Lynd in 2006—photo from Next Left Notes
Suddenly Staughton Lynd is all the rage. Again. In the last two years, 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 out 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, 1960s veteran, recent graduate—there's much to be gained 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 effort to end apartheid in the United States and became models for alternative schools everywhere.
That August, Lynd stood with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic Party convention. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer, the MFDP had earned the right to represent their state with their blood and their extraordinary 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 of the MFDP 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 (5 times larger than 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. In a few shorts years, a majority of people in the U.S. had declared their peace with Vietnam.
Lynd would continue as one of the seminal figures of the 1960s. 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 1960s 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 1960s attacking SNCC and SDS. He spoke for many when he mocked their enthusiasm for Johnson and the Democrats as a "coalition with the Marines."
This, too, proved 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 in defense of military thugs who had overthrown 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. On his return, a tenure track position at Yale suddenly disappeared. Department heads at other universities offered teaching positions, only to be overruled by higher-ups.
Lynd never looked back. He became an accomplished scholar outside the academy and one of the most 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 inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Union Maids.
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: we who do the work can build a better world and we can best do it without the super-rich who contribute nothing.
Lynd turned 81 in November. His 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."
Lynd and Freedom School teachers
He talks of how deeply he misses dear friend Howard Zinn who died earlier this year. He talks of driving through Mississippi late 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 great teacher, 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, others moved on to different lives. Still going strong, Lynd offers long distance running and accompaniment as alternatives. He also believes as passionately as ever that a better world is indeed possible.
Andy Piascik has written for Z Magazine and ZNet.