Howard Zinn died this week. While his death did not generate headline status, his legacy - that of telling the stories of common people who changed a nation - daily pulses on the front pages of American newspapers large and small, digital and print, that chronicle the struggles of a country in cultural upheaval. It is a legacy yet straining toward a distant finish line, halting and paradoxical, inching forward despite hurricane-force corporate headwinds generated by powerful and wealthy elites.
While Zinn's rise from a modest background to World War II bomber pilot to Civil Rights activist to world-acclaimed historian spanned most of the 20th century, his contribution to the American narrative found expression with the 1980 publication of A People's History of the United States, a volume that changed the telling of history. Prior to Zinn's People's History, the story of America as told in the nation's classrooms was from the perspective of political and wealthy white elites, past and present.
Departing from the status quo of sanitized public history, Zinn offered a bold - and radical - new look at the American story through the eyes and lives of working people, the disenfranchised, and overlooked minorities. Controversial to this day due to its examination of the long-ignored dark underside of American heroes (Thomas Jefferson the salveholder, or Andrew Jackson's harsh campaign to remove Native Americans, for example), A People's History (undergoing numerous editions since 1980) nonetheless transformed history classrooms by summoning the voices of minorities and common folk to tell their version of U.S. history.
Ironically, Zinn's public call to remember history from a common-folk and minority perspective began even as American politics entered into what became a three-decade effort to position history more firmly into the domain of powerful elites at the expense of everyone else. With a wink at working families and religious conservatives, the affable Ronald Reagan and his Republican allies began to systematically redistribute wealth from the pocketbooks of the poor to the already-bulging bank accounts of the richest of the rich. Remarkably, the victims of Reaganomics smiled and praised the "great communicator" as he talked of tax cuts for the poor and middle class (while in reality cutting the taxes of the richest of Americans and enacting the largest tax increase in American history in order to finance his redistribution of wealth) and restoration of America's moral, "Christian" heritage (while his promises of "restoring prayer" in public schools and anti-abortion rhetoric prompted the formation of the Religious Right and brought about the marriage of religious conservatives and the Republican Party, he never delivered on his words).
Thirty years later, the ideological warfare between elites and common folk rages unabated. Under George W. Bush, the redistribution of wealth to the rich reached historical proportions, with the 400 richest Americans worth more than the 150,000,000 million poorest (that's almost half the U.S. population, and here is a perspective on the numbers). The disparity is now so great that the United States is the equivalent of a Third World (undeveloped) nation in regards to the nation's wealth gap. Yet many poor and middle class religious conservatives continue defending wealth redistribution to the rich, convinced that the Republican Party is their friend, and that their freedom is somehow tied to tax cuts for the rich and a government subservient to big corporations (further evidenced in the recent Supreme Court campaign finance decision revoking a century of precedents in allowing corporations to usurp the voice of American citizens in matters of politics).
Thus, Zinn's unfinished legacy is more critical than ever as America of the 21st century is in ever-greater danger of succumbing to a religiously-yoked devotion to rule by the rich through capitalism unfettered. The irony of Zinn's legacy at this moment is that many members of the poor and middle class whom the historian long championed yet remain prostrated before the narrative of the powerful and wealthy elites (and their big corporations) that Zinn spent his life battling. The final chapter of Zinn's legacy, however, will not fully unfold until mid-century, at which time today's ethnic minorities will be the national majority.
While few Baptists have noticed the passing of Howard Zinn, we of all people would do well to remember the lessons of our own past as a persecuted and hated religious minority during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although white fundamentalists demonize the diversity that characterizes Baptists today, our diversity - theological, ethnic, political, cultural, social, global - is our strength and the key to our future. The public voices of Baptists in America in 2050 will not be white, male, Republican, capitalistic-demagoguing, fundamentalists like Al Mohler and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather, they will be the voices of ethnic, gender, political, economic and theological diversity already present in today's Baptist World Alliance. And somewhere buried within will be the still-pulsating legacy of Howard Zinn.