The activist and historian Staughton Lynd in 2019. “At age 16 and 17, I wanted to find a way to change the world,” he said in 2010. “Just as I do at age 79.”Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times
After being blacklisted from academia for his antiwar activity, he became an organizer among steel workers in the industrial Midwest.
By Clay Risen Published Nov. 18, 2022Updated Nov. 20, 2022
Staughton Lynd, a historian and lawyer who over a long and varied career organized schools for Black children in Mississippi, led antiwar protests in Washington and fought for labor rights in the industrial Midwest, died on Thursday in the town of Warren, in northeast Ohio. He was 92.
His wife and frequent collaborator, Alice Lynd, said his death, at a hospital, was caused by multiple organ failure.
Mr. Lynd was one of the last of a generation of radical academics — including his friend and colleague Howard Zinn — who in the 1960s overthrew their predecessors’ obsession with detached, objective scholarship in favor of political engagement.
Many of his colleagues stayed within the bounds of academia, but Mr. Lynd burst beyond them. As a young professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, he led students in marches against nuclear weapons. In 1964 he was one of the main organizers behind Freedom Summer, which brought Northern college students to Mississippi to teach and organize in Black communities.
When the Vietnam War was still relatively new and most Americans still supported it, he organized antiwar protests in Washington. He was among the first of about 350 people arrested during one demonstration — though not before neo-Nazis, staging a counter protest, dumped paint on him and two other marchers, David Dellinger and Bob Moses. A photo of the three bespattered men appeared in Life magazine.
In age he fell between the Old Left, which cut its teeth in the 1930s and ’40s, and the New, which was coming up in the ’60s. There was no question where his loyalty lay: He reveled in the impassioned spontaneity he encountered as a professor on college campuses, and students flocked to him in turn.
At Yale they would cram into his office or gather on his living room floor to hear him take on all comers, staking positions to the left even of outspoken liberals like the Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, a frequent verbal sparring partner.
Even as he developed a following as an agitator, he built a reputation as a pathbreaking historian. His best-known book, “The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism” (1968), opened new ground by identifying members of the Revolutionary War generation who embraced abolition and equality, and it won praise even from establishment historians.
“Of all the New Left historians, only Staughton Lynd appears able to combine the techniques of historical scholarship with the commitment to social reform,” David Herbert Donald wrote in a 1968 review in Commentary.
But his academic star soon fizzled out. By the end of the 1960s, his outspoken activism had drawn the attention of the F.B.I. and gotten him blacklisted from higher education, even from small urban colleges in Chicago, where he and his family had moved in 1968.
He pivoted, involving himself in labor organizing among the factories that lined the southern shores of Lake Michigan. He received a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1976, after which he and his wife moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where workers, union leaders and owners were fighting over the impending closure of the city’s steel mills.
To the frustration of both the union bosses and the mill owners, he sided with the rank and file, writing a handbook for workers trying to navigate the legal system. In the early 1980s he helped lead a high-profile effort to turn the mills over to a worker-owned cooperative. Though the effort failed, it brought him renewed acclaim on the left.
He did much of his later work alongside his wife. She wrote several books with him and, after getting her own law degree, joined him as a partner. They officially retired in 1996 but continued taking pro bono cases, this time with a focus on the death penalty and prison reform.
“Whether in his pathbreaking historical work on the roots of American radicalism, his active participation in campaigns for civil rights, his crucial role in steps toward democratization of the economy, Staughton Lynd was always in the forefront of struggle, a model of integrity, courage, and farsighted understanding of what must be done if there is to be a livable world,” the linguist and left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky wrote in an email.
Staughton Craig Lynd was born on Nov. 22, 1929, the same year that his parents, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, published their book “Middletown,” based on their research in Muncie, Ind. It was one of the first books to offer a comprehensive study of an American community, and it established them as two of the country’s best-known academics.
The Lynds lived in New York City — Robert Lynd taught at Columbia, while Helen Lynd taught at Sarah Lawrence College — but Staughton was born in a hospital in Philadelphia because his mother preferred the doctors there.
He grew up among the New York intellectual set, attending the Ethical Culture School and the Fieldston School, and entered Harvard in 1946.
He studied social relations, a popular but now defunct major. In his free time he dabbled in radical politics, joining the Communist Party-aligned John Reed Club and briefly participating in two Trotskyist organizations on campus.
During the 1950 summer school session he met Alice Niles, a student at Radcliffe. They married the next year.
Along with his wife, he is survived by his son, Lee Lynd; his daughters Barbara Bond and Marta Lynd-Altan; seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
After graduating in 1951, he spent time studying urban planning before being drafted into the Army in 1953. As a conscientious objector, he was given a noncombat role, despite the continuing Korean War.
A year later, though, he received a dishonorable discharge after Army investigators dug up his Communist affiliations in college; they also highlighted his mother’s career as a “modern” professional woman.
He and others with similar disqualifications appealed, and the Supreme Court eventually ordered the Army to give them honorable discharges instead. The change in status allowed Mr. Lynd to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, which he used to pay for graduate school.
But first, he and Alice spent three years living on a Quaker commune in northern Georgia. They then spent six months in a similar community in New Jersey, where he first met Mr. Dellinger, a like-minded pacifist who brought him on as an editor at his magazine, Liberation.
The Lynds finally returned to New York City, where Mr. Lynd worked for a tenants’ rights organization on the Lower East Side and pursued a history doctorate at Columbia.
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Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.” @risenc
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 20, 2022, Section A, Page 26 of the New York edition with the headline: Staughton Lynd, 92, Civil Rights Activist Who Led Vietnam Protests, Dies. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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[It would be hard to overstate the crucial importance of Professor Staughton Lynd on the Yale campus in the late 1960s and particularly for the members of the Class of 1968.
Professor Lynd stood out as a principled opponent to a war in which America had assumed the post-colonial legacy of Empire from the French in Indo-China. The Vietnam war was massively unpopular among the Yale student body — and all around the country. Along with the Yale Chaplin, The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and a handful of other courageous professors including Robert Jay Lifton and Kai Erickson at Yale as well as Professor Noam Chomsky at MIT and Howard Zinn at Boston University — Professor Lynd came to represent the best highest example of what a principled scholar could achieve through devoted scholarship combined with a commitment to international social and political justice.
His death will be widely remembered and he presence deeply missed among all those who were fortunate meet and come to know him.]
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