The Last Radical

Staughton Lynd was once among America's most famous young leftists. Now he's just left.

The Hessler Street Fair Hessler Road in University Circle Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, from noon to 8 p.m.


It's half past three on a balmy weekend in Kent when the young woman finally climbs the rickety stairs to the makeshift stage. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds as the crowd begins to stir.

"Are we ready to get started?" she shouts into a microphone as she paces the stage, an Arafat-style kufiyyeh draped around her neck. "Are we ready to take a stand against this war?"

It's May 4 at Kent State University, a high holiday on the left-wing calendar. It's time to memorialize Allison Krause, William Shroeder, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Scheurer, the four students killed 32 years ago by National Guardsmen. Time to remember 13 seconds that have come to channel the grief of an era.

Yet the 200-odd people gathered this afternoon didn't come to pay tribute to the past. The official observance was on the other side of campus. It's already over. This rally is a cry to engage, to protest America's war on terrorism, to object to Israel's military action against Palestinians.

"We need to take a stand," the woman onstage shouts again. "There is too much shit happening around the world."

Amid the throng of cargo-panted college kids who make up most of the crowd, one guy is hard to miss. He is sitting on a folding chair at the side of the stage, decked out in a red windbreaker, blue Dockers, and dark brown dress shoes. He looks more like a junior high math teacher, like he's here to chaperone. At age 72, he's been eligible for AARP as long as many of these kids have been alive.

He climbs the stage, reading glasses covering half his face, and shuffles to the microphone. "I want to express my enormous gratitude to you for creating a new movement," he says to scattered applause.

It's downhill from here. With his high, soft voice and leisurely cadence, the guy makes Mr. Rogers look spicy. And as he talks about his life, his experiences, his hopes for a new generation of activists, it's clear he's lost them. The names, the references -- Monsignor Oscar Romero, Walter Reuther, the Spanish Civil War -- float past like the gathering clouds. The low hum of the crowd grows louder as the speech marches on.

After five minutes, it's over. The next speaker, a young woman named Kelli, opts for a less subtle approach. She yells. She recites death tolls: Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Vietnam. Iraq.

And then Staughton Lynd -- socialist, ex-Yale professor, counterculture pioneer, titan of the '60s -- strolls off the stage . . . and back to obscurity.

So much for being a legend.

There was a time before hippies and yippies, before the Chicago Eight, before Kent State, before the 1960s became the stuff of myth and marketing ploy. It was a time when Staughton Lynd was among the most famous radicals in America. A time when the left still mattered.

It was 1965, the year after he directed the Freedom Schools in Mississippi. The year he chaired the first march against the Vietnam War. The year he was among the first Americans to visit wartime Hanoi. "His appeal among the wildly proliferating groups of the new left is enormous," wrote The New York Times.

"In a movement that was dismissive of leadership, almost by default he rose to center stage," says Todd Gitlin, a veteran of the antiwar movement and professor at New York University, whose book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, is a defining portrait of the period. "He was a strong voice for militant nonviolence, the most mature exemplar of that position."

Few people, however, were less inclined to the job. A Quaker, a pacifist, an earnest academic with a courtly manner, Lynd quickly grew tired of his notoriety and disillusioned with the movement -- its petty power struggles, its apocalyptic vision, its headlong rush into political oblivion. By the late 1960s, he'd removed himself from the spotlight. His prominence faded as quickly as it had arrived.

Yet his sense of purpose has never faltered. Others burned out, some faded away. Lynd kept working. He went from the left's poster boy to its Energizer Bunny. Over the last 25 years, Lynd and his wife Alice have fought steel companies, battled unions, flayed the prison system.

"He's persisted long after the '60s, where other people haven't," says historian Howard Zinn. "I think that has a lot to do with how much he came into the '60s with. Staughton, even before the civil rights movement, had a very powerful social philosophy. When all that was over, he still has that spine of consciousness that developed early. And it remains there."

These days, Lynd and his wife spend much of their time working on the ACLU's class-action lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He also produces his own newsletter. He's editing a book. (He's authored nine.) And at the end of the month, he'll be hosting a conference at Kent State. Its modest title: "Building a New Movement." He wants to bring together young antiglobalism activists and rank-and-file workers, to bridge the gap between college kids and middle-aged union members. To succeed in ways the left of the '60s never did.

"I'm 50, and I know I couldn't keep up with he and Alice," says Jim Jordan, a former steelworker. "My wife is intimidated by them. She says, 'They're very nice, but they make you feel so inefficient. Like you never do anything for anybody.'"

