The year was 1961, and Tom Hayden had been in jail in the South for participating in civil rights protests when he put pen to paper. What began as a letter to his friends in Students for a Democratic Society blossomed into the blueprint for the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto that helped launch the student activist movements of the 1960s.
As the Port Huron Statement, primarily authored by Hayden in 1962, approaches its 50th anniversary, the seeds it planted continue to bear fruit in places like Egypt, Tunisia and in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Hayden told an audience that packed into the Dana Commons fishbowl on Thursday night.
“We speak at a time of great rising that is consistent with the spirit and content of the Port Huron Statement,” Hayden said. That document spoke out against, among other things, racism, militarism, provincialism, unrestrained capitalism and nuclear proliferation.
Hayden, whose colorful life and career included marriage to actress Jane Fonda and his arrest as one of the Chicago Seven at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, visited Clark to participate in a symposium on “Engagement and Citizenry” in the Difficult Dialogues series “Educating … for What?” At the symposium and at an informal afternoon talk, he was joined by Bob Ross, professor of sociology, longtime friend of Hayden’s and a founding member of SDS.
Hayden recalled the early days of the Students for a Democratic Society, a group originally composed of 60 to 65 people, most of them University of Michigan students like Hayden and Ross, who gathered at a lakeside camp lent to them by the United Auto Workers. In the cabins they formed “working committees of the revolution” and drew inspiration from the sit-in movements in the South, where African-Americans and their supporters were occupying lunch counters where they were often refused service and then arrested.
The period from 1960 to 1962 will never be repeated, Hayden said.
“It was a time of pure beauty and uprisings. We had a young president, there was no sign of escalation of the Vietnam War” and the feminist and environmental movements were just around the corner, he said. “There was a sense in the younger generation that we didn’t have to settle for what our parents left us. We thought we could change the country and the world.”
He’s encouraged by the uprisings in the Middle East and on Wall Street, noting the power of direct action to effect change. “You put your body on the line. You vote with your whole life, not just a piece of paper.”
To illustrate the point, he recalled the lunch-counter sit-ins, where diner owners “would give you the coffee or put you in jail.” When one group of protesters would be hauled off, another group would take their place.
“The occupation of the lunch counters was a way to put the bodies of young people into the gears of the machine to challenge its operation, and to force the operators of the machine to deal with us,” he said. “It was necessary to insert ourselves into the equation.”
The student and peace movements of the ’60s came tantalizingly close to creating a sea change in the national ethos by bringing the country into alignment with progressive ideals, Hayden said. “We did some of that,” he said. “But it never occurred to us that our leaders would be taken away by assassination in a four-year period.”
He described the murders of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as “devastation beyond your ability to comprehend. It froze the status quo, and prevented us from knowing if radical reform would have been a peaceful transition at the ballot box.
“Instead of has-beens we became might-have-beens. Let that be a forewarning and a prophecy.”
Today’s push for participatory democracy, and participatory economy, is being fueled by the Internet and all the digital tools that accelerate communication and action, he noted. But a clearly emotional Hayden acknowledged that the battles are protracted, citing the centuries of oppression against African Americans that preceded the civil rights movement.
“The fight is on, and it’s going to be very hard,” he said. “That’s the glory of it, and the frightening thing about it.”
Ross told of his father’s working-class radical background and how McCarthyism “thrust my parents out of civic life. They never went out to a public meeting — they were scared out of the civic arena.”
He said that as a university student he overcame some initial skepticism and became politically engaged at Michigan. Ross recalled the first time he was handed a protest sign. It read: “We are not black. We are not white. We are all freckled.”
“I met people of like mind,” he said. “Every class had a reason. Every paper had a mission. I was part of something larger than myself.”
For the first time, Ross said, he was faced with a put up-or-shut up proposition. He joined other Michigan students to agitate for social change at the university, including abolishing the hidebound in loco parentis rules that allowed institutions to act as surrogate parents to students.
While substantial social upheaval like the kind demanded in the Port Huron Statement has occurred in the last 50 years, Ross cautioned that “you’ve got to be careful what you wish for.”
“All of this happened in my lifetime, and yet the world got worse, not better,” he said. “Maybe we need to rethink where the levers are in our society; where the power is.”