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In Memory of Howard Zinn

By Elizabeth Henderson

I heard last night the sad news that Howard Zinn had died. I guess we should be grateful that he died quickly and was spared a long slow illness. Here is my contribution to our great celebration of his life.

When I landed my first full-time teaching job at Boston University in 1975, I moved to Boston as a young widow with my four year old son hardly knowing anyone. I had spent the previous decade in New Haven, Connecticut where I had a dense community of friends and fellow activists from the anti-war and civil rights movements. So my first week at BU, I trotted over to Howard Zinn’s office to introduce myself. I did not know Howard, but my late husband taught American studies and I had read Zinn’s books and articles.

After exchanging introductions, Howard mentioned that there used to be a community committee of faculty, students and staff at BU and that perhaps it was time to resurrect it. So that became our joint project. Once a month, a varied assortment of student activists, radical young faculty members, secretaries and maintenance people gathered to discuss the state of BU. Though clearly the senior in experience and renown, Howard treated everyone as equals. He never pulled rank and listened patiently through some of the wild or impractical proposals. A common theme was our dissatisfaction with John Silber, the president of the university. Silber was a Plato scholar and seemed to believe that philosopher kings should run the world. He repeatedly encroached upon academic freedom and professors’ traditional prerogatives, such as the freedom to select textbooks. I had a run in with his minions over the image on a brochure for the Russian studies program. Everyone had stories of his overweening lust for power and control. My favorite is from the president of the BU undergraduates. This young man went to see Silber about student concerns. Before he could even open his mouth, Silber snapped – “What are you doing in my office with pimples on your face?”

Our committee’s first undertaking was to research and publish a booklet – “Who Rules BU?” We exposed Silber’s network of business cronies and their real estate deals based on insider information, buying up properties along Commonwealth Avenue. Faculty and staff women with young children joined forces to push for a daycare center on campus. Silber, who himself had 6 or 7 children and a wife who stayed home to raise them, was of the opinion that women with young children should not work. We got the daycare despite his opposition. Howard led us in planning a campaign to persuade the Board of Trustees to dump Silber. I remember picketing at the home of a trustee who was a member of the Heritage Foundation. Modeled after a castle, the house was surrounded by a moat. Silber outmaneuvered us and stayed on as president for many years. Although he tried, he could never find someone to take over the position of chair of the Political Science Dept. who was willing to fire Howard.

Campus radicals were not the only people who rankled under Silber’s leadership. I became the junior faculty representative to the board of the BU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Although not a union, and dominated by full professors and department heads, the AAUP decided to strike against the university. None of these professors had ever organized anything like a demonstration or a picket line so they were forced to invite Howard to show them how to do it. Our community committee played a crucial role: since we had representatives of all sectors, we were able to get the staff to strike simultaneously with the faculty. We also got a commitment from the maintenance workers to respect faculty-staff picket lines, and so that students would not suffer or have to cross the picket lines, we arranged for classes to be held off campus. For a few heady days, the rigid university hierarchy seemed to melt. Together, faculty members, their secretaries and their students roared out “Solidarity Forever, and the Union Makes Us Strong!” During some tense moments at an AAUP strategy meeting, a conservative full professor attacked Howard. Instead of rising to the bait, he calmly replied, “This is not a matter of personalities. It is a matter of union democracy.” Even under fire, Howard managed to keep his sense of humor and played a central role in leading the strike to a successful conclusion. Of course, later, the courts overturned the victory, citing the Yeshiva Decision where faculty were held to be managers, not workers. But my salary as a young assistant professor went from $12,000 to $19,000, matching the pay rate for beginning male assistant professors of business.

Ultimately, I could not stand it at BU. After the strike, the full professors on the AAUP board turned down my request for support for childcare during our meetings. At a cocktail party for a new vice president, when I started to introduce myself, he said, “Oh, we know you.” Apparently there was a video of strike activists. Silber’s policies led to a shift in the student body from people who wanted to study liberal arts to future junior managers and government bureaucrats. I had no interest in teaching Russian to business majors and military intelligence. I announced to our community committee that I was leaving to move to a farm and invited them to visit and help. Many of them did. Howard and I remained in touch, and a few times when I came back to the city, I visited with him and his lovely wife Rosalyn.

Over the 30 years since I have been farming, I have not spent much time with Howard. But I sent him my writings about organic agriculture and he read them and wrote words of encouragement. He even found time to write a blurb for my book Sharing the Harvest:

Sharing the Harvest is an extraordinary book, an opening to a new world in which growing and eating food will be a sharing among humans, between farmers and surrounding communities, not a commercial venture for profit. It is both utopian and practical, inspiring and down-to-earth. It is a treasure, rich with suggestions, exciting for what possibilities it foresees for the human race.”

and he approved of my idea to put together a People’s History of US Food and Agriculture.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have known and worked with him…He has been a source of encouragement and a great inspiration. In the conclusion to Sharing the Harvest, I quote his wonderful words about unpredictability

The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. The apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience—whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself. (And I would add, by people all over the world to prevent a nuclear holocaust.) No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.

In my letter accompanying the almost final text of the book, I wrote: “Few things could have been less predictable than my becoming a farmer or that my years of organizing against segregation while in college, against nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam while in grad school, for parent-teacher run education while my son was little, and for organic agriculture once I started farming would have led me to community supported agriculture. So life is full of surprises, good ones… and nasty ones. I learned so much about working with other people from our years together at BU.”

Thank you, Howard. I love you so much.

Image: Flickr/redjar via Wikipedia.

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