The First Gulf War (1990–1991) had started and death and destruction were raining down on Iraq. I was giving an anti-war talk at a church on the campus of Youngstown State University. As I spoke, I noticed an older couple enter and sit in the audience. When I finished, this couple approached me and introduced themselves as Staughton and Alice Lynd and expressed interest in my connecting the war to the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. Staughton asked if they could visit me at my home to discuss more. I would usually hesitate to accept such a request from total strangers, but there was something different in the way he asked, soft-spoken, and every word was spoken with purpose. I said yes. It was the best yes that I have ever spoken.
The rest is history. Three decades of friendship, comradery, and solidarity that I will cherish forever.
Last April, I did what I always do when I visit Youngstown: I visited Staughton and Alice at their Niles home, the only home they have ever owned and where they have lived for over 40 years. Also, as always, I stopped to take with me vanilla ice cream for Staughton, a favorite of his, and grapes for Alice, who can’t eat ice cream. Alice met me at the door, and we took up our seats as usual, in the corner adjacent to the kitchen where a few chairs and a reading couch are cozily facing each other. Staughton, who would ordinarily have been at the front door with Alice to greet me, was not there. Alice said he would join us in a moment.
When Staughton joined us, my heart dropped. He was visibly hurting, with various patches covering up sore spots across his face and body. I wanted to cry, but in Staughton’s presence you don’t pity a broken body, you intellectually engage, which we proceeded to do. Staughton first asked about my wife and Youngstown-based family members, and then about the situation in Palestine. He inquired about specific people in my family by name: The Loon (which was his nickname for my brother-in-law Abu Yacoub), and Nimeh, Jawad, their kids, and so forth. He consoled me for the loss of my two aunts, Lekka and Naameh, who had passed away since my last visit. His memory was intact.
We went on to have our political discussion. From our first meeting, Staughton never stopped asking me (more like challenging me) about what kind of state does Palestine want to be. It was as if he was totally convinced that the Israeli military occupation would one day end and he wanted to think about the day after. His focus was always on how people would interact, how would the health care system operate, the judiciary, the education system, etc. To this day, I do not have a convincing answer to this question for Staughton or myself. This time he ended by concluding that the way out was for a single state between the river and the sea, where all—Palestinians and Israelis—would be equal citizens, regardless of religion, race, or color. Staughton was Staughton, always aiming for full equality, unwilling to comprehend why humans would do harm to one another.
Staughton never operated alone. His wife Alice was always at his side. They supported one another in a way that should be a model for every married couple anywhere. But even together, they never operated in isolation. Their kitchen and basement were a hub of activism for a wide-ranging list of causes, some close to home, like labor issues and prisoner issues, and some more distant like Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Palestine.
When Staughton and Alice first visited my home in Youngstown, they were right on time, as I later learned they always are. With Staughton, time is not something to be wasted — a lesson he instilled in me during the years that followed.
I used to always have CNN on the TV in the background when I was home. Staughton politely asked me to turn it off; I did so grudgingly, since I felt it was not really interfering with the conversation. Then I learned another skill from Staughton that I’ll forever be thankful for — active listening. Active listening is being fully focused on a conversation and being fully in the moment, 110%. It is an amazing skill. Staughton was a master of focus.
After I prepared us some Arabic coffee, Staughton and Alice asked a long series of questions, one at a time, slowly. They listened attentively to each answer. Then, Staughton explained the reason behind their desire to meet. They were intrigued about my linking the Gulf War to Palestine and wanted to learn more about Palestine. He felt it was a blind spot and wanted to understand the issue more deeply. I offered for us to meet again and continue the discussion. He said he and Alice have a different way of learning an issue: They visit ground zero. They went on to ask if they could visit Palestine with me on my next trip. Before I could answer he added, “And while we are there, we would like to interview people and document what they say, as an oral history project.” They asked for my partnership in this project. I was not fully aware of what editing an oral history would entail. Given that he seemed to already be on the airplane, I made a leap of faith and accepted.
My next trip to Palestine was with a group of Palestinian American youth that I was leading on an eyewitness trip in the midst of the First Intifada. Staughton and Alice joined the group. We landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and took up residence at my cousin’s home in Al-Bireh. Every day we would venture out with the group of youth on day trips: one day Nablus, another Jenin, then Jericho, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza, Nazareth, and many others. Where possible, we recorded our meetings, and I translated on the spot so Staughton and Alice could engage the folks we were meeting. And oh, did they engage. I vividly recall one interview we had with an elderly man in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza. It was the first time I saw Staughton cry. I and the young people with us were getting the lesson of a lifetime on how to respectfully listen and probe to learn more.