Other friends put it more succinctly. Says Ed Shindler, a retired electrical line worker: "He's the most extraordinary person I've ever met."

The line between the political and the personal has always been a thin one for Staughton Lynd. He grew up in New York, where his father, a noted academic, was a proud labor advocate. His mother sat on the board of the teachers' union. At 16, Staughton walked his first picket line.

But there can be a price for one's politics, and he learned that early. After graduating from Harvard in 1951, he was drafted into the Army. As a pacifist, he was given noncombatant status. Two years later, he was kicked out of the service. The government said he'd belonged to the leftist John Reed Society in college and that his work at Harvard included "considerable Marxist philosophy." (The U.S. Supreme Court later ordered that he and others booted for similar reasons be given honorable discharges.)

His life soon changed in even more dramatic ways. In the summer of 1954, he and Alice took a trip to a Quaker commune in Georgia. There they found a community like they'd never imagined. It wasn't just the work -- milking cows and making children's toys. Every decision was made by consensus. Everyone spoke for himself. Typical, Lynd later wrote, was the time when a discussion ran deep into the night. As the conversation was wrapped up, one member piped up: "Something isn't right. Something doesn't ring true."

"And then," Lynd recalled, "no matter how few hours before the morning milking had to be done, the discussion started over."

It was supposed to be a two-week trip. They stayed three years. In some ways, they never left. The experience came to define their politics and their lives. It showed them people could live and work together in ways they had never seen.

"People learn from experience, not from reading books or listening to speeches, and it's so hard in this society to create what Alice and I got a taste of," Lynd says. "We lived that other world. So I know it's possible."

By the early 1960s, Lynd was teaching history at Spelman University in Atlanta, where he'd landed a job after getting his Ph.D. from Columbia. One day in the fall of 1963, he got a call from a young staffer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had stayed at Lynd's home a year before.

A coalition of civil rights groups was putting together the Mississippi Summer Project, a massive voter-registration and educational program, for the following summer. They needed a director for the schools. Was Lynd interested?

The Freedom Schools would teach kids things they would never get in Mississippi's wretched public system: black history, the philosophy of the civil rights movement. Set up in church basements across the state and run by volunteers, the schools expected 1,000 students to attend. Three thousand showed up.

For months, SNCC Chairman Bob Moses had warned workers and volunteers to expect violence. He quickly proved prescient. While Lynd and other organizers were at a training session in Oxford, Ohio, voter registration organizers had begun to fan out across Mississippi. On June 21, two workers and a volunteer -- Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman -- were reported missing near the town of Philadelphia.

That night, back in Ohio, Lynd watched as Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner's wife, roamed the halls of the dormitory the group was staying in, unable to sleep. A month and a half later, Schwerner's body, along with those of Chaney and Goodman, was found in an earthen dam.

The fear of violence became a constant companion that summer. One night, Lynd was driving in Meridian with a volunteer, a young black woman from Spelman. By mistake, he drove the wrong way down a one-way street. When the police pulled him over, they asked Lynd and the woman to come to the police station for a chat. They were soon allowed to leave without incident. "We were just lucky," he says. "We were in Meridian, not in Philadelphia."

Toward the end of summer, Lynd was driving south from Jackson when he noticed a police cruiser following him. He slowed down. The police slowed down. He stopped. The cop stopped as well. "The police got out of the car and made fun of my pants," he says. "But I could have just as well been taken away . . . it was so haphazard."

Following Freedom Summer, Lynd went off to Yale, where he'd been offered a job as an assistant history professor. It was also where he became increasingly focused on a comma-shaped piece of land in Southeast Asia.

By then, Lynd was 35, one of the few elder statesman in the small but growing antiwar movement. A pacifist and a socialist, he possessed both the ideological credentials and the personality for the role of chief spokesman. He was serious and articulate, clean-cut and compassionate. "His sweet-tempered generosity was the stuff of movement legend," Gitlin wrote. When Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) decided to organize a protest in Washington -- the first march against the war -- it picked Staughton Lynd to chair the event.

Twenty thousand people showed up in front of the White House that April. It was just the beginning. In May, a teach-in about the war attracted thousands of students. In August, at a peace rally to commemorate the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 20 years earlier, Lynd, David Dellinger, and the SNCC's Bob Moses led a march to the White House. As they walked, members of the American Nazi Party threw red paint on them. A picture of the red-splattered trio ran in newspapers across the country.

