The People Speak

From March ’10 Spotlight: When Howard Zinn died in January at the age of 87, America lost one of the 20th Century’s best-known historians and the mishpokhe lost a mensch. After serving as a bombardier during WWII, Zinn devoted his life to civil rights and anti-war causes. When he took unpopular political stands (such as his early opposition to the Vietnam War), he did so with the full weight of history on his shoulders.

You don’t need to log onto Wikipedia to know this man was Jewish; the fact that both parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe is evident in every sentence that he wrote. Here are the final words of his autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic… If we remember those times and places… where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Documentary filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller released a solid film version of Neutral in 2004, and it’s certainly an engrossing survey of Zinn’s life and times, but a more fitting tribute is The People Speak. Produced for the History Channel and now available on DVD, The People Speak is based on a program held at NYC’s venerable 92nd Street Y in 2003, celebrating the fact that sales of Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States had just crossed over the one million mark.

Zinn personally narrates as a stream of stars (including Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Sandra Oh, Sean Penn, and Marisa Tomei) read from the letters, poems, and speeches of great American “rebels, dissenters, and visionaries,” with musical accompaniment by the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. This is a thought-provoking and awe-inspiring ensemble of sounds and images!

Zinn married his wife “Roz” (born Roslyn Shechter) in 1944. Her parents were also Jewish immigrants. Partners in life and work right up to the time of her death in 2008, the Zinns leave behind two children, five grandchildren, and innumerable mitzvot. May their memories be for blessing.

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