Howard Zinn's Reading List for Activists

howard zinn reading list

Born to a Jewish immigrant family in 1920s Brooklyn, Howard Zinn was a visionary historian, philosopher, and political activist who dedicated his life’s work to social change. Zinn wrote over 20 books that affirm the power of the people to shape history through direct action, including the groundbreaking 1980 publication, People’s History of the United States. 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the Howard Zinn Centennial will be honoring his legacy throughout the year.

Growing up in a working-class family with no books at home, Zinn’s parents introduced him to literature by sending a dime and a coupon to the New York Post every month to receive a volume of Charles Dickens’ works. He’d go on to read about fascism in Europe through George Seldes’ Sawdust Caesar and The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror, and engage in political debate with the young Communists of his neighborhood. Invited to a peaceful demonstration in Times Square, mounted police would charge and knock Zinn unconscious – marking a turning point in his social ideology:

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy… The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society – cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

During World War II Zinn served in the Air Force and flew bombing missions in Europe, an experience that would embolden his stance that the only “just war” is a war against war, and inform his strong belief in the importance of understanding history. In 1956 he accepted a post as chair of the history and social science departments at Spelman College – America’s oldest historically Black women’s school – where he became active in the Civil Rights Movement and wrote an impassioned first-hand description of the struggle in SNCC: The New Abolitionists.

After being fired by the college for his support of student protesters, Zinn taught political science at Boston University until his 1988 retirement. He chronicles his journey towards radicalism in the 2002 memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

In a lengthy reading list for Socialist Worker, Zinn outlined some of the books that shaped his historical and political thought. From the Christopher Colombus controversy to Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, find his recommendations on Amazon below – or support Social Justice Books, a sister program of the Zinn Education Project, by getting your copies through Bookshop.org. Complement with the radical reading lists of Angela Davis, Ibram X. Kendi, Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, and Rage Against the Machine.


Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America by Gary Nash

“A pioneering work of ‘multiculturalism’ dealing with racial interactions in the colonial period.” -HZ

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

“A moving collection of statements and recollections by American Indians, which gives you their point of view in a vivid, passionate way.” -HZ

From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin

“The classic overview of Afro-American history by the nation’s leading Black historian.” -HZ

There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America by Vincent Harding

“Excellent start on Black history.” -HZ

A Documentary History of the Negro People of the United States by Herbert Aptheker

“An extremely valuable, I am tempted to say indispensable, collection – not at all dry, as are some documentaries.” -HZ

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution by Eric Foner

“A rich, vivid, epic-like narrative of those extraordinary years 1863 to 1877, by one of the leading ‘new historians.'” -HZ

Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building by Richard Drinnon

“A brilliantly written account of imperial expansion by the United States, not just on the American continent against the Indians, but overseas in the Philippines and in Vietnam.” -HZ

American Labor Struggles by Samuel Yellen

“This brings to life the great labor conflicts of American history, from the railroad strikes of 1877 to the San Francisco general strike of 1934.” -HZ

The Female Experience: An American Documentary by Gerda Lerner

“A marvelous collection of the writings of women throughout U.S. history, dealing with childhood, marriage, housework, old age, education, industrial work, politics and sexual freedom.” -HZ

Black Women in White America: A Documentary History by Gerda Lerner

“A rare glimpse into the lives, the minds, the spirits of that doubly oppressed group, ranging from slavery to our time, a wonderful sourcebook.” -HZ

Nonviolence in America by Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd

“A valuable examination of the ideas, in their own words, of early Quaker dissidents, abolitionists, anarchists, progressives, conscientious objectors, trade unionists, civil rights workers and pacifists, from the colonial period to the 1960s.” -HZ

The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter

“A classic of American history, beautifully written, an iconoclastic view of American political leaders, including Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and the two Roosevelts, suggesting more consensus than difference at the top of the political hierarchy.” -HZ

Year 501 by Noam Chomsky

“Here, the nation’s most distinguished intellectual rebel gives us huge amounts of information about recent American foreign policy, and puts it into historical perspective, going back to the Columbus era.” -HZ

Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton, Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn

“An oral history of the Black movement for civil rights, from the 1950s to the 1980s, much of its material coming out of the research done for the TV documentary, Eyes on the Prize.” -HZ

