Publication Date

April 28, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • United States


Political, Social

Staughton Lynd

Photo courtesy Alice Lynd

Legendary activist, historian, and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd died on November 17, 2022, from multiple organ failure. He was only days away from celebrating his 93rd birthday. He is survived by his wife Alice; children Lee, Barbara, and Marta; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lynd was born in Philadelphia on November 22, 1929, the son of arguably the most famous sociologists of the time, Robert and Helen Lynd of Middletown fame. He attended the Ethical Cultural Schools in New York City until 1946, when he entered Harvard University. Lynd graduated with a BA in social relations in 1951, the same year that he married Alice Niles, who became his lifelong partner and collaborator.

Lynd’s life is a window on recent US history, and he is best known for his activism. He traveled south in 1961 to teach at Spelman College and thrust himself into the civil rights movement. In 1964, he directed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Freedom Schools. He later remembered an activist telling him that white people were better off teaching other white folks about racism. He took this to heart, taking an assistant professorship in history at Yale University in 1964. He would soon be dubbed “the elder statesman of the New Left” in the New York Times because of his prominent work in the Vietnam War movement. In April 1965, Lynd chaired the Students for a Democratic Society–sponsored March on Washington, the largest antiwar demonstration in US history to date, and in August, he participated in protests at the US Capitol on the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Life magazine featured a full-size photo of Lynd at the demonstration, alongside David Dellinger and Bob Moses, in which they were splattered in red paint. That image unsettled his Yale colleagues, with his department chair complaining that the “photo of Lynd with blood across him and his arm raised really represents the mood he had cultivated in himself.” Lynd’s arm was not raised, and he was well known for his calm demeanor. A trip to Hanoi in 1965–66 contributed to his dismissal from the university. Subsequent job offers were rescinded in what many consider a Cold War–era blacklisting from academia.

Despite his activism, or, more accurately, because of it, Lynd produced several noteworthy historical studies in this period. His dissertation was published as Anti-Federalism in Dutchess County, New York: A Study of Democracy and Class Conflict in the Revolutionary Era (Loyola Univ. Press, 1962). It was followed by Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967); Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), co-edited with Alice; and Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (Pantheon Books, 1968), which was reissued by Cambridge University Press in 2009. Outside academia, Lynd continued to practice what he called “guerilla history,” having thrown himself into the labor struggles in Youngstown, Ohio, and reinventing himself as a labor lawyer.

Lynd stayed active in the AHA in his later years. At the 2007 annual meeting, he served as a commentator on the session “The Historian in a Time of Crisis: Staughton Lynd, Yale University, and the Vietnam War.” The conference was not without controversy. Lynd, as a steering committee member of the group Historians against the War, helped with its resolution on the Iraq War presented at the business meeting. This meeting harked back to 1969, when a group calling themselves the Radical Historians’ Caucus attempted to elect Lynd as AHA president and pass a resolution against the Vietnam War. Both actions failed, but their activity, alongside those of the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession, set in motion long-overdue reforms in the Association. In contrast to 1969, the 2007 Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession passed overwhelmingly with 75 percent of the vote.

While Lynd’s legacy within the historical discipline is noteworthy, his impact in the labor movement and work with prisoners later in his life underscores his passion for activism. His radical historiography was inseparable from the social movements that surrounded him—and in many ways, that activism cost him his career as a historian. “I [may have] lost my livelihood as an academic historian,” Lynd explained, but had he not, he “would never have come to know rank-and-file working-class” activists who filled his life with a sense of purpose. Indeed, this radical activist and radical historian lived a life that allowed him to conclude in his characteristically earnest voice, “I have no regrets.”

Carl Mirra
Adelphi University

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