Staughton Lynd's Blog

History From the Bottom Up

We are here today for a ritual passing of the torch, from graying codgers like Howard Zinn, Jesse Lemisch and myself, to younger historians like Jim Pope and Carl Mirra, and hopefully, to many of you.

As if to underscore the need for this laying-on of hands, Howard cannot join us because of his wife’s terminal illness, and a combination of physical ailments prevent Jesse from presenting. Likewise Marina Sitrin, who has published a remarkable collection of oral histories about factory occupations in Argentina, could not make the trip from San Francisco because of a personal crisis. So after my paper, Jim, a half generation younger than I, will describe his discoveries about the CIO upsurge of the early 1930s. Then Carl, another half generation down the ladder of the age, who became a Conscientious Objector while in the Marine Corps during Gulf War I, will take us on his own journey toward the understanding of United States foreign policy. Thereafter I trust Michael Honey and others in the room will help us collectively to create history from the bottom up. My thesis will be that “history from the bottom up” is an orientation, not a prescribed methodology. I will describe the distinctive contributions of my mentors, Howard Zinn and Alfred Fabian Young, go on to a few words about what my wife Alice Lynd and I have tried to add to their work, and invite you to do more.


But first I must say something about Jesse Lemisch.

I do not know the origin of the term “history from the bottom up” or how we came to use it in the 1960s. I recently re-read my Master’s Essay on Dutchess County, published in 1962, and found that I said there: “despite the admonitions of the revisionists, research is still spread too wide and thin, and the patient work of building from the bottom up has hardly begun.”

What I know for sure is that Jesse Lemisch burst onto the historical scene with much the same bravado as the protagonists of his famous essay about seamen in the period of the American Revolution. In 1967, Students for a Democratic Society published Jesse’s Occasional Paper entitled “Toward A Democratic History.” At about the same time, he contributed an essay to a collection of papers edited by Stanford historian Barton Bernstein entitled Towards A New Past. Jesse’s contribution was “The American Revolution Seen From The Bottom Up.” It began with a fragment from a poem by Bertold Brecht that asked: What do we really know about the laborers who built the pyramids?

In 1968 there appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly Jesse’s essay entitled “Jack Tar in the Streets,” later selected as one of the eleven best articles published in that elite journal during the half century beginning in 1943. It begins:

Here comes Jack Tar, his bowed legs bracing him as if the very Broadway beneath his feet might begin to pitch and roll.

Then follows a fourteen-line footnote on contemporary terms referring to sailors, and a second paragraph that starts:

Clothes don’t make the man, nor does language; surely we can do better than these stereotypes. Few have tried.

Those were miraculous years, and these essays by Jesse Lemisch were among the miracles of the time.


I met Howard Zinn late one night in December 1960. I was at the so-called “smoker” of the Columbia University History Department, otherwise known as the slave market, looking for a job. I had put out the word that I wanted to teach in what was then called a Negro college. About midnight there came across the floor a lanky man, his hair jet black then, looking to add a fellow radical to the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta.

I arrived at Spelman having made an unconventional career choice but with a head full of traditional ideas about what it meant to be an historian. I asked Howard what papers he was preparing for which scholarly conferences. He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. Along with the late Ella Baker he was one of two adult advisers to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. He had other things on his mind than the professional conferences of historians.

It was also Howard who got me started in oral history. In my classes at Spelman I used Botkin’s collection of excerpts from the WPA slave narratives and a phonograph record on which W.E.B. DuBois had recorded the story of his life. But I wasn’t doing oral history myself. The Zinns and Lynds lived on the Spelman College campus, and one day I dropped by the Zinns’ nearby apartment. Howard was sitting there with two young SNCC field secretaries and an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, preserving their memories of going to jail in Albany, Georgia.

I experienced a moment of enlightenment. I thought, “I could do this, too!”

