Ginger was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the fourth son and next-to-last child of an affluent Southern family that moved to Indiana (Debs' home state) while he was very young, and was shortly thereafter plunged into abject poverty by the Great Depression. After four years "squatting" in a series of unoccupied houses in Greencastle while their eldest son attended DePauw college, the Ginger family settled in Indianapolis, still in extremely difficult circumstances. These experiences deeply influenced Ray Ginger's political convictions and much of his historical work: in later life he frequently recounted his childhood humiliation when sent to collect the bag of flour that was the only form of public welfare available, and also the intense personal rage that dominated his youth.
Despite his troubled childhood, and the equally troubled personality it engendered, his incisive intelligence and great verbal gifts were rewarded by acceptance to both Harvard College and the University of Chicago before his 17th birthday. In another frequently-told tale, he chose Chicago in the belief that it would be easier to augment his scholarship with part-time employment "in a big city like Chicago than in a small town like Cambridge." He didn't think to look at a map, and wouldn't have dreamed of asking for advice. At Chicago he soon took a step towards fulfilling his supreme ambition at that time — to become a sportswriter — by landing a post as a copyboy at the Chicago Tribune — "the only time my father was ever really proud of me." This job turned into something more than menial when the United States entered World War II shortly thereafter, most of the reporters became foreign correspondents, and Ginger was promoted to a writing job in the city room.
His journalistic career was ended permanently by the military draft, but the interruption to his academic education proved only temporary. Soon after basic training, Military Intelligence plucked him out of the swarming pool of draftees and sent him for special training in the Japanese language at the University of Michigan, where he met his first wife, now the nationally-known civil-liberties lawyer Ann Fagan Ginger. At the end of this course Ginger was assigned to work as a code-breaker near Washington — work for which an education in statistical analysis would have been more appropriate than linguistic studies. It was while serving in this capacity in the closing days of the war that he joined the Communist Party, with the expectation that the revolution was just around the corner.
His interest in Eugene Debs had already begun to crystallize into a determination to write a definitive biography, drawing on both archival sources and interviews with some of the many individuals then living who had known Debs well. Fortunately the recently enacted GI Bill provided an easy means of support for this enterprise. Ann Arbor, which was close to his wife's family home and where he had already accumulated academic credits while studying Japanese, seemed the obvious place to begin; he completed his bachelors degree there, and then (the book not being finished) stayed for a masters degree in economics. Still drawing on GI benefits in the cause of literature, he then entered a Ph.D program in American Studies at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (now Case Western Reserve University), where he completed The Bending Cross (Rutgers University Press, 1949). This classic biography met great critical acclaim, including an assessment by the eminent American historian Henry Steele Commager as "the best biography of Debs." It has almost never been out of print in the intervening years; Haymarket Books issued the most recent edition in 2006.
After earning a Western Reserve Ph.D. in 1951 by the unusual expedient of presenting his published biography as a dissertation, Ginger took up a post at Harvard Business School as editor of the Business History Review, with a little teaching on the side. Besides his editorial duties, he wrote numerous scholarly articles in economics, labor history, and business history while at Harvard, researched a projected biography of Clarence Darrow, and enjoyed every prospect for a distinguished academic career.
The witchhunts of the McCarthy Era put an abrupt halt to this promising future. When it seemed probable that both Ginger and his wife might be subpoenaed by the Massachusetts equivalent of the infamous House Committee on Unamerican Activities, university officials demanded (on June 16, 1954) that he sign an oath declaring that he was not a member of the Communist Party, and that his wife (who had no university connection) sign a similar oath. Instant dismissal despite a recent three-year contract was the threatened alternative. When Ginger instead chose to resign, Harvard insisted that he leave the state immediately as a condition of receiving the two weeks of salary remaining on his existing contract.
Ginger, his pregnant wife, and their small son went to New York on two days notice to stay with relatives they had never met. Ann Ginger gave birth as a charity patient, and the marriage came to a rancorous halt not long thereafter. Ginger worked in New York for the next six years, first in advertising and then as an editor at the book publishers Alfred Knopf and Henry Holt, but neither his success in these endeavors, his remarriage in 1956, nor the publication of two notably readable works of history (Altgeld's America and Six Days or Forever?) fully compensated for his bitterness at having been ejected from the academic world and then apparently blacklisted.
The doors opened again in 1960, when Brandeis University was sufficiently impressed with his abilities and achievements to offer him an assistant professorship in the history department. He stayed at Brandeis for six years, becoming a tenured full professor, chairing the Committee on American Civilization, writing several more books, coaching the tennis team, and evolving rare pedagogical gifts. His lectures were legendary, less for their adept showmanship than for Ginger's uncanny ability to entice even the greenest and most awkward undergraduate to join him on a mutually thrilling journey of intellectual exploration. This remarkable talent received tangible acknowledgment many years after his death, when a former student (William Friedman, Brandeis '65), raised $2.5 million to endow the Ray Ginger Professorship of History at the university.
After leaving Brandeis in 1966, Ginger taught briefly at Stanford University and moved on to tenured positions at Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. He died in Boston in 1975, of complications from acute alcoholism, survived by his third wife and two sons from his first marriage. Most of his papers were subsequently presented to the Labor History Archives at Wayne State University, where they are available for scholarly consultation.
Many of the archived documents from that troubled time are now (2004) nearing the end of a fifty-year embargo. Preliminary evidence suggests that Harvard has been less than forthcoming in discussing the events of that period. In 2000, Ann Fagan Ginger wrote a letter to the president of Harvard, requesting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to discuss the Ginger firing and other acts of Harvard against students and faculty members who had Left political leanings or membership. The Harvard Crimson has published a number of articles on this issue. Francis A. Boyle, law professor at the University of Illinois, and a 1976 graduate of Harvard Law School, has led a national campaign to lobby Harvard to conduct a public inquiry, issue a meaningful apology, and endow a chair in the Gingers' name for the study of peace, justice, and human rights.