, editors, actors, poets, activists, neighbors—friends all.
The Reverend Kim Crawford Harvie, who heads the Unitarian Universalist church at Arlington Street, welcomed everyone and said how fitting it was to hold the service there. Zinn had spoken at the church several times, she said, and the church has been at the forefront of progressive issues for decades. In fact, she said, she had the honor of presiding over the first same-sex marriage in the country, a statement that elicited applause.
Zinn’s daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, then gave a heartfelt appreciation of her father. And she poked a little fun at The Nation magazine’s online obituary, which said Howard died “swimming laps.” Said Myla: “My dad never swam a lap in his life.” She also told the story of The New York Times calling him up several months before he died and explaining that the paper had a custom of preparing obituaries for people while they were still alive. Without skipping a beat, Howard said: “What’s your deadline?”
When she was through, she invited two of Howard’s grandchildren to offer their own reflections. Both said they treasured not Howard Zinn, the famous historian and activist, but Howie, the caring grandfather.
Marian Wright Edelman, longtime head of the Children’s Defense Fund, told how she was a student of Howard Zinn’s at Spelman and what an influence he had on her there. “He taught me that I could do and be anything,” she said, “and that there were more important things than getting a man at Morehouse.”
At Spelman, she said, “he made my teachers and the administration uncomfortable because he challenged the status quo. He was passionate about justice and the ability of individuals to make a difference. He believed in us, and that we were powerful.”
At the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Howard Zinn “served as our P.R. manager,” she said. “He respected and supported our struggle, and he taught us it was fun to challenge an unjust status quo, that it was fun to go to the Georgia state legislature and sit in the ‘Whites Only’ area.”
In sum, she said, “He taught the young, the poor, and the weak to be free. What a lot of candles he lit!”
The radical historian Marilyn Young spoke next, recalling Zinn’s leading role in opposing the Vietnam War and, with tears, telling how much he meant to her.
The poet Martín Espada then took the podium to recite a new and beautiful poem he wrote in Zinn’s honor, entitled “Walking.” It recounts Zinn’s participation in many protests and how he excavated the hidden history of our country: “smuggling manifestos in your head from the slave, the anarchist, the unionist, words freed as a magician frees doves flown to the rafters from the great stage of the world.”
Anthony Arnove, one of the producers of “The People Speak,” which ran on the History Channel a couple months ago, recalled how exciting this project was to work on with Howard, and how he threw himself into it. Arnove quoted from a piece Zinn wrote for The Progressive more than a decade ago about Eugene V. Debs: “We are always in need of radicals who are also lovable.” Arnove added that Zinn could have been writing about himself here. He also quoted from the last paragraph of that piece: “There are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum,” Zinn had written. “What is important, I think, is not the word but the determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas that are both bold and inviting—the more bold, the more inviting.” Arnove noted that Zinn appreciated “the power of brevity, and the dramatic pause to convey radical ideas, and the power of the simple word ‘no.’ ”
Bernice Johnson Reagan, one of the founders of Sweet Honey and the Rock, recounted her days at Spelman and how crucial Zinn was to those days, and how he and his wife encouraged her to join SNCC. At the end of her talk, she led the audience in a moving rendition of “Down by the Riverside,” singing over and over again: “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”
Noam Chomsky came next, and the woman sitting next to me whispered, “Here’s the last of the old guard.” Chomsky said how hard it was to review a forty-five-year friendship in just five minutes. He said that what impressed him about Zinn was that he always participated in activism with “equanimity and satisfaction in being with the people he wanted to be with and doing what needed to be done.” He stressed Zinn’s “irrepressible optimism” and his “near reverence for the countless unknown people whose small actions create the great events that enter history.” Chomsky paused to recall what he termed “one of those rare moments of real tranquility” when the Chomskys and the Zinns would get together on Cape Cod for a glass of wine and an afternoon sail.
But Chomsky did not leave us with that delightful image.
“Things are as ominous as they’ve been since my childhood when the clouds of fascism were gathering,” he said, which took the crowd’s breath away. “What’s needed,” he said, “is people like Howard Zinn, people who will sweep away illusion, and beat back that tide.”
Matt Damon’s mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, longtime neighbor of the Zinns and author of “Taking Back Childhood,” spoke next. Howard Zinn taught us, she said, that “you can see all the pain and the injustice, and you can do everything to fight for freedom and justice, and you still make people laugh. You bring joy and justice into every moment.”
Matt Damon then rose to offer words of comfort, he said. He related a conversation his mom had with Howard a few months before he died. “I’m ready to go,” Zinn told her. “I have no fear. I’ve had a good life.” And Damon said that when Howard had the heart attack in the swimming pool in Santa Monica, the person who attended to him asked, “Do you need an ambulance?” And Howard said, “No, I’m OK,” and then, said Damon, “he closed his eyes.”
Chris Moore, the co-producer of “Good Will Hunting” and the producer of “American Pie,” retraced the long path that led to “The People Speak.” He regaled the audience with stories of how Zinn would flat-out reject the demands of Hollywood financiers that he simply showcase instances where the people won great victories. It’s rare in Hollywood to leave a lot of money on the table, Moore said. Finally, when Moore came to Zinn and said they’d just make the film first and sell it later, Howard said, “It’s about time! You guys have the power to do it. You can do it the right way.”
The actor Harris Yulin then came on stage and leaped into that famous passage from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which ends:
“These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air. And, like the baseless fabric of vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve. And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with sleep.”
Often when Howard Zinn spoke, he would end with a poem from Marge Piercy, so it was fitting that Piercy herself came on stage. She read a new poem, dedicated to him, which ended: “There is nothing left to do but continue the work of freedom.” And then she read one of Zinn’s favorite poems of hers, “The Low Road.”
This poem discusses the power of solidarity, of joining with others, small in number at first and then unstoppable en masse:
“it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We.”
Myla Kabat-Zinn stepped back to the podium, and thanked everyone for coming and thanked the speakers. She noted that many other people could have spoken, and a glance at the crowd confirmed that: There was David Barsamian, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Howard’s good friend Paul Alan Smith, and Dave Zirin, to name just a few.
Myla Kabat-Zinn concluded by reading a lovely Buddhist prayer, and at the very end she reminded us that her father’s “greatest wish was that there be peace in the world.”
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.