When we got back to Youngstown, the tedious work of transcribing and translating all the recordings began. We met every few days and worked through the material. We also interviewed a few refugees and diaspora Palestinians living in Youngstown, my father among them. Along the way, Alice did her magic, focusing on what people said and then researching publicly available documents to corroborate and contextualize people’s personal recollections. This was tiring work and I was looking forward to the end of the project. One evening, as we seemed to be reaching the end of our work, Staughton asked for more coffee. I realized that there was apparently more to come. Indeed! Having sipped his coffee down to the dregs, Staughton informed me that the material we had was amazing but that there were pieces of the story still missing, and that we would need to return to Palestine to fill in the gaps and verify some of our information. At that precise moment, I got my degree in oral history. Staughton, Alice, and I returned to Palestine and completed the needed tasks. Long story short, the book that emerged was titled, HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press, 1994). In addition to offering a collection of riveting stories, the material is very thoroughly footnoted, thanks to the meticulous efforts of Alice. This was, and remains, one of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever been part of.
The book we co-edited was merely one in a long list of publications Staughton authored, including Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement, The New Rank and File (edited with Alice Lynd), and Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. All those (and many others he authored) are well worth the read.
Staughton never let go of the issue of Palestine. It was always on his mind, and he was always looking for ways to be in genuine solidarity, a concept that he embodied his entire life in all that he did, whether it was about Palestine, the US labor movement, or issues involving prisoners and incarceration.
Before I relocated to Palestine, we learned that a friend in Kent, Ohio, about 45 minutes away from Youngstown, Steve Sosebee, Founder of Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), had brought several Palestinian kids from Gaza for medical treatment. Staughton and I went to visit them. We entertained the kids as we learned their stories, and all the while Staughton took notes of what they said about life in Palestine and being shot by the Israeli military. For Staughton, every story had an equal human value, whether from a child or an elderly Palestinian refugee like Mohammed Ibrahim Harb, a man we recorded in August 1991 inside the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip.
Another issue we worked on together over several years after having witnessed its lethal impact on our trips to Palestine was that of US-made tear gas produced at Federal Laboratories in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. Palestinians were dying of this gas when Israeli forces illegally fired it directly into people’s homes, a criminal practice that the Israeli military persists in using to this day. Together with other solidarity activists, we demonstrated. For my part, I chained myself to the front gate of the manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania. For Staughton’s part, he and our mutual friend, attorney Jules Lobel, a professor of international law at the University of Pittsburgh, worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights to file a lawsuit against the tear gas firm to hold it accountable. This was in 1991, well before legal efforts to hold firms accountable for supplying Israel became a thing.
At one point, during one of my visits back to Ohio, Staughton wrote an article and asked me to publish it on my blog. It was titled, AM I AN ANTI-SEMITE? (March 28, 2006). He ended this article with:
“Not long ago I was a speaker at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio against the Iraq war. I said that I first heard of indefinite administrative detention, without criminal charges, when speaking to Palestinians who had been imprisoned by the State of Israel. The speaker after me was a Jewish representative to the Ohio legislature. He said I was an anti-Semite.”
“No, I am not an anti-Semite. I consider that humanity owes many of its most exalted ideals to the experience of the Jewish people, including Jesus of Nazareth. I believe in the words that appeared above the stage of the school in New York City that I attended with my Jewish friends. The words were, ’The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.’”
A legend that will live on forever
Earlier this year I emailed Staughton to check in on him and share with him a New York Times article about high-tech workers starting to unionize, a topic we always discussed at length. His reply below was one of our last email exchanges before my last visit to his home.
He was reading and answering emails the same day he had a pacemaker implanted! Staughton always signed off as Scrapper. He was tickled when I appropriated his nickname for myself: Scrapper Sam.
There is so much more to share, and I will, in due time, once the tears ebb.
His New York Times’ obituary quotes Staughton saying, “At age 16 and 17, I wanted to find a way to change the world,” he said in 2010. “Just as I do at age 79.” That was Staughton, always engaged in struggles for the long haul.
A single article cannot do justice to this man. Look him up online and you will learn more – and can hear him speaking, and singing, which he was very fond of doing. Staughton was a scholar-activist all his adult life, including having served as director of the Freedom Schools program begun during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project.
Staughton is survived by Alice Lynd, his wife of 71 years; their daughter, Barbara L. Bond; their son, Lee Rybeck Lynd; their daughter, Marta Lynd-Altan; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. In reality, he is survived by every person around the globe seeking justice in this cruel world.
Arrangements have been entrusted to the care of the Staton-Borowski Funeral Home, 962 North Road, NE, Warren, Ohio 44483, 330-394-6200. His obituary may be viewed, and condolences sent online here.
I will end with what I wrote on my social media post upon being informed of his passing:
I have lost much more than a friend.
Rest in Power, Brother Staughton
We Will Take it from here…Tears and all