For Staughton Lynd, the Fight Never Ends

By Dan O'Brien
Date Posted: 03/02/99

The activist says the philosophies of the 1960s apply today.

    His is the story of the bold fight. Now 69, his life has been one in which he hasn't shied from controversy as he resolutely waged battles of conscience for causes he believes are what America stands for.
    With a quiet bearing, he has fought these battles, choosing his words with care and speaking them softly. Still his words have angered and upset the powers-that-be in politics, business and organized labor.
    He is Staughton Lynd, a political activist, historian and attorney who specializes in labor law.
    Lynd is rare in that he is a Quaker influenced by Marxism. As such he is an antagonist of big business, yet he also looks with suspicion upon the giant trade unions and their power elites. His commitment to socialism has entailed great sacrifices, and he has never been allowed to forget his past.
    Regardless, he has maintained a consistency during an odyssey that has taken him from Manhattan to a cooperative community in Georgia, from the forefront of the civil rights and the anti-war movements of the 1960s to practicing labor law, from teaching at an Ivy League university to being taught by the working people of Ohio's Mahoning Valley.
    In any other person, these would be paradoxes if not contradictions. With Lynd, they have worked together to form a sense of place and purpose.
    "Before coming to the Mahoning Valley, I had never lived in one city more than three years," Lynd says. For the last 25 years, he and his wife, Alice, also an attorney, have lived on a quiet cul-de-sac in Niles, Ohio, an unlikely place for two steadfast political radicals, but to the Lynds, it makes perfect sense.
    The son of upper middle-class parents who lived on New York City's West Side, Lynd says his parents, Robert and Helen Lynd, had a dramatic impact on his character. By the time he was born, his parents were well known as the sociologists/authors of the pioneering work, Middletown, a book about life in Muncie, Ind. "I think a fair statement is that my parents had a liberal or left view of the world," Lynd recalls. His father, who taught at Columbia University, wanted Staughton to follow in his footsteps and become a tenured Ivy League professor, a career that Lynd welcomed at first.
    After graduating from Harvard University, Lynd did graduate work at Columbia where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in history. However, he soon found life as part of the academic community stifling. "I like ideas," he says, "I like historical research, writing and teachingbut I wanted to do all those things in the world with those group of people who were active in trying to change society."
    That opportunity arrived early in the '60s with the civil rights movement. The charged atmosphere drew the Lynds to Atlanta where Staughton secured a teaching position at a school for black women, Spelman College.
    There, one of his students was Alice Walker, who would go on to write The Color Purple.
    "This was an era when black students were demonstrating for equal access to lunch counters, public libraries and the state Legislature gallery," Lynd recalls. "All these were targets for demonstrations in Atlanta."
    Lynd's activism didn't result from the '60s. "It's been an impulse my whole lifeI can't explain why," he says.
    As a conscientious objector, he requestedand was grantednon-combatant status in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict. After his discharge in 1954, he and Alice lived three years at the Macedonia cooperative community in Georgia.
    In the summer of 1964, Lynd accepted an offer to direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools, improvised summer high schools for young black men and women that were typically housed in church basements. That summer was also significant, Lynd remembers, because it was the "first time someone put Vietnam in my face."
    It happened as he attended a memorial service for three murdered civil-rights workersJames Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwernerin a burned-out church, Lynd remembers. Bob Moses, then the leading organizer for the Mississippi Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC), spoke about the Gulf of Tonkin incidentthe event that President Lyndon Johnson used to justify greatly increasing the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnamhe says. Soon, Lynd's opposition to the war became all-consuming.
    In the fall of 1964, Lynd became an assistant professor of history at Yale University. There he and many of his new colleagues became increasingly troubled by America's involvement in southeast Asia.
    But Lynd was more torn than his colleagues. In December 1965, he and political activist Tom Hayden accepted an invitation from American Communist Party member Herbert Aptheker to travel to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. It was a decision that had drastic repercussions in his professional life. "That was definitely my year of becoming notorious," he comments.
    "The reason for itit wasn't that I sat around waiting for invitations because I was a Yale professor was because the war was eating me up inside," Lynd says. He saw himself as a modern-day George Logan, the American Quaker who traveled to Paris in the late 18th century as military tensions rose between the United States and France. Lynd credits Logan's efforts as instrumental in averting a war. "That was my concept. I'll be another Logan," he says.
    His trip to Hanoi was a failure, Lynd concedes, and although he suffered no legal consequences, the trip effectively ended his career as a historian.
    In the spring of 1966, Yale's history department suddenly discovered a shortage of funds to create any new tenured positions, Lynd says. Lynd, who was affected by this discovery, left the next year.
    He thought the action hypocritical and unfair. Had Yale offered him the choice between expressing his anti-war views or a tenured position, that would have been legitimate, he says in retrospect.
    "Frankly, I don't know what choice I would have made. But I don't feel animosity anymore. I'm extremely glad Yale sent me on my way."
    The dismissal set in motion a series of events that sent the Lynds to Chicago, where Staughton, now approaching 40, was offered teaching posts at five universities, all offers subsequently rescinded.