Howard Zinn’s great achievement has been to insist on looking at the whole of history through the eyes of those SubComandante Marcos calls “the below.” Consider the magnificent opening scene of A People’s History . Arawak Indians swim out to look at the strange apparition at anchor in their harbor. They literally look up at it from below and are “full of wonder.” Columbus commented, according to Howard: “They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Here and throughout, Howard sees things steadily from the bottom up and assigns priorities within his narrative from that standpoint. As Zinn remarks, Samuel Eliot Morison in his biography of Columbus devotes one sentence to what Morison accurately calls European “genocide.” Morison, Zinn says, “mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him.” And indeed, this is that Samuel Eliot Morison whom I remember, when I was a Harvard undergraduate, lecturing in his yachting whites.

It is too easily assumed that history from the bottom up has won the day and been generally accepted. The reality is that what has been accepted is only a truncated version of history from the bottom up that contents itself with the enthonography of the oppressed. As Thomas Humphrey has written, “[We] have succeeded only in pressing the authors of the master narrative to alter their stories slightly, or to add another box for ‘the poor’ on the side of the page.” That is, the historical Establishment is happy to give us the franchise for chimney sweeps who get cancer, or textile workers who burn to death when the employer locks the door. We may talk to our heart’s content — I am quoting David Brion Davis’ review of The Many-Headed Hydra — about “romanticized pirates, as well as prostitutes, religious zealots, bandits, highwaymen, and criminals of all sorts.” But we must leave overall interpretation of what it all means to historians who celebrate society as it is.

Here is an example of how slowly top-down history gives way. No change in the historiography of the American Revolution is more important than that which has ever so slowly recognized the centrality of slavery. Yet we have recently been presented a movie version of the abolition of the British slave trade in which slave revolts in Haiti and Jamaica go almost unmentioned and abolition happens because of the conscience-stricken efforts of aristocrat William Wilberforce. As Peter Linebaugh has said, the movie is an “Amazing Disgrace.”

Another example. Some time ago my attention as an historian shifted from the period of the American Revolution to recent labor history. I was taken aback to find that in the one field as in the other the major works appearing were biographies of Founding Fathers. When John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, the biographers of Sidney Hillman and Walter Reuther circulated an Open Letter to him celebrating his elevation as “the most heartening development in our nation’s political life since the heyday of the civil rights movement”: an atrocious historical misjudgment. The underlying mindset appears to be that the decline of the labor movement in the United States can only be set right again from above.

To all this, the continuing witness of Howard Zinn’s People’s History offers a mighty corrective.


To turn from Howard Zinn to Alfred Young is to turn from the panoramic to the microscopic, from a book comparable in its sweep to The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard to “labor-intensive” portraiture of the Revolutionary underclass. Each is history from the bottom up. But they are very different.

Consider Alfred Young’s most recent tour de force. Dedicated to Al’s three daughters, the book unearths the life of an almost forgotten woman who served in the Continental Army masquerading as a male. We learn that Deborah Sampson was born in either 1759 or 1760; that she claimed to have served three years in the Continental Army but actually served seventeen months; and that mystery still surrounds “where she fought and what skirmishes she engaged in” and “when and where she was wounded.”

How are such questions answered? To begin with, Al tells us, from a surviving written record that is “heartbreaking for its sparseness”: a diary kept for a single year; two one-page letters to creditors; and a half dozen short petitions for a military pension. Al Young discovered not a single letter to Ms. Sampson. There are no Deborah Sampson Papers. The most copious written source is a memoir, in three editions, about “one fourth [of which is] factual.”

But the written record is only the starting point for this detective. There is “the surviving evidence of the material world Deborah inhabited,” including the three houses in which she lived. Deborah Sampson was a weaver. But since a large loom “took up . . . about 64 square feet,” Al concludes that the house in which she lived from age ten to age eighteen was not large enough for such a loom and she could not then have been the kind of weaver that she later became.

Then there are the groups to which she belonged, “now emerging into the light of history thanks to a generation of social historians”: indentured servants, weavers, Baptist converts, “country women in search of refinement,” and “common readers.” Finally there is “intangible evidence that scholars blessed with a plethora of printed sources often disdain”: oral traditions; the names that parents gave to children; a dream “reported as Deborah’s with a message from the book of Judges.”

