03/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The People's Historian

The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government will 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. My hope is that you will not be content to be successful in the way our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you.

One of my favorite quotes of all time, this came from Howard Zinn's superb commencement address at Spelman, the black women's college at which Zinn first taught - from which he was fired for insubordination because of his role in the civil rights movement. It summarizes the great hopefulness of Zinn's vision, even in the face of all the corruption and repression that is part of our history.

Zinn was one of the greatest teachers, authors, historians, activists, and all-around rabble-rousers in American history. His People's History redefined the way a generation of students, professors, and progressive activists thought about American history, telling the part of American history that few historians had ever paid attention to until Zinn came along.

I write this as an author of a history book (The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be) that had some pretty big disagreements with People's History. Zinn was far more critical of some of the political leaders that I wrote of as progressive heroes, such Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. Zinn argued that change comes almost entirely from the protests and perseverance and courage of radical activists outside of the government, while my argument in The Progressive Revolution is that change has stemmed from the interaction - at times in opposition, but at times in cooperation - of outside agitators and sympathetic political leaders. While I wrote of the flaws and mistakes of political leaders like the aforementioned, I argued that without those leaders articulating progressive ideas and being open to more progressive legislation, outside protests alone would not have been able to make the changes happen. Zinn, while an optimist about the capacity for citizens to force change, had a much darker view of most of our political leaders.

These disagreements could never diminish my admiration of Howard Zinn, however, or my belief in his importance as someone who had a major impact in the way history is viewed. His championing and popularizing of the great unsung heroes of American history - the early labor leaders and abolitionists, the women suffragists, the unsung civil rights leaders who were risking their lives long before the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's - was one of the most admirable achievements in the history of American history.

It is ironic that Zinn should have died in the week of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision glorifying and enhancing corporate power, and the State of the Union address by an African-American president who has inspired both so much hope and so much angst from progressives. We seem to be living in the best of times and the worst of times: a former community organizer, an African-American son of any immigrant with an African-Muslim name, is our president; but corporate power has never seemed so dominant. Howard undoubtedly was smiling at the irony right up to the end.

Here's a panel discussion on GRITtv yesterday with me, Steven Cobble, and Lisa Dodson, a student of Zinn's and author of a fascinating sounding new book (The Moral Underground), talking about Howard, the Citizens United decision, and the State of the Union: