Staughton Lynd Never Lost the Courage of His Convictions

Staughton Lynd Never Lost the Courage of His Convictions

Staughton Lynd Never Lost the Courage of His Convictions

The historian and activist, who died last month, paid a steep price for his commitments. Yet he managed to find a way to keep agitating, and keep writing, while always remaining true to his radical vision.


Few American radicals rivaled Staughton Lynd, who died on November 17, in the longevity of their activism or the range of issues they pursued. For six decades, Lynd, an historian and lawyer, put himself on the front lines of struggles for racial equality, against the Vietnam War, for worker rights, against deindustrialization, for Palestinian rights, in the defense of prisoners, and against the death penalty. Once a nationally known figure, feted on the left and fretted over by President Lyndon Johnson, over time Lynd increasingly turned to local struggles and a low-profile style of politics, so that by the time he died his name had largely slipped out of public view.

Lynd began life at the heights of American academic life. His parents, Robert and Helen Lynd, were pathbreaking sociologists, whose study of Muncie, Ind., Middletown, remains one of the classic texts in the field. Staughton attended Ethical Culture schools in New York before going to Harvard in 1946, where he became immersed in left-wing politics and met his life companion, Alice Niles. A conscientious objector during the Korean War, he served in the Army as a noncombatant. Upon discharge he and Alice moved to a Quaker community in Georgia, where they spent three years. Eventually they returned to New York, where Staughton pursued a doctorate in history at Columbia while working with a tenants’ rights group. His dissertation examined Revolutionary era politics in New York State. Always prolific, by 1967 he had written or edited four books, including, most importantly, Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, a collection of essays on democratic struggles during the American Revolution that argued that slavery was central to the Constitution.

Rather than seeking a position at a major research university, Lynd took his first teaching job at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he worked closely with fellow historian Howard Zinn in supporting the civil rights movement. In 1964, Lynd oversaw the Freedom Schools, set up as part of Mississippi Freedom Summer.

That fall, Lynd moved to the history department at Yale University. He soon became a leader of the emerging movement against the War in Vietnam, chairing the first national anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., in April 1965. In December 1965, Lynd joined Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden on a fact-finding trip to Hanoi, where he discussed the war with government leaders. Denounced at home as dealing with the enemy, the trip turned out to be a pivotal moment in Lynd’s life.

Within months, Yale indicated to Lynd that he was unlikely to receive tenure when his five-year contract expired, as turned out to be the case. Various Yale figures put forth various reasons for his termination, but clearly his radical activism and trip to North Vietnam played a role. So did his scholarship, especially his Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, published in 1968, just as the final decision on his tenure was being made. In it, Lynd pointed to “a long and honorable history” in the United States of the “concepts of existential radicalism,” which, he argued, as historian David Waldstreicher put it, “informed the American Revolution” and “survived the capture of the Revolution by conservative nationalists.” Expanding on his earlier work, Lynd questioned why the nation’s founders rejected abolition. All this offended prominent Yale historians, who extolled a purported consensus among Revolutionary leaders and saw abolition as significant only much later. Eugene Genovese, then a Marxist enfant terrible, joined the fray, denouncing Lynd in the pages of The New York Review of Books as a “demagogue” and giving political cover to more conservative critics. Today, most historians, even if they disagree with Lynd’s interpretations, see the questions he raised about the centrality of radicalism, slavery, and abolition in early American history as crucial.

Out of a job, Lynd moved Chicago, hoping to help organize an interracial movement of the poor. To earn a living, he planned to keep teaching, but was unable to find a position in the face of de facto blacklisting. Although he was offered a job at Chicago State, the Illinois Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities rescinded the offer, citing his “public activities,” including the trip to Hanoi. The president of Roosevelt University refused to offer Lynd a full-time position “on the basis of his personality.” And so it went, as school after school in Illinois and Ohio rejected Lynd.

While in Chicago, Staughton did do some organizing. More importantly, he and Alice conducted a series of interviews with union activists who had been involved in the creation of industrial unions during the 1930s. These became the basis for their influential 1973 book, Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working-Class Organizers. Their stories reinforced the Lynds’ predilection for local activity and decentralized leadership, which deepened over time.

Forced to invent a new way of life, Staughton trained as a lawyer (Alice later did, too) and moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where he joined a labor law firm. There he became deeply involved in the movement to stop the shutdown of Midwestern steel mills, proposing the use of eminent domain to maintain operations. His support for union dissidents cost him his job at the law firm, but he found a home at Northeast Ohio Legal Services, where he worked for the remainder of his career. In addition to labor cases, Lynd represented prisoners, including those involved in a 1993 uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, whose stories he and Alice chronicled in Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising.

Over the years, Lynd argued for a rank-and-file, anti-hierarchical style of unionism. He repeatedly criticized exclusive representation, the dues check-off, and the existing leadership of the labor movement. Many union supporters, including on the left, saw Lynd’s views as unrealistic, undermining the ability of labor to take on powerful opponents and romanticizing workers who came in every variety, progressive and reactionary.

Though Lynd kept publishing books and articles on subjects ranging from early American history to Palestine, mainstream intellectual organs rarely acknowledged his existence. During his long career, The New York Times published only two articles by him, one defending SNCC in 1967 and another about steel mill shutdowns, and The New York Review of Books only one, also about steel. But if forced out of national prominence by circumstances, Lynd seemed unfazed, happy to labor in relative anonymity among workers, prisoners, and local activists, opening his home in Niles, Ohio, every other Saturday for discussions of nonviolence, capital punishment, and the like.

In 1967, the British historian E.P. Thompson described Lynd as combining “a Yankee energy and irreverence with moral toughness, which comes from older, more puritan timber.” Some of the causes and movements Lynd supported, at great personal cost, failed or proved only modestly successful, while others, like the civil rights movement, accomplished an enormous amount. Through the flow and ebb of progressive politics, he embodied what historian Steve Rosswurm called “a good and moral life in service of others.”

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