Staughton Lynd could have built an enviable career as an academic but for his conscience. His conscience led him as a young undergraduate disgusted by the elitism around him to drop out of Harvard, and tortured him when he returned to finish his degree. It plagued him after he received his doctorate from Columbia and saw him head to the segregated South to join his friend Howard Zinn in teaching history at the historically black Spelman College. It propelled him to become the director of Freedom Schools in the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. It prodded him a year later to chair the first march against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and join Tom Hayden and Herbert Aptheker on a trip to Hanoi.
The administration at Yale University, where Staughton taught after leaving Spelman because of conflicts with the college president over his and Zinn’s activism, was not amused. Yale dismissed him as a professor. Five other universities, which had offered Staughton teaching positions, abruptly rescinded their offers. He had become a pariah. No university would hire him, although his book “Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism” had become a minor classic. Staughton, like all incorrigible rebels, found a new route to defy authority. He put himself, with his wife’s help, through law school, graduated in 1976 and moved to Youngstown, Ohio, to fight the departing steel companies and defend workers tossed out of jobs.
Staughton faults the labor movement and 1960s civil rights organizers, including Saul Alinsky, for whom he worked in Chicago, for failing to see that moving temporarily into a community, organizing and then departing left the organized vulnerable to reprisal. It eroded the credibility and moral authority of radical activists. The Lynds embrace the idea of “accompaniment,” proposed by the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Accompaniment calls on professionally trained people, whether lawyers, doctors or teachers, to move into poor areas and remain there. This led the Lynds to move, once Staughton got his law degree, to Youngstown, where they have remained for 34 years.
Power, for the Lynds, must be fought in all its forms. While working for a law firm that represented unions, Staughton was asked to prepare a Supreme Court brief for a union that had failed to file a meritorious grievance for a member.
“I’d drop dead first,” Staughton snapped at the head of the firm.
He then published a book called “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer,” and the firm’s patience with their new hire ended. He was fired. It was another lesson, for all who seek the moral life, that the world does not reward virtue. Failure, at least as it is defined by the powerful, is the price to pay for moral autonomy and courage. Staughton had become a lawyer to help workers. If union bosses would not further workers’ rights, he would fight the unions too.
“The paradigmatic experience of my father, who as a student at Union Theological Seminary had taken a summer preaching assignment, which apparently was the practice between the first and second years, saw him end up at a Rockefeller oil camp in Elk Basin, Wyo.,” Staughton said. “When my father arrived in Elk Basin in the early 1920s by stagecoach he became aware on the very first evening at the table that the men who were working six days a week for Mr. Rockefeller were not thrilled to have this handsome young man from the East spending the week talking to their wives. So he got a job as a pick-and-shovel laborer, and preached in the schoolhouse Sunday evenings. It is the single thing about him of which I am most proud. I have made a way of life out of what my father experienced for a summer, to find a way to have a continuing relationship with the poor and the oppressed, with a working-class community quite different from the academic livelihood that both my parents ended up in.”
“Throughout my life with one or two exceptions, my closest friends have been persons who, like Howard Zinn, could be described as working-class intellectuals,” he said. “What it means for Marxist analysis and how we change the world, I guess I am still trying to figure out. Nowadays, Youngstown having closed all its steel mills and become a prison town, Alice and I have some of our closest relationships with people behind bars.”
I met Staughton and Alice, also a lawyer, a few days ago in Youngstown. The Lynds, now in their 80s, have soldiered on as the walls have collapsed around them. They practice what they call “prophetic litigation,” meaning that they often know they are likely to lose but believe that constantly battling issues of injustice and abuse, and keeping these issues before the public, is worth the likelihood of defeat.
Youngstown, like many postindustrial pockets in America, is a deserted wreck plagued by crime and the attendant psychological and criminal problems that come when communities physically break down. The city’s great steel mills have been leveled and replaced by America’s new growth industry—prisons, including a so-called supermax facility.
