Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
Transitions: Howard Zinn and Louis Harlan
February 01, 2010

Two distinguished historians, both born in 1922, passed away recently after lives of extraordinary accomplishment and generosity. Although they were quite different in many ways, each shed light on neglected aspects of the past and demonstrated how historical scholarship could contribute to social justice and racial understanding. I was among the many historians who admired their writings and will cherish memories of those occasions when our paths crossed.

            I met Howard more than three decades ago while engaged in research for my study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I traveled to Howard’s house in Boston to meet the author of SNCC: The New Abolitionists, the best available account of SNCC’s emergence. Howard was one of the few white scholars who were teaching at Atlanta’s historically-black Spelman College in 1960 when black students launched a sustained anti-segregation sit-in campaign. Some of his students helped to draft An Appeal for Human Rights, which was published in local newspapers, and the Atlanta student protest group soon affiliated with  SNCC, which was founded in April 1960. In 1963 Howard was enlisted by SNCC activists to become the historian of their movement, a testament to the trust they placed in him to explain their distinctive style of grassroots organizing. In many respects, Howard’s contact with SNCC activists shaped his own commitment to writing history that emphasized the perspectives of those struggling to overcome injustice and oppression.

            I felt a bit of trepidation when I first arrived at his door. Although he had agreed to my visit, I was unsure how he would respond to a younger historian at work on a study that might eventually compete with his own book. It did not take long before Howard and his wife Roslyn put me completely at ease. After we shared our thoughts about SNCC, he invited me to look through all of his research materials, which he had stored in boxes in his attic. He even suggested that I take away items that were particularly interesting to a nearby copy shop. During my research travels, most former SNCC workers had agreed to be interviewed and some made available their private collections of documents, but others had bluntly told me that only SNCC veterans should tell SNCC’s story. Because SNCC’s official records were not yet deposited in an archive, Howard’s trusting openness allowed me to examine and copy documents that were essential to my subsequent dissertation and book, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, published in 1981. His example provided a model for how I should treat the researchers who would later asked me for help and access to “my” documents.

As Howard became a highly visible public intellectual and the famed author of A People’s History of the United States, we talked at various political events. Our last extended conversation came a few years ago when I conducted a public interview of him in front of more than a thousand of his fans in a packed high school auditorium in Berkeley. My task was easy: ask questions that would allow Howard to talk about his fascinating political past, his mission as a historian, and his faith in the power of ordinary people to change history. The event drew a larger audience than had ever attended one of my lectures, and I knew that no one had come to see me. I was later pleased to be interviewed for the documentary Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Howard, but his work will live on in the hearts and minds of the young people who reject political neutrality and seek to realize democratic ideals.

Louis Harlan enjoyed little of Howard’s fame, but he was a historian’s historian – more interested in the praise of other historians than popular acclaim. Howard had come of age amidst the Jewish radicalism of the Depression era, while Louis was a white southerner who had only gradually became a critic of segregation. Howard’s unconventional political views were always on display; Louis usually expressed his politics through his careful scholarly writings, producing the source materials for much popular historical writing. Although Louis reached a large audience of non-specialists, he was by no means obscure. The author of an acclaimed biography of Booker T. Washington, he twice received the Bancroft Prize, which awarded annually for the best book in American history. The second volume of his Washington biography also received the Pulitzer Prize. Washington was not the type of black leader that would have attracted Howard’s sympathy, but Harlan’s perceptively shed light on the psychological costs of Washington’s accommodation with white supremacy.

Even before I ever met Louis, he played an important role in my academic career. When the manuscript for In Struggle was nearing completion, I sent it to several publishers and was distressed when the University of Chicago Press sent me a negative report that suggested revisions that would require several years to complete. Although such reports are often anonymous, in this case the author revealed that he was August Meier, a white historian who specialized in African-American history at a time when there were few black historians in the field. I disagreed with most of Meier’s suggestions, believing that they were unnecessary or reflected a misunderstanding of SNCC’s radicalism (he was disturbed by my treatment of Communist influences in the group). Moreover, the time needed to rewrite the book according to his specifications would certainly have prevented me from gaining tenure at Stanford. Soon after reading Meier’s report, however, Harvard University Press agreed to publish my book after receiving a highly favorable report written by Louis. Meier never forgave me for not following his suggestions and wrote a letter strongly opposing my tenure, but Louis’s support made it possible for me to publish a prize-winning book that remains in print until this day.

I came to know Louis personally through his role as senior editor of the Booker T. Washington Papers, a long-term documentary editing effort that became a model for the King Papers Project, which I began in 1985 after Coretta Scott King asked me to edit her late husband’s papers. Indeed, when Mrs. King contacted me, she also asked Louis to become co-editor of King’s papers. Both of us were dubious about the feasibility of a collaboration involving two historians on opposite sides of the nation, but Louis quickly withdrew himself from consideration and offered instead to become advisory editor. Louis’s wealth of experience as a documentary editor was vital to me and my staff during our on-the-job training, and his name appeared on the title pages of the initial volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. During a period when Mrs. King and I occasionally experienced difficulties in setting the ground rules of our collaboration, Louis and his close friend John Hope Franklin intervened to refocus everyone’s attention on the overriding importance of the King Project as a key element of Dr. King’s legacy.

I regret that not being able to visit Louis during the past decade as his health declined, but I remember well his integrity and commitment to the highest level of scholarship. I will miss both him and Howard but surely hope that their enduring spirit will be evident in my own future political activism and historical scholarship.  

 

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