Al Young’s single most remarkable work of this kind is The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. There Al brings together his skill at portraiture and his interest in the artisanal working class in a biography of George Robert Twelve Hewes. Hewes, as a young man of about twenty, was invited to have a drink with the great John Hancock on New Year’s Day and had to overcome his socially-conditioned deference to go through with it. Hewes, pushing thirty, was “on the ground among them” at the Boston Massacre. Three years later Hewes, as another participant corroborates, served as the “bosun” — meaning, I take it, the informal work group leader — in the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor from one of the British ships. And finally, in the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm a year later, Hewes’ indignation when Captain Malcolm proposed to beat a small boy in the streets of Boston set in motion a series of events that led to “the most publicized tarring and feathering of the Revolution.”

Through this sequence of events Young was able to present a psychodrama of the American Revolution as experienced by an ordinary person who viewed the social pyramid from the bottom up. Step by step, deference toward supposed superiors was cast off. The belief was acted out that a poor shoemaker had as much right as any other to walk the streets of Boston.

We should celebrate, as one might the detail work of a skilled tool and die maker, the spectacular craftsmanship Al Young has brought to history from the bottom up.


I would like to add a very brief account of what Alice Lynd and I feel that we have learned in doing several volumes of oral history, and as lawyers in drawing on the memories and insights of steelworkers, and prisoners, in litigation.

Before we did oral history together, Alice and I had parallel opportunities to appreciate how a professional can fruitfully cooperate with others as an equal partner in a common project. In her work as a draft counselor and trainer of draft counselors from 1965 to the early 1970s, Alice Lynd developed the concept of the “two experts.” One expert is the professional with special knowledge about law and regulations, about what one might term the documentary background. The other expert is the client with a different kind of expertise gained through his or her own life experience.

Alice and I gathered the material for our book Rank And File in the spirit of these encounters. In the Introduction to the third edition, we described as follows the method we developed.

In working-class communities, even relatively recent history often becomes lost to young people growing up there. In Rank and File we sought to provide occasions for older persons — as it were, the elders of the tribe — to recall their personal histories in the presence of the community. Thus the purpose of the interviews reported in Rank and File was emphatically not to provide raw material for conventional academic history by ourselves or anyone else. Instead, the idea was to get beyond a situation in which one group of people (workers) experiences history and another group of people (profesional historians) interprets the experience for them. We wanted to see those who make history also analyze and record it.

My most profound experiences as a co-creator of guerrilla history have been as a lawyer.

The U.S. Steel Case

In September 1977, about a year after my wife and I arrived in Youngstown, the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company announced the closing of its largest facility in the area at the cost of about 5,000 jobs. The announcement was completely unexpected. Steelworkers tried to explain to the media that they had assumed the mill would “always be there.” Older residents said they had experienced nothing like it since Pearl Harbor.

The shutdowns of 1977 and 1978 involved the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, and its conglomerate owner, the Lykes Corporation. The remaining steel mills in the Mahoning Valley were owned by U.S. Steel, and it was U.S. Steel that announced the third and last round of closings just before Christmas 1979.

This announcement too was unexpected because as late as the summer of 1979, David Roderick, Chairman of the Board, had gone on local television and declared that the mills were doing well and would remain open.

What was to be done? I noticed a story in the local paper in which steelworkers who were interviewed said they felt betrayed because the company had promised them to keep the mills open. The Basic Steel Contract, like almost all collective bargaining agreements in the United States, contained a “management prerogatives clause” that gave the employer the authority to make unilateral investment decisions, such as closing a plant. A colleague of mine at Legal Services pointed out that if the company had made an additional, separate promise, over and above the collective bargaining agreement, perhaps that could still be enforced. We went to court on behalf of the local Congressman, six local unions, the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley, and several dozen individual steelworkers.

I set out up and down the Valley with a tape recorder. Illustrative of the guerrilla history that emerged was the following.

