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Learning a People’s History, living a People’s History, writing a People’s History: Reflecting on the Legacy of Howard Zinn in Grand Rapids

August 23, 2022

“We need Howard Zinn now more than ever. Not for the sake of romance or to construct another hero in history. We need his insights, his politics, and his commitment to the struggle for a better world.” —Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, from her foreword to You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History

The late radical historian Howard Zinn, would have turned 100 today. Therefore, it seems like a perfect time to not only honor the legacy of Zinn, but to reflect on the importance of continuing his work by practicing a People’s History.

After WWII, Howard Zinn took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college and getting a degree in education. Zinn soon became a professor of US history. After years of searching for a primary text that presented history from below, from the perspective of those most marginalized, Zinn was unable to come across such a book. One day, Zinn recalls, his wife said to him, “you are just going to have to write the book yourself.”

Years later, Zinn ended up publishing A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book soon became a bestseller and has been reprinted several times over the decades. More importantly, A People’s History of the United States, has inspired a whole litany of new books that uses a People’s History as a framework. There are books a a People’s History of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Vietnam War, a Queer People’s History, a People’s History of the Disabilities Community, an Environmental People’s history, even a People’s History of Sports. 

Thirty years ago, I began teaching a class on the History of US Social Movements, using as a primary text, Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, which you can download. It has been one of my favorite classes to teach, both because of how it is such an epiphany for those who take the class, plus it allows me an opportunity to explore new ways to present this information. Here are posts from the 8 week class on the History of US Social Movements:

Week #1 – The Abolitionist Movement

Week #2 – The Black Freedom Struggle/Civil Rights Movement 

Week #3 – The US Labor Movement 

Week #4 – The Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Week #5 – How Social Movements get co-opted

Week #6 – The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Grand Rapids

Week #7 – The Immigrant Justice Movement in Grand Rapids

Week #8 – Building a framework for Social Movements and Radical Imagination

Honoring Howard Zinn 

In January of 2010, Zinn passed away. While at breakfast with friends, we were talking about what a loss it was. Then my friend Tom says to me, “You should do A People’s History of Grand Rapids.” From that moment on, I began doing the Grand Rapids People’s History Project,  which has included an online site of archival materials and articles, a feature length documentary we did in 2011, A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids, and a forthcoming book, slated for January of 2023, A People’s History of Grand Rapids. 

Learning from Zinn’s model of a people’s history has radically altered my life and the lives of millions more. Once you go down the road of a people’s history, which is ultimately a subversive challenge to “history from above” or what some call “official history,” there is no turning back. We have all been subjected to the official history version of US history in K – 12 schools, even in the colleges and universities we have attended. 

One additional benefit from learning and practicing a People’s History is that it helps you to re-orient how things are happening right now. This is why since 2009, I have seen the work of GRIID as a way to document the systems of power and oppression in Grand Rapids, along with the social movements that have been challenging that power. 

Thank you Howard Zinn, for changing my life, for inspiring me, for leading me down the path of documenting radical history in Grand Rapids, and for challenging me to practice radical imagination! Happy 100th Birthday to you, Howard Zinn!


There are lots of organizations celebrating and honoring the life of Howard Zinn today. Haymarket Books is offering a free download of Howard’s writing, in a book entitled, A Life of Activism: Howard Zinn in His Own Words – Selected Writings for the Centennial. 

One last great resource is the online site, the Zinn Education Project.

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