Howard Zinn’s FBI Files Reveal A Boston University Official’s Efforts To Oust Him

In perusing the 423-page FBI file that the FBI kept on Howard Zinn, who was a life-long activist and political science professor at Boston University from 1964-1988, we discovered something interesting: someone in the upper echelons of the university’s management was an FBI informer who reportedly plotted to oust Zinn in 1970.

The files, which detail the FBI’s somewhat absurd practice of collecting newspaper clippings, public speeches and publicized speaking dates for people it declared dangerous to the country, also contained some interesting details about the official’s plans to end Zinn’s academic career at Boston University — where he published his seminal text A People’s History of The United States in 1980.In 1970, the campus of Boston University was the site of a great deal of anti-war turmoil, including sit-ins in the relatively new President’s office and massive student protests — one mass protest in May 1970 in the wake of the Kent State shootings resulted in the cancellation of graduation ceremonies. (The university recently reversed its earlier stance and invited graduates from 1970 to participate in commencement in May 2010).

So it perhaps comes as no surprise that the anti-war activities of Professor Zinn provoked a reaction in some members of the leadership of the university. What is perhaps more surprising is that at least some member of the university leadership was an informant to the FBI.

From pages 69 and 70 of the second ream of FBI documents.

On 4/17/70, [Redacted] (former SA), [redacted] advised on instant date, that [Redacted for more than 2 lines] (an excellent source of the Boston Office) is highly disturbed with HOWARD ZINN, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, BU, Boston, (Bufile 100-360217, BSfile 100-35505, SI subject) because of ZINN’s persistent involvement in anti-war activities. [Redacted] was particularly incensed when ZINN, as featured speaker, spoke in front of Boston Police Headquarters on 4/14/70 in connection with a rally held for the release of BOBBY SEALE, BPP National Chairman. ZINN stated “it’s about time we had a demonstration at the Police Station. Police in every nation are a blight and the United States is no exception.

ZINN further sated [sic] “America has been a police state for a long time. I believe that policemen should not have guns. I believe they should be disarmed. Policemen with guns are a danger to the community and themselves.”

[Redacted] indicated [Redacted] intends to call a meeting of the BU Board of Directors in an effort to have ZINN removed from BU.

Boston proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [Redacted] with public source data regarding ZINN’s numerous anti-war activities, including his trip to Hanoi, 1/31/68, in an effort to back [Redacted’s] efforts for his removal.

The Boston Office’s efforts to assist in the unnamed official’s supposed campaign against Zinn was denied — but only because the request was mislabeled as asking for help with Communist sympathizers, rather than anti-war sympathizers.

The Charter and Bylaws of Boston University indicate that there are only 2 people who could, alone, call a meeting of the Board of Trustees: the Chairman or the President. Otherwise, more than one-third of the members have to agree to such a meeting; there are currently 38 members of the Board of Trustees (though the number has fluctuated over time, it usually has around 40 members).

At the time, Arland Christ-Janer, now deceased, was the President — a job he’d held for less than 3 years. However, records reflect that, by April 1970, Crist-Janer had already given notice that he intended to leave in July 1970.

The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who led the search committee for Crist-Janer’s replacement, was Hans Estin, the current Vice Chairman Emeritus of North American Management whose biography says that he served as an Air Force pilot during the Korean War.

Zinn, of course, never left the university and in the turmoil surrounding Christ-Janer’s departure, the long search for a new president and the subsequent turmoil on the Board after it hired John Silber to lead the university, the attempts to turn the Board’s attention to Zinn seemingly fell on deaf ears — or else the unnamed official was just whining to the FBI for fun.

[Ed. note: the author is an alumna of Boston University.]

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