Activist, historian Howard Zinn dies at 87

BOSTON (Reuters) - Historian and activist Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book “A People’s History of the United States” was a rallying cry for the American left in a conservative era, has died aged 87.

Family members said Zinn, who for decades was a fixture in the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements and lived in Auburndale, Massachusetts, died of a heart attack on Wednesday while traveling in California.

He was a professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University and taught there from 1964 to 1988.

“He had a deep sense of fairness and justice for the underdog. But he always kept his sense of humor. He was a happy warrior,” said Caryl Rivers, journalism professor at Boston University.

Rivers and Zinn were among a group of faculty members who in 1979 defended the right of the school’s clerical workers to strike and were threatened with dismissal after refusing to cross a picket line.

“A People’s History of the United States” chronicled the nation’s development through voices of women, minorities and the working class, telling the U.S. story as series of episodes where the state and big business colluded to crush socialism.

American leftists celebrated the work at a time when conservatism as embodied by U.S. President Ronald Reagan was ascendant. More than one million copies have been sold.

Zinn was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922 into a Jewish immigrant family. During World War Two he enlisted in the U.S. Army and flew in planes that bombed targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

He wrote in the magazine “The Progressive” in 2006 that his military service had informed his anti-war views.

“Once we decided, at the start, that our side was the good side and the other side was evil ... we did not have to think any more. Then we could commit unspeakable acts and it was all right,” Zinn said.

Zinn earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1951 and later a master’s and a doctorate in history from Columbia University in New York.

Weeks before his death Zinn wrote in “The Nation” magazine of his disappointment with President Barack Obama.

“I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president -- which means, in our time, a dangerous president -- unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

Zinn is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Storey