Lynd was about to become even more notorious. That fall, he was approached by Herbert Aptheker, a historian who was a member of the American Communist Party. The North Vietnamese had invited Aptheker to Hanoi; he wanted to know if Lynd was interested in going. Lynd, Aptheker, and Tom Hayden arrived for their two-week stay just before Christmas 1965, during a bombing "pause" declared by President Johnson.

Lynd's decision to go was inspired by Dr. George Logan, a Quaker doctor who traveled to France in 1798 and helped avert a war with the United States. Many, not surprisingly, didn't see the trip so benignly, especially after the North Vietnamese released comments Lynd made in Hanoi calling the United States' actions "immoral, illegal, and undemocratic."

Reaction was swift and severe. It was still early in the arc of America's involvement, and every major newspaper, every media outlet, every mainstream institution supported the war. Lynd was called unpatriotic. A fool. A traitor. Upon returning home, the State Department revoked his passport. Yale denied him tenure. Offers from five other universities suddenly vaporized.

His career as a historian was over.

Lynd came to regret the journey. He felt he'd been "snookered" by his hosts, lied to about the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the south. "It left a bad taste in my mouth," he told Gitlin.

"It made him look naive," says Gitlin. "I think he felt had."

Lynd's faith in the antiwar movement was also ebbing. Before much of the country even could find Vietnam on a map, Lynd realized that the movement was spinning out of control.

A few months after coming back from Hanoi, Lynd had been approached by an emissary of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, who wanted to organize an international tribunal to publicize American war crimes in Vietnam. Lynd thought the tribunal would be far more credible if war-crimes allegations were considered from both sides.

"A crime is a crime," Lynd told the man. "If anyone tortures prisoners, that would be a crime, right?"

The reply: "Anything is justified that would force the American invaders into the sea."

That's when Lynd knew the antiwar movement was going in a direction he didn't want to follow, and it would have to go on without him.

Lynd lives with his wife Alice on a cul-de-sac in Niles. Their lawn is immaculate. Inside, the house is a picture of comfortable clutter: Books line the walls, stacks of papers are piled on a desk, pictures of family are everywhere.

He is a thin, compact man, with a brush of white hair and big ears. In person, he comes off as the professor he once was -- smart, passionate, patient, waiting for you and the world to catch up.

He and Alice moved here in 1976. Only a few years before, disenchanted with the antiwar effort and out of work, the couple had been living in Chicago. They had long since concluded the student movement failed because it didn't move beyond the war to economic issues. "We had failed to create a relationship with working people," he says.

So in the early '70s, he and Alice began working on a book about rank-and-file union members. During the course of their interviews, they came to realize how little power people had when they found themselves at odds with their union or their employer. Labor attorneys worked either for corporations or unions. Few would represent individuals. The couple discovered that if they wanted to reach out to workers, there was an obvious way: become labor attorneys. "We figured we might as well use all this education to offer what we hoped would be some useful skills, not to pretend to be something we're not," says Alice.

About the same time, Staughton developed a friendship with a pair of radical steelworkers from Youngstown. Ed Mann and John Barbero, both former marines, had opposed the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights. Embittered by the bureaucracy of their union, they had formed their own rank-and-file group. Like Lynd, they were socialists, even if they didn't know or care to call themselves that.

Lynd, with his New York upbringing and his Ivy League pedigree, had never known anyone like them. "I just had the reaction, I'm never again going to meet workers like this," he says of the pair, both now dead. "On this rock, let me build my church."

After getting out of law school, Lynd got a job with the largest labor law firm in Youngstown. Almost immediately, he started stirring up trouble. In 1978, he wrote Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, a pamphlet aimed at helping workers resolve their own disputes. It included advice on how to bargain without an attorney. Soon after he'd finished the pamphlet, he invited his boss over for dinner. "Alice and I had a conversation about whether I should show him what I'd written or if I should let someone else bring it to his attention," says Staughton. "I decided to show it to him."

He was fired the next day.

Lynd found a new job at Northeast Ohio Legal Services, a nonprofit that represents the poor. He would stay until retiring in 1997.

He also found a new cause. From 1977 to 1979, three of Youngstown's largest steel mills were shuttered. More than 10,000 jobs disappeared. Lynd and a co-worker, James Callen, served as general counsel to a coalition of workers and residents trying to stop the shutdowns. In the cases of Youngstown Sheet & Tube's Campbell Works and LTV's Brier Hill Works, the efforts quickly failed.

But in 1979, Lynd filed a federal suit on behalf of unions, local clergy, and a Republican congressman to prevent U.S. Steel from shutting down its Ohio Works. As part of the suit, Lynd argued that if the company was determined to close the mill, the community should be allowed to buy and operate it, given the area's longtime support of the company. In a surprise move, Federal Judge Thomas D. Lambros granted an injunction to prevent U.S. Steel from shutting down, pending a trial; he eventually ruled in the company's favor.