Strangers from a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki

“Gives us what has been glaringly missing from our traditional histories, the story of Asian-Americans, from the early years of the republic, through the dramatic and tragic experiences of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, to the recent arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia.” -HZ

500 Anos del Pueblo Chicano: 500 Years of Chicano History by Elizabeth Martinez.

“Full of marvelous photos, but also an exciting, bilingual text loaded with valuable history.” -HZ

The American Revolution by Alfred Young

“An excellent set of essays by younger historians on various aspects of the American Revolution.” -HZ

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

“Along with the traditional military history, there is a lot of political and social history and McPherson pays attention to the role of Black people in that whole period.” -HZ

Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois

“A direct counter to the traditional racist accounts of Reconstruction, presenting the narrative from the Black point of view.” -HZ

The Era of Reconstruction by Kenneth Stampp

“For a briefer account of Reconstruction than either Du Bois or Foner.” -HZ

Bearing the Cross by David Garrow

“The best biography of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing to those elements in his philosophy that have been ignored.” -HZ

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch

“Parting the Waters tells the story of the movement with more attention than is usually given to grassroots activists and to the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” -HZ

Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement by Danny Lyon

“An excellent photographic-essay supplement to these books, with wonderful photos and text.” -HZ

Minds Stayed on Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Rural South

“What makes this unique is that it consists of interviews conducted by young Black students in Mississippi – eighth and ninth graders – with older Black people who talk about the movement.” -HZ

The Sixties by Todd Gitlin

“A vivid history, well-written, thoughtful, by one of the activists of that era.” -HZ

The Journal of Christopher Columbus

“One of many editions of his account of his voyages.” -HZ

The Devastation of the Indies by Bartolme de las Casas

“The closest we can get to an eyewitness account of the terrorism inflicted on the Indians.” -HZ

The Conquest of Paradise by Kirkpatrick Sale

“A treasury of information about the Columbus experience and about the treatment of that experience through the centuries.” -HZ

Columbus: His Enterprise by Hans Koning

“A pioneering, succinct critique of Columbus and his forays.” -HZ

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano

“Continues the story of European conquest by tracing the relations between the United States and Latin America from Columbus down to our times. A poetic, powerful account.” -HZ

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki

“A sweeping and important survey of the history of ethnic groups (including Indians, Blacks, Jews, Irish, Asians, Chicanos and others). Unique.” -HZ

The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick

“Funny and remarkably rich in its content.” -HZ

The Other America by Philip Foner and Reinhard Schultz

“A fascinating art book – paintings and photographs – of the history of working people in the United States.” -HZ

Boston by Upton Sinclair

Freedom Road, Citizen Tom Paine & The American by Howard Fast

“Very readable, with original points of view.” -HZ

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (also rec’d by RATM)

“A powerful antiwar novel written between the two World Wars.” -HZ

Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic

“A moving memoir by a badly wounded Vietnam veteran who turned against the war.” -HZ

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (also rec’d by Bob DylanBruce SpringsteenGabriel García Márquez, Hugh Jackman, Nelson MandelaRay Bradbury & Tom Wolfe)

“A powerful introduction to the Depression years.” -HZ

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (also rec’d by Angie Thomas, Colin KaepernickGabrielle UnionIbram X. KendiJanelle Monáe, Kareem Abdul-JabbarRose McGowanTupac Shakur & Questlove)

Living My Life by Emma Goldman

“The fascinating story of this feminist-anarchist who outraged the nation in the early years of this century.” -HZ

Black Boy by Richard Wright

“About his growing up in the South.” -HZ

A Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner

“Overview of women’s movements, with much colorful material.” -HZ

We Were There by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer

“A fine history of working women, from colonial times to the First World War.” -HZ

Women and Fiction by Susan Cahill

“A rich and wonderful collection of short stories by some of the greatest women writers.” -HZ

To Be a Black Woman by Mel Watkins and Jay David

“Essays and fiction by and about Black women, including work by Maya Angelou, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry.” -HZ

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (also rec’d by Alice Walker, Florence Welch, Ibram X. Kendi, Janet Mock & Zadie Smith)

“A classic of Black literature, written in the 1930s, a forerunner in its originality, honesty and power of Alice Walker’s novels today.” -HZ

In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker

“A fascinating set of essays, some autobiographical, some literary criticism, some social commentary.” -HZ

A More Goodly Country by John Sanford

(via Socialist Worker)

Categories: Activists Writers