Forever Young: Staughton Lynd at 80
By Andy Piascik
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
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
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
That summer, Lynd helped organize the Assembly of Unrepresented People at which peace with the people of
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
At the end of 1965, Lynd made a fateful trip to
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 Maids.
Lynd moved to
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
He talks of how deeply he misses dear friend Howard Zinn, who died earlier this year. He talks of driving through
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
A Version of this Article Was Published in The Connecticut Post