Staughton Lynd

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Staughton Lynd

One of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, rebellious historian Staughton Lynd (born 1929) became a leading peace militant, and as a result he was shunned by academe and turned to the practice of law.

Staughton Lynd was the son of two of America's most famous sociologists, Helen Merrell Lynd and Robert S. Lynd, the authors of Middletown. In their pioneering study of an industrial American city (Muncie, Indiana), the senior Lynds concluded that the gap between middle-class and working-class people was crucial in determining their different life styles. Staughton Lynd never forgot this lesson.

He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 22, 1929. When he was two years old his father was appointed professor of sociology at Columbia University, and Lynd grew up in the urban intellectual environment of New York City. His family played a vital role in the molding of his mind. His father had originally planned on a religious career. When he moved into academic work, his study of sociology tended to sustain the "class struggle" theory of Karl Marx. Thus Lynd's family was not only interested in events around them, it was eager to play some role in shaping those events.

Lynd had difficulty discovering what he wanted to do with his life. After earning both Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Harvard University he worked on a farm, made toys in a utopian community, organized tenants to combat rent-gouging landlords, and served as a non-combatant conscientious objector in the army. In 1958 he decided on a career in the study and teaching of history. In 1962 he received his doctorate from Columbia University. He wanted to follow somewhat in his father's footsteps by being} a student, author, and participant in contemporary American radical history. His decision was certain to cause problems for him, because most older historians then took the posture of "objectivity." This meant that they approved the idea of study and authorship, but frowned upon young scholars who sought to play an active role in history.

Moreover, the United States in the 1960s did not lend itself to objective contemplation. It was a polarizing society divided between youth and age, between Black people and white, and between "hawks" who favored military solutions in international situations (particularly in Vietnam) and "doves" who preferred peaceful solutions. Lynd was a young Quaker and a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who opposed U.S. involvement in the war in Asia. Lynd's sympathies were with the southern segregated Blacks who were fighting for voting rights and education. Lynd joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which had been formed while he was in graduate school. SNCC was committed to the mass education and political organization of the poorest southern Blacks. Lynd's first teaching job was at a Black school in Atlanta, Georgia—Spelman College. Thus he was an obvious choice to serve in the summer of 1964 as a SNCC education project director in Mississippi. There he hired teachers, wrote curricula, located whatever classroom buildings he could, and began to teach reading and writing to illiterate working class people.

In the fall of 1964 Lynd returned to New England to teach history as an untenured assistant professor at Yale University. By the spring of 1965 the First Marine Division had landed at Danang Air Base in South Vietnam, and the United States had started bombing enemy targets in Laos and North Vietnam. Lynd found his attention drawn away from the classroom and into active anti-war activity. During the summer of 1965 he refused to pay his taxes, and he openly advocated non-violent civil disobedience by those who opted to refuse draft induction. In August 1965 Lynd, David Dellinger, and 350 other protesters were summarily arrested in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., for attempting to read a "Declaration of Peace" to the U.S. Congress. The conservative faculty members and administrators at Yale were not pleased with their young colleague's behavior.

In December 1965 Herbert Aptheker, an American Communist historian, was invited to visit North Vietnam and to bring two non-Communist Americans with him. He chose as his travelling companions Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS, and Staughton Lynd. As soon as the university semester ended, the three men flew in defiance of U.S. travel regulations and without American passports to the Communist capital cities of Prague, Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi. They returned in early January and wrote a book appealing to Americans to look at the war through the eyes of the Asian peoples. Lynd started looking for another job as it became apparent that his Yale contract would not be renewed.

During the 1960s Lynd's fame in the resistance movement made him a favored speaker at rallies and demonstrations. A man of inexhaustible energy, he authored a succession of books and articles on history and radical politics. He was invited to teach at four different universities in Illinois, but at the last moment each time he was rejected. There was no question in his mind that he had been blacklisted by academe after the Hanoi trip.

