He taught us to use our voice

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty talks about what Howard Zinn meant to those fighting for a better and more just world.

Howard Zinn onstage at the 2009 Campaign to End the Death Penalty convention (Eric Ruder | SW)Howard Zinn onstage at the 2009 Campaign to End the Death Penalty convention (Eric Ruder | SW)

LAST JULY, I sent an invitation to Howard Zinn, asking if he would be the keynote speaker at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's convention in Chicago in November.

It was a long shot, his close friend and collaborator Anthony Arnove told me--not because he wouldn't want to do it, but because he had so much to do on The People Speak film project, and because his health was not the best. "But you should go ahead and ask" was Anthony's advice.

So ask I did. I told Howard that the people attending the Campaign would be moms, sisters, fathers, brothers and grandfathers, struggling to stick by their family members on death row; former prisoners brutalized by the criminal justice system; and the kind of activists who hold grassroots struggles together. I told him that we took the name of our newsletter from his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, and that we would be honored if he would join us.

I scanned my e-mail every day for a response. My daughter remembers me screaming like I won the lottery when I got his message accepting the invitation.

Over the next several months, Howard and I exchanged e-mails about the upcoming event, set for one of the biggest auditoriums at the University of Chicago. He was patient, kind and agreeable to any suggestions. I worried that he was doing too much--he also agreed to speak earlier in the day to a group of high school students in Naperville. But you couldn't stop Howard from doing too much--it was just in his make-up.

What you can do

You can order a DVD of Howard Zinn and Dave Zirin's "Power of the People" event at the 2009 CEDP convention, or a special issue of the New Abolitionist newsletter with excerpts from their conversation at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site.

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I'LL ADMIT that I was nervous to meet him after all of our funny, sweet e-mail exchanges. But his first words to me were "Ah, so this is Marlene, you really do exist!" All my nerves dissipated on the spot.

At dinner before the event, I introduced him to Marvin Reeves, who had just been released from prison, and would speak for a few minutes before him. Howard took Marvin's hand in both of his, looked him in the eye, and told him how wonderful it was that he was free.

During dinner, Howard couldn't stop asking questions of the rest of us. One favorite target was Dave Zirin, who would share the stage with him that night. I think Howard saw a lot of himself in Dave--a great sense of humor, sharp as a tack, radical, generous and kind to a fault, and one of the best and funniest speakers around.

When we headed to Mandel Hall on the UC campus, I had a pang of worry about what the room would look like, but that quickly subsided when we walked in and saw the entire hall packed with people.

Howard and Dave were brilliant that night. Dave took Howard through a whole range of questions, from criminal justice issues, to war, to socialism, to why you should be active. He said so many powerful things that night--and the audience was right there with him, interrupting with applause and laugher, again and again. We were fortunate enough to capture the whole event on DVD.

Before Howard spoke, we heard from four people from the Campaign--Marvin, a former police torture victim who served 21 years of a life sentence before he was exonerated and released last summer; Martina Correia, the sister of Troy Davis, who is on death row in Georgia; Sandra Reed, the mother of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed; and former New York death row prisoner Lawrence Hayes, who shared the podium with Howard 13 years before when they spoke at a Boston event that helped launch the Campaign.

After the event, Dave and I walked Howard to his room on campus. I tried to shove a small stipend check into his hands, and he pushed it back, "I won't take money from a group like yours." We said goodbye, and he talked about how the work we were doing was so important.

The next day, at our convention, people stood a little taller, and felt a little more committed about our struggle, and that if we keep on, we will win justice--Howard Zinn said so!

I spoke with Marvin this week to let him know about Howard's death. "Howard Zinn showed me that people know about the justice system, and they care about this issue," he told me. "For me, to be on the stage with him that night was the highlight of my life. Because I've never been nowhere--never done anything. But that particular night, sharing the stage with him, I felt like a celebrity. I felt like that because I was with a wonderful man."

I called Martina Correia, she expressed the same feelings. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. "He embraced me without any judgment. You know, when you're a family member of someone on death row, you can be treated differently. But when he looked at me and talked with me, it was like everything I had to say was of importance. He was like an angel, and full of grace.

"He wanted people to understand that we all had a place in this world--that we all had a voice, we just needed to learn how to use it."

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AFTER THE convention, I had written to Howard to let him know what an inspiration he was:

You made a group of people who feel so tiny, so unnoticed, so passed-over, feel like heroes for a few precious minutes. And for that, I can never thank you enough. Sandra Reed, Rodney's mother, said to me that she felt so honored to have met you. She works as a janitor at a high school. Meeting you and sharing the stage with you for a few short moments made her feel like a somebody...

You brought a small group of folks a whole lot of pride, a whole lot of inspiration, and a whole lot of feeling like "Yeah, we are somebodies, and we can do a whole lot of somethings."

I know that Howard meant the same thing to many more people than just us in the Campaign. To have someone like him speaking out and fighting alongside us made us prouder and more determined.

Howard wrote back a message that the Campaign will carry with us from now on. Whenever we are doubtful, or feeling discouraged or beaten down, we'll be able to turn to it as a source of encouragement--to dust ourselves off, get back up and keep at it. He wrote:

It was an enormously moving experience, full of emotion and comradely love. It was not an ordinary political meeting, because it was suffused with passion, undoubtedly because we were in the presence of people who had suffered so much but now were here free, triumphant and part of the movement that helped them to freedom. You are all nurturing a profoundly important movement for human freedom.

Thank you Howard!