Though the idea of community ownership wasn't Lynd's, he became the focal point for criticism, accused of raising false hopes over the prospect of restarting the mills. "The other people involved weren't easy targets," Callen later recalled. Because of his past, Lynd was.

It would become a familiar pattern. Over the years, Lynd has been a polarizing presence in Northeast Ohio. One reason is because he's an egalitarian critic, often as disparaging of unions as he is of corporations. "They run those national unions just like a business, and he's never liked the way they've dealt with people," says Jack Walsh, a former shop steward in a Youngstown bakery.

One of his most notorious battles was with the United Auto Workers. In the early 1990s, Lynd represented a group from General Motors' Lordstown plant known as Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards. For years, the group voiced concerns about the number of cancer deaths among those who worked in the paint room at the Lordstown plant. In 1992, the union and GM finally agreed to study the deaths. The subsequent report indicated the rate of stomach-related cancer deaths was four times higher than would be expected of white American males, while the rate of lung cancer was 2.6 times higher.

General Motors and UAW officials, however, said the figures were inconclusive, and that there was no evidence of health problems at the plant. In response, Lynd argued that the UAW was simply afraid to rock the boat, because it might influence GM's decision on whether to keep the plant open. "Unions aren't without power in this country," he says. "They just lack the will."

To his friends and allies, it's the kind of fight that makes Lynd a near-mythic figure, a tireless fighter who can't be intimidated. "He's not self-motivated," says Walsh. "He's not interested in doing it for money. I watched him get out of my car one day and climb over a 30-inch snowbank to walk a picket line at Youngstown Buick. How many other attorneys you know would do that?"

To his critics, however, he is simply a radical gadfly with little understanding of how industry or unions work. Detractors have frequently used red-baited tactics. "People are always trying to call him a communist," says Shindler. In the early 1980s, Frank J. Valenta, then the United Steelworkers of America's district director, said Lynd "passes himself off as an American steel industry expert, when he knows little or nothing about what is really going on."

Most union officials contacted for this story didn't return phone calls. The ones who did declined to comment. Says Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers Local 1375: "Yeah, I know him well, but I'm not going to say anything about him."

The détente is partly because much of Lynd and his wife's energy is spent these days on other issues. In the '90s, as Youngstown's chief product became prison cells rather than steel, the couple railed against the area's disastrous flirtation with the private prison industry. They've worked on behalf of several prisoners accused of killing a guard during the 1993 Lucasville prison riot. They fought against what they saw as barbaric conditions at the Ohio State Penitentiary, the state's supermax prison.

Much of the couple's work culminated earlier this year in a federal class-action lawsuit the ACLU brought against the State Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The suit argued that the state violates prisoners' rights by subjecting them to inhumane conditions. Among other things, inmates at the supermax are kept in lockdown 23 hours a day and are strip-searched each time they leave their cells.

"The more research I did on the supermax, the more I came to the conclusion: You wouldn't treat a dog the way they treat those prisoners," says Alice.

As it turned out, Judge James S. Gwin agreed. "Incarceration at the OSP imposes an atypical and a significant hardship upon inmates," the judge ruled earlier this year. "The defendants have violated the plaintiff class's right to due process."

It was a rare chance for Lynd to be on the winning side. For the last 25 years, he has usually lost. Against steel companies. Against unions. Against a justice system that doesn't exactly run to embrace the rights of prison inmates.

Yet his faith never wavered. Living in Youngstown has only made him more radical.

"I became more convinced of the need for a publicly owned economy," he once wrote. "When private industry no longer finds it profitable to run a socially needed enterprise, the community should step in and do the job itself."

It's not the kind of statement you hear a lot anymore, even from those who were at the white-hot center of the '60s left. Tom Hayden became a Democratic state senator in California. David Horowitz became a right-wing chatterbox. Countless others became stockbrokers and bank managers.

Lynd apparently forgot to give up. He remembers going to an SDS reunion a few years ago. Everyone sat in a circle and said what they had done with themselves since the 1960s. Once campus radicals, they were now mostly conventional suburban parents. They talked about family and jobs. They had kids and careers and minivans.

"When it was my turn, I said I felt like the Japanese soldiers who were found on Pacific islands years after 1945 and did not know that World War II was over," Lynd later wrote. "If a letter had gone out to us that the movement was at an end, I hadn't received it."

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