Howard Zinn , an historian, civil rights activist, professor, and author of A People's History of the United States, passed away last week. One of his most beloved students was Alice Walker, whose papers are held by the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. Walker met Zinn at a Spelman College honors dinner for incoming freshmen; she soon took his class on Russian history in the fall of 1962, and together they were involved in SNCC. “Perceptive and well-written” reads a comment from Zinn on Walker’s final paper in the Russian history class, another “A,” and one of many documents in the archive relating to Walker’s time at Spelman and relationship with Howard Zinn. In 2009, at the opening of the collection, Zinn reminded the audience that Walker was admirable not merely for her writing, but for her commitment to justice.
The admiration went both ways. In a letter to the Spelman College newspaper, Walker asserted that “it was to Dr. Zinn's classes that all really serious and inquiring students aspired to attend.” Walker was able to take only a single class from Zinn, who was fired from Spelman in 1963 for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Partially motivated by Zinn’s firing, Alice Walker left Spelman a short time later to attend Sarah Lawrence College. Their shared sense of humor and political activism endured and Howard Zinn and Alice Walker maintained their friendship over the years. She sent him bits of poetry with her letters. He replied with advice and encouragement. Their mutual admiration is as obvious in the letters available to researchers in the Walker papers as it was in their public statements about each other.