The son of renowned sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Lynd, Staughton Lynd grew up in New York City. He earned a BA from Harvard, an MA and PhD in history from Columbia. He taught at Spelman College in Georgia (where he was acquainted with Howard Zinn) and Yale University. In 1964, Lynd served as director of Freedom Schools in the Mississippi Summer Project. An opponent of the Vietnam War, Lynd chaired the first march against the war in Washington DC in 1965 and, along with Tom Hayden and Herbert Aptheker, went on a controversial trip to Hanoi in December 1965 that cost him his position at Yale.

In the late 1960s Lynd moved to Chicago, where he was involved in community organizing. An oral history project of the working class undertaken with his wife inspired Lynd to earn a JD from the University of Chicago in 1976. After graduating the Lynds moved to Ohio, where Staughton worked as an attorney and activist.