    "The way I perceived it, I had been blacklisted as a historian because of my outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War," he reflects. In addition, he became disillusioned with the growing militancy of the anti-war and civil-rights movements.
    "I spent part of the Chicago 1968 Democratic National Convention in jail. By this time, I felt the student movement was off its rocker," he says.
    At first, Lynd says he shunned Marxist doctrine that insisted the student movement reach out to others, especially the working class. "But you know, they were right. It was obvious the student movement had to find a way to connect with ordinary Americans. I made up my mind that students, professionals and middle-class America must find a way to create a relationship with the working people."
    At the same time, he and Alice began research on a new book, Rank and File, a collection of oral histories from workers in the Midwest. Lynd recalls that one of his subjects was having problems with his employer and getting very little support from organized labor: "He produced a shoebox filled with letters he had written to management and union officials and asked for my help."
    Lynd realized that most of the law firms in the Chicago area either represented the large unions or corporations, that little attention was given to the individual worker. The realization convinced him to pursue a career in labor law.
    As the Lynds were working on Rank and File, they learned of the blue-collar community in the Mahoning Valley. In the summer of 1971, Lynd wrote a pamphlet containing a list of bargaining demands and strategies for the steelworker who had initially sought his help, and sent a few to a Youngstown, Ohio, labor organization known as the Rank And File Team (RAFT). Not long after, Bill Litch, a Youngstown steelworker, called to ask him which mill he worked in, Lynd laughs.
    "He liked my pamphlet, and I heard the group would be picketing in Washington, D.C. later that year. Since I was going to be there at the same time, I joined them," Lynd recalls. While in Washington, he met RAFT members Ed Mann, the late president of Local 1462 of United Steelworkers of America, and John Barbero, vice president. "They were two guys who were opposed to the war in Vietnam and Korea. Both held strong anti-racist beliefs in the workplace and the community," he says, describing them as socialists with a small s. "I remember thinking, 'Finally, these are workers I can relate to.' "
    The impression stuck. After earning his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1976, Lynd and his family moved to Youngstown.
    When they arrived, Lynd joined the firm of Green, Schiavoni, Murphy & Haines, the largest area firm to specialize in labor law, he says. "Alice was a paralegal, and I worked there for two years," Lynd recalls. "I was a guy committed to defending the individual even if it clashed with the unions."
    In 1978, he published Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, a pamphlet directed at the working class. The pamphlet included direct quotes from the Teamsters' Bill of RightsTeamsters Local 377 was the firm's largest clientand advice on how to successfully bargain without the aid of an attorney.
    "I invited my boss, Eugene Green, to dinner one evening. After we ate, we went into the living room and I presented this book to him," Lynd says.
    Lynd was fired the next day.
    He subsequently found a position at Northeast Ohio Legal Services, Youngstown, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. It was at this point that Lynd became embroiled in one of the most desperate fights this Valley ever witnessed. From 1977 to 1979, the area's three largest steel mills in the areaYoungstown Sheet & Tube Co.'s Campbell Works and Brier Hill Works and U.S. Steel's Ohio Worksclosed, resulting in the loss of 10,000 jobs.
    "The shutdowns go way beyond cash income," Lynd says. "Generations of families were torn apart."
    To reverse the effects of the shutdowns, he and his co-worker at Legal Services, James Callen, advocated the idea of community ownership of the property, Lynd explains. "It was an issue in all three closings," he says. "We wanted the opportunity to purchase the mills. We had the community's backing, but not the support of the federal government."
    Although the initiatives failed to keep the Campbell and Brier Hill plants open, the fight to keep U.S. Steel's Ohio Works open reached U.S. District Court with Lynd as lead counsel for the plaintiffs, which included then U.S. Rep. Lyle Williams, six local unions and more than 150 steelworkers.
    Lynd pleaded that U.S. Steel violated its promise to keep the mill running as long as it was profitable. "We did obtain a preliminary injunction forbidding U.S. Steel to close until a trial was held. But during the trial, the judge determined that U.S. Steel was barely in the red at the time it announced the shutdown," he says. The frustration of the case ushered in what Lynd calls the "high-water mark of protest in the Valley," which was marked by unemployed steelworkers occupying the local U.S. Steel headquarters in January 1980. Their protests were futile: The Ohio Works closed for good later that year and was demolished.
    Callen, still an attorney at Legal Services, says Lynd became "a lightning rod for some of the critics." Callen believes that most of the accusations leveled against Lynd were politically oriented. "This attempt to get community ownership of the mills really wasn't his idea," he adds, and says the Ecumenical Coalition, which also advocated community ownership, was insulated from the attacks because its members were considered the moral leaders of the area. "They weren't as easy targets. While there were people who attacked Staughton, those who worked with and knew him understood they were dealing with a pretty extraordinary individual."
    Looking back, Lynd says, the strategy was noble, but incomplete. "We need converging tactics, such as marching across the bridge in Selma, Ala., and at the same time fighting for equal rights in Congress." Regardless, he notes, "We lost. But many steelworkers said to me, 'At least we went down fighting.' "
    He still holds to that philosophy while lamenting that leadership within the labor movement is often misguided because it allows disinvestment and downsizing at the expense of their memberships' livelihoods. "Unions are not without power in our society," he says, "but what they lack is the will. The message is the same message of 1980workers need to put their bodies in the way."

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