Books: Non-Fiction

Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary

Book — Non-fiction. By Robert Cohen. 2018. 312 pages.
A historical overview and diary entries from Howard Zinn’s years as an activist professor at Spelman College.

Time Periods: 1961
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Organizing

In the 1960s, students of Spelman College, a Black liberal arts college for women, were drawn into historic civil rights protests occurring across Atlanta, leading to the arrest of some for participating in sit-ins in the local community. A young Howard Zinn was a professor of history at Spelman during this era and served as an adviser to the Atlanta sit-in movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Zinn mentored many of Spelman’s students fighting for civil rights at the time, including Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.

As a key facilitator of the Spelman student movement, Zinn supported students who challenged and criticized the campus’s paternalistic social restrictions, even when this led to conflicts with the Spelman administration. Zinn’s involvement with the Atlanta student movement and his closeness to Spelman’s leading student and faculty activists gave him an insider’s view of that movement and of the political and intellectual world of Spelman, Atlanta University, and the SNCC.

Robert Cohen presents a thorough historical overview as well as an entrée to Zinn’s diary. One of the most extensive records of the political climate on a historically Black college in the 1960s, Zinn’s diary offers an in-depth view. It is a fascinating historical document of the free speech, academic freedom, and student rights battles that rocked Spelman and led to Zinn’s dismissal from the college in 1963 for supporting the student movement. [Publisher’s description.]

Read the foreword by Alice Walker (PDF).

Listen to a recording of Zinn debate Fulton Lewis III at Emory University’s Young Americans for Freedom over the question, Shall the House Committee on Un-American Activities be Abolished?


In this expert treatment, Robert Cohen uses Howard Zinn’s diary as a vehicle to tell a larger story about the intersection of race and gender in a social movement, black campuses and their relationship to the southern black freedom struggle, and the effort to upend in loco parentis regulations and remake college life. The diary itself is a compelling read, but Cohen’s astute discussion of the complex reality of the times and his interviews with Zinn’s contemporaries add a rich texture to the book that should not be missed. Readers will be rewarded with an incisive look at one of the most iconic historians of our time and a window into the battle to remake black colleges and American society in the middle twentieth century. — Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, author of Jim Crow Campus: Higher Education and the Struggle for a New Southern Social Order

Robert Cohen has written a powerful and timely account of Howard Zinn’s formative years as an educator and civil rights activist at Spelman College. The book, drawing on an array of archival materials, including Zinn’s diary from the period, has numerous lessons — badly needed today — about what it means to be a principled and engaged intellectual, to work in service of larger goals and ideals, and to build genuine solidarity. I urge anyone interested in Zinn’s life and work to read it. — Anthony Arnove, coeditor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People’s History of the United States

ISBN: 9780820353289 | University of Georgia Press