A worker for U.S. Steel saw and heard David Roderick state on TV that the future of the mill was secure. He arranged to buy a new house. As he drove homewards after signing the purchase agreement, he was obliged to stop at one of the many railroad crossings in this industrial community. To pass the time he turned on the car radio and heard that the mill was to be closed.

A young in-house lawyer for U.S. Steel made the mistake of asking us to file a “more particular statement” of our claims in federal court. We used the opportunity to set out for the judge a series of stories about homes purchased, expensive college programs committed to, medical procedures elected, and the like, in reasonable reliance on U.S. Steel’s public statements. This testimony was so persuasive that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, when it finally ruled against us, began by reproducing the stories contained in our Amended Complant and calling them “a cry for help from the Mahoning Valley.”

Another moment of guerrilla history was the following. Ramsey Clark and I argued before the United States District Court in Cleveland that U.S. Steel should be ordered not to close its mills until trial could be held. To every one’s astonishment, the judge granted our motion. Within hours the young in-house lawyer had been replaced by a senior corporate attorney. He told the judge that U.S. Steel’s Youngstown facilities simply lacked the raw materials to continue production.

By the next day we were back in the judge’s chambers with an inventory of raw materials that, as workers say, had “fallen off a truck.” The document proved that sufficient iron ore, limestone, and the like was already on site to keep production going for another three or four months.

We lost. But Bob Vasquez, president of Local 1330, remarked that the struggle had salvaged the “dignity” of the men he represented. My friend John Barbero, another steelworker, commented with a smile, “Youngstown sure died hard.”

The Supermax Prison and the Lucasville Rebellion

By the summer of 1980 all the steel mills in Youngstown were closed. A total of about 10,000 steelworkers had been laid off, with the additional loss of perhaps 20-30,000 jobs in steel fabrication, trucking, and other auxiliary occupations.

Throughout the 1980s the local governing class appeared to search for a new corporation that could move into town and make all well again. Judging by their actions, sometime in the early 1990s the Powers That Be in Youngstown adopted a strategy of prisons in place of steel mills. In the mid-1990s there began to be mention in the media that a supermaximum security prison was to be built on the East Side of town.

After the supermax opened, Alice and I plunged into two-track advocacy. On the one hand, we assembled a legal team to confront the conditions of confinement at the supermax. Meantime, we came to know five men imprisoned at the supermax who had been condemned to death after a 1993 prison rebellion in Lucasville, Ohio. I became a fact-gatherer for all the defense counsel of the so-called “Lucasville Five.”

Thus together with those considered by Ohio to be the “worst of the worst,” we became guerrilla historians regarding a prison uprising and a situation of severe confinement. It was very much like doing any other history, except that with regard to what happened in 1993, how well we did the history might determine whether a person spent the rest of his life behind bars or was executed.

It has become more and more clear that the convictions of Lucasville defendants rested on perjured testimony. The prisoners who occupied L block in 1993 did their best to destroy it, and when they emerged after a negotiated surrender there was (so the State said) no usable physical evidence. Hence the evidence presented by prosecutors in the approximately fifty Lucasville indictments and trials consisted essentially of the testimony of other prisoners. These informants, or “snitches,” offered their testimony in exchange for letters to the Parole Board, reduced charges, or other benefits. It was inherently unreliable evidence.

So I have devoted the last decade to painstaking sapping and mining of the judicial proceedings against the Lucasville defendants, especially those sentenced to death. I have written friend of the court briefs, articles in periodicals like Monthly Review and The Catholic Worker, a law review article, and a book. Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004). I have also co-authored a play that was produced in seven Ohio cities in April 2007.

It is the most demanding, at times the most frustrating, and overall the most rewarding work I have ever undertaken as an historian.


Now it is your turn. History from the bottom up is an orientation, not a prescribed methodology. What has been done by Lemisch, Zinn, Young and the Lynds does not exhaust the possibilities. Our shared hope is that history of the people at the bottom, for the people at the bottom, and by the people at the bottom, shall not perish from the halls of academe.

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