The Lynds worked for many years for Legal Services in Youngstown, specializing in employment law. Staughton, when the steel mills were shut down in the late 1970s, served as lead counsel to the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley, which sought to reopen the mills under worker-community ownership. The legal impediments, however, conspired to make the worker-community ownership impossible, a stark reminder that law in this country is usually designed to protect privilege.
“The hollowing out of the American economy, the absence of manufacturing jobs, is critical,” he said. “It means that this is not an ordinary recession. We are not going to bounce back the way we did in past recessions. Alice and I have had some contact with a school in inner-city Youngstown where they send kids who are thrown out of public school to give them one last chance before they put them behind bars. We have a pretty intense feeling for what it is like to grow up as an African-American in a place like Youngstown. Even if you make it through high school, where do you find a job? I don’t mean to say the problem is wholly economic. There is often a lack of love in the home that these kids experience. But if there were decent jobs which a hard-working young person could go on to, we would have a different world. Instead, some of these kids volunteer for the military and take their hatred and trauma overseas.”
As the collapse has taken its toll on the residents in and around Youngstown, the Lynds have focused on the plight of inmates, especially those who were involved in a prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio, in April 1993. Five of the leaders of the uprising were sentenced to death for their part. They remain on death row.
Three of the five are black and two are white. The two whites were members of the Aryan Brotherhood. The blacks are Muslims. The men have refused to testify against each other. The Lynds, when they read the testimony of Ohio Highway Patrol Sgt. Howard Hudson in the trial of one of the white inmates, George Skatzes, were inspired by the inmates’ ability to overcome racial and religious divisions.
Once the prisoners surrendered and the Highway Patrol entered L block, which the prisoners had occupied, the officers found graffiti covering the walls. In the trial Hudson, the state’s principal investigator, identified a photograph taken in the L block corridor.
Question: On the wall on the right there appears to be something written?
Answer: Says, “Black and White Together.”
Q: Did you find that or similar slogans in many places in L block?
A: Yes, we did, throughout the corridor, in the L block.
The transcript goes on.
Q: [What is the photograph] 260?
A: 260, the words, “Convict Unity,” written on the walls of L corridor.
Q: Did you find the message of unity throughout L block?
A: Yes. …
Q: Next photo?
A: 261 is another photograph in L corridor that depicts the words, “Convict race.”
“ ‘Convict race,’ is my favorite,” Staughton said. “Evidently the cultural creation of racial identity can work in more than one way. Among the Lucasville rebels, the process didn’t separate the races, but overcame racism. Not since the early 1960s in the South have I experienced as much interracial solidarity as I have among convicted prisoners which the state of Ohio considers ‘the worst of the worst.’ ”
“The same solidarity took place among soldiers in Vietnam who protested the war,” he said. “This is instructive. People draw on their cultural resources, on their music, traditions and symbols in radical or revolutionary conflicts. It is natural that blacks and whites would initially organize separately. But in Vietnam, or a supermax prison, troops and inmates face a common danger and a common enemy. It is easier to overcome cultural barriers. The danger in the wider society is less defined. It is more diffuse. This is the reason it is harder to bring groups together. But this is what must happen. Too many movements are directed from the top down. They are not rooted in local communities. It is we who should be building local movements to tell those in power what to do, not the other way around.”
“My favorite book is Ignazio Silone’s novel ‘Bread and Wine,’ particularly the first edition before he started rewriting all his books.” he said. “The religious element in my childhood was very recessive, more in the background than upfront. We never went to church, although it has always been there for me. My parents sent me to schools run by the Ethical Cultural Society. It is a kind of reform, Reformed Judaism institution. What Pietro Spina, the protagonist of ‘Bread and Wine,’ struggles with is how to bring together the Christianity of his childhood and adolescence with his later Marxism. That has been my effort as well.”
The Lynds have requested that their ashes be buried along with those of indigent death row inmates at a cemetery run by the Jubilee Partners community in Georgia.
“We knew at once that this is where we belonged,” Staughton said.