Forever Young: Staughton Lynd at 80
By Andy Piascik
Center for Labor Renewal
Forging a New Consciousness of Solidarity and Struggle
August 22, 2010
[Note: A version of this article appeared in The
Suddenly Staughton Lynd is all the rage. Again. In the
last 18 months, Lynd has published two new books, a
third that's a reprint of an earlier work, plus a memoir
co-authored with his wife Alice. In addition, a portrait
of his life as an activist through 1970 by Carl Mirra of
Adelphi University has been published, with another book
about his work after 1970 by Mark Weber of Kent State
University due soon.
In an epoch of imperial hubris and corporate class
warfare on steroids, the release of these books could
hardly have come at a better time. Soldier, coal miner,
Sixties veteran, recent graduate - there's much to be
gained by one and all from a study of Lynd's life and
work. In so doing, it's remarkable to discover how
frequently he was in the right place at the right time
and, more importantly, on the right side.
Forty-six years ago, during the tumultuous summer of
1964, Lynd was invited to coordinate the Freedom Schools
established in Mississippi by the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee. The schools were an integral
part of the Herculean effort to end apartheid in the
United States and became models for alternative schools
That August, Lynd stood with the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party at the Democratic Party convention. Led
by Fannie Lou Hamer, the M.F.D.P. had earned the right
to represent their state with their blood and their
remarkable courage. Instead the party hierarchy
supported the official, albeit illegal, delegation, a
pathetic band of reactionaries who - the irony is too
delicious - supported not Democrat Lyndon Johnson but
his opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, for president.
This back-stabbing was carried out by liberal icons
Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and Walter Mondale and
endorsed, alas, by Martin Luther King.
In early 1965, Lynd spoke at Carnegie Hall in one of the
first events organized in opposition to the U.S.
invasion of Vietnam. A short time later, Students for a
Democratic Society asked him to chair the first national
demonstration against the war, where he was again a
keynote speaker. That April 17, a crowd of 25,000 that
was five times larger than even the most optimistic
organizers had anticipated turned out in Washington, and
what would become the largest anti-war movement in U.S.
history was born.
That summer, Lynd helped organize the Assembly of
Unrepresented People at which peace with the people of
Vietnam was declared. It proved prophetic, for in a few
shorts years, a majority of people in the U.S. had
declared peace with Vietnam.
Lynd would continue as one of the seminal figures of the
1960's. He was both a tireless organizer and the author
of numerous articles in important movement publications
like Liberation, Radical America and Studies on the
Left. With co-author Michael Ferber, he documented the
movement against the military draft in The Resistance,
one of the best books about Sixties organizing.
Lynd was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Left and
embraced precepts like participatory democracy and
decentralization. Ex-radicals of his generation like
Irving Howe, Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington, by
contrast, spent much of the Sixties attacking S.N.C.C.
and S.D.S. He spoke for many when he mocked their
enthusiasm for Johnson and the Democrats as "coalition
with the Marines."
This, too, proved uncannily prophetic. Within a year of
being elected in 1964, Johnson 1.) ordered a massive
escalation in Vietnam; 2.) sent an invasion force to the
Dominican Republic to overthrow a democratically elected
government; and 3.) armed and funded an incredibly
violent military coup in Indonesia in which over a
million people were killed. The Peace Candidate indeed.
At the end of 1965, Lynd made a fateful trip to Hanoi
where he witnessed the carnage inflicted by U.S.
bombers. Up to that point, he was one of the most
promising new scholars in the country. Upon his return,
however, his career in academia was essentially at an
end. A tenure track position at Yale suddenly
disappeared. Department heads at other universities
offered teaching positions, only to be overruled by
Lynd never looked back. He became an accomplished
scholar outside the academy and one of the most
perceptive and prolific chroniclers of "history from
below", with a special interest in working class
organizing. From a series of interviews, he and Alice
produced the award-winning book Rank and File, which
begat the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Union
Lynd moved to Ohio in 1976, became an attorney and, when
the mills in Youngstown began to close, assisted
steelworkers in an unsuccessful attempt to take them
over. In a book he wrote about the effort, Lynd explored
the biggest little secret of all, one that people
everywhere would do well to heed: We who do the work can
build a better world, and we can best do it without the
parasitic super-rich who contribute nothing and weigh us
down like a monstrous ball and chain.
Lynd is eighty now. The step is slower and his eyesight
isn't the best. Two years ago he had open heart surgery
- "an affair of the heart," he calls it. "My cardiac
surgeon said I came as close to becoming permanently
horizontal as one can come without actually doing so,"
he says in his Ohio home.
He talks of how deeply he misses dear friend Howard
Zinn, who died earlier this year. He talks of driving
through Mississippi at night, hopelessly lost, just days
after civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman,
and Mickey Schwerner had been abducted and murdered. He
talks of his remarkable life's work with great humility
and not at all wistfully, but in search of lessons it
might hold, especially for the young. A teacher
extraordinaire, he is guided by the principle that a
teacher is also a student and all students teachers.
Lynd has seen more than his share of colleagues come and
go. Some flamed out after a brief period of frantic
busyness; others moved on to different lives and nice-
paying gigs. Still going strong, Lynd offers long
distance running and accompaniment - professionals using
their skills to assist workers and the unrepresented -
as alternatives. He also believes as passionately as
ever that a better world is indeed possible.
[Andy Piascik writes for Z Magazine and www.zmag.org <
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