Hedges: Meet Progressive Heroes for the Beaten, Foreclosed On, Imprisoned Masses
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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 Five other universities, which had offered Staughton teaching positions, abruptly rescinded their offers.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.”