By the beginning of the 1970s it was clear that Lynd could not stand up actively for what he believed and at the same time be hired to teach history at any first-rank American university. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1976 and soon afterward joined the staff of a Youngstown, Ohio, law firm specializing in labor law. Later he was hired by the National Legal Services Corporation to take legal cases for people too poor to pay for court representation. Lynd then began the next phase of his intellectual journey-towards a leftist critique of American capitalism, somewhere in that space which his father and Karl Marx said lay between middle and working class. In an interview with Jane Slaughter of the Progressive, Lynd said he found himself "in an odd position about Marxism…to the Marxists I seem like some sort of middle-class sentimentalist. To everyone else I seem like a hardcore Marxist." During the recession of the early 1980s—the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s—he joined with steelworkers in Youngstown to fight the closings of their plants, and wrote a book about their efforts, The Fight Against Shutdowns—the Youngstown Steel Mill Closings.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Lynd continued to battle against injustice by corporate America, writing books and articles and seeking to mobilize workers in defense of their rights. He proclaimed in the Progressive interview that "Since coming to Youngstown, I've become more of a Marxist. I've seen…capital at work when U.S. Steel felt it could make more money by buying another company than by rebuilding its own steel mills." While others on the left urged the support of President Clinton, Lynd said that the President was a hypocrite who made "compassionate noises" while not having any intention to actually do anything about economic injustice.

Further Reading

Lynd's writings fall into three categories. His outstanding contribution to historical analysis is Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968). His best-known books on the politics of the 1960s are The Other Side (co-authored with Tom Hayden) (1967) and The Resistance (co-authored with Michael Ferber) (1971). Among his many works on the U.S. labor movement are American Labor Radicalism (1973); Rank and File (1981); The Fight Against Shutdowns—The Youngstown Steel Mill Closings (Singlejack Books, 1982); Empty Promise—Quality of Live Programs and the Labor Movement (Monthly Review Press, 1987); and Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below (1994). An interview with Staughton Lynd by Jane Slaughter was in the February, 1994, issue of the Progressive. □

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Lynd, Staughton 1929-


Staughton Lynd, historian, radical political activist, and labor lawyer, was born on November 22, 1929, to the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, best known for their path-breaking Middletown studies. Like his parents, whose socialist views strongly influenced their son, Lynd pursued an academic career, graduating from Harvard in 1951 and obtaining a PhD in history from Columbia in 1962. Staughton Lynd, however, acquired notoriety not as a scholar but as a civil rights and antiwar activist.

Lynd came from a Quaker background. He was inducted into the U.S. army during the Korean War as a noncombatant conscientious objector, but discharged for his leftist sympathies. After leaving the army, Lynd and his wife, Alice Niles, joined the Macedonia cooperative community in Georgia. While teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Lynd became involved in the civil rights movement and in 1964 he organized Freedom Schools for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the legendary Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. In the fall of that year, Lynd moved on to become an assistant professor of history at Yale University, but his focus was on the fledgling movement against the war in Vietnam. He traveled to Hanoi in December 1965, along with fellow peace activist Tom Hayden and Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. Lynd saw the trip as a mission to prevent the escalation of the war; it resulted in his passport being temporarily revoked by the State Department, though the federal government did not initiate criminal prosecution. The trip did, however, probably cost him tenure at Yale.

As an antiwar activist with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), he was involved in organizing mass demonstrations and providing support for income tax and draft resistance. When parts of the New Left embraced violence in the late sixties and early seventies, Lynd remained firmly committed to the ideals of nonviolent grassroots mobilization. In 1973 he enrolled in the University of Chicago law school, obtained a law degree, and in 1976 became a labor lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, where he represented and helped organize steelworkers, sometimes in conflict with their unions. Legal strategies, in Lynds view, needed to be devised in close contact with working people and bolstered by radical direct action. His fields of activity have included the rights of retired and disabled workers, the struggle against plant closings, and efforts to create interracial labor alliances.

Lynds scholarly publications have always closely mirrored his interests and commitment as an activist, beginning with his 1962 dissertation on class conflict in the Revolutionary era. In addition, he has published books on slavery, oral histories of working-class activism, and, in 2004, an account of the 1993 prison revolt in Lucasville, Ohio. In 1998 Kent State University established the Staughton Lynd Collection, which includes materials from the 1930s to the year 2000.

Staughton Lynd has often been referred to as a Quaker influenced by Marxism. His socialism has always remained skeptical of dogma and tied to his strong belief in communitarian democracy, pacifism, and social justice. Not content to criticize American capitalism from the position of a middle-class intellectual, his life has been dedicated to helping empower poor people and minorities.

SEE ALSO Activism; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Left Wing; Lynd, Robert and Helen; Marxism; Prisons; Protest; Slavery; Vietnam War; Working Class


Lynd, Staughton. 2004. Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lynd, Staughton, and Alice Lynd, eds. 2000. The New Rank and File. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Polsgrove, Carol. 2001. Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton.

Manfred Berg