FBI kept records on late historian Howard Zinn beginning in 1949 - part 1

08/05/10 Seán Kinane
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Historian, author, and activist Howard Zinn died in January. He may be best known for his book A People’s History of the United States. Last Friday the FBI released more than 400 pages of files it has kept on Zinn since March, 1949. That’s when J. Edgar Hoover’s agency first created a “Security Index card” on Zinn when they suspected he was associated with the Communist Party.

When I interviewed Zinn in 2006, I asked him whether the government spied on him.

“I have no doubt of it. Well, I received, back in the sixties, I sent away for my Freedom of Information file. There were hundreds of pages of evidence that the FBI had spied on my activities when I was in the South and in the Civil Rights movement, [they] had spied on my activities in the movement against the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of pages.”

According to the documents, the FBI kept track of Zinn even further back than that. It began while he was working at the American Labor Party Headquarters in Brooklyn in the 1940s, and continued when he was an undergraduate student on the G.I. Bill at Washington Square College of New York University in 1950. They continued to keep files on Zinn while he was earning his Master's and Doctorate degrees at Columbia University. A 1957 FBI document indicates that during those McCarthy-era years in New York, up to sixteen informants claimed as early as 1947 that Zinn was associated with the Communist Party and what they considered Communist front groups.

Their first major report summary in March 1949 noted that the FBI verified Zinn's home address by asking "the subject's sister, DORIS ZINN ... under a suitable pretext." But the editor of The Progressive magazine, Matthew Rothschild, confirmed through Howard Zinn's daughter that the FBI was wrong -- Zinn did not have a sister.

“Yeah, his daughter is Myla Kabat-Zinn, and she said that Howard never had a sister, much less a sister named Doris. So, if that’s the accuracy of the information in the file, she said she can’t really think that there’s much to these files. She can’t rely on anything in there and doesn’t think anyone else should.”

In the early 1950s Zinn was stopped on the streets of New York on two different occasions (11/6/53 & 2/9/54) by the same two FBI assets, and asked about his connections with the Communist Party. Zinn admitted association with what the FBI considers Communist fronts, but he denied membership in the Party. He said he would not give information about others or use violence to overthrow the government. According to the documents, those two factors seem to have played a role in the FBI deciding in 1955 that Zinn was not of much interest - "The [Security Index] card on Howard Zinn was canceled."

But then in 1956 Zinn took a job at Spellman College in Atlanta, a historically black women's college. The Atlanta office of the FBI became interested in Zinn and in 1957 the FBI Director authorized the Atlanta Division "to conduct a security investigation of Howard Zinn" … in accordance with a manual "governing individuals holding academic positions in an institution of learning." Again, Matthew Rothschild.

“Well, it’s clear that Zinn caught the attention of the FBI when he was in Atlanta at Spellman College because he was criticizing the FBI itself. He had criticized the FBI in a report he did on civil rights down there, and how the FBI wasn’t protecting anyone who was advocating peacefully for civil rights, and that they just weren’t doing their job, and that got the FBI’s attention when the report surfaced in a New York newspaper. Also, there was an indication that Martin Luther King, Jr. had read what Zinn had reported and agreed to it, in one of the more chilling passages in the file. The FBI agent says ‘we should send two or three people down there to straighten Martin Luther King out.’”

The renewed interest by the FBI in Atlanta coincides with a source claiming to have a photo of Zinn that allegedly shows him teaching a seminar on Marxism in 1951. This is despite the New York office essentially closing its case on Zinn two years earlier. But now there are references in the Atlanta documents claiming Zinn is an actual Communist, even though the New York documents claimed that he was just associated with front groups.

In 1962 Zinn wrote an article about how the FBI was failing African-Americans in the South, the FBI Director wrote on a clipping of the New York Post article, 'What do we know of Zinn?'

“Yeah, it’s amazing that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be following so closely the writing of a particular dissident in the United States. It shows how obsessed and paranoid J. Edgar Hoover was, and how he was trampling on people’s basic First Amendment rights, the right to dissent ... And again, it makes me feel uncomfortable that with homeland security, and with the CIA, and the FBI, and the NSA, and all of these other agencies that are peering into our lives. And given how much easier it is to peer into our lives than it was back when Howard Zinn was being followed by the FBI, gives me pause.”

The FBI tracked Zinn’s newspaper articles as well as his travel within the U.S. and outside the country. In our 2006 interview, Zinn seemed incredulous that the FBI would spy on such mundane behavior of American citizens.

"What you learn when you send away for your FBI files, under the Freedom of Information Act, is you learn that they are recording the most innocuous, the most harmless kinds of activities. ‘Oh, he made a speech here. Oh, he wrote this article.’"

We’ll bring you the second half of this story tomorrow on the WMNF Evening News, when we hear that the FBI put Zinn on a list of citizens to be detained in event of emergency.

Listen to the full 2-part series

Listen to just part 2 of this story

The FBI files on Howard Zinn

The Progressive magazine

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