Earlier this evening, I had the occasion to speak with activist and author Tom Hayden about his role in the drafting of the Port Huron Statement, the circumstances which gave rise to this widely influential manifesto of the New Left, and his evolution from student journalist to impassioned activist. Hayden, who is often credited with having giving rise to the culture of protest that was pervasive in the 1960s, will be in Ann Arbor later this week, addressing those gathered on the campus of the University of Michigan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. The entire agenda for the three day event, which is free and open to the public, can be found here. Hayden’s keynote, entitled “The Future of Participatory Democracy,” will be delivered at 7:30 PM on Thursday, November 1, at 1324 East Hall. Those interested in attending can register online.
My intention is to eventually type up all of my notes and post them along with this audio file, but, as the 50th anniversary events begin tomorrow, I thought that I should probably just go ahead and share what I have already.
I hope that you enjoy this discussion as much as I did.
And here are my very rough notes on our discussion. If you should happen to find anything that needs editing, or requires clarification, please let me know…
SEVERAL TIMES DURING MY DISCUSSION WITH HAYDEN, I reference an earlier conversations with Alan Haber, the founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the organization responsible for the production and disseminated the Port Huron Statement, which, as most of you know, was primarily authored by Hayden. Video of my discussions with Haber, for those of you who are interested, can be found elsewhere on this site (Part I, Part II).
HAYDEN AND I BEGIN BY DISCUSSING THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN IN 1957. He doesn’t mention it here, but, in a previous conversation, he tells me that, by the time he reached campus, the specter of McCarthyism had lifted somewhat. (As you may recall, when I spoke with Haber, he mentioned that one of his first memories at U-M, as a freshman in 1954, was interacting with a small group of faculty, on the steps of the Union, protesting the dismissal of professors Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson, and Clement Markert, all of whom had been fired for having refused to “name names” in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee.) Hayden’s introduction to progressive politics, it would seem, was more gradual.
Hayden was interested in journalism at a young age, and, when he came to the University in 1957, he found a home for himself at the Michigan Daily, where he eventually became the paper’s editor. In his capacity as a student journalist, Hayden began writing about the sit-ins and lunch counter protests taking place in the south, and the activities of fellow students, like Haber, who were seeking to organize like-minded individuals on campus. Over time, as Hayden traveled across the United States, covering student movements for the Daily, he felt himself becoming more political… Hayden hitchhiked from Ann Arbor to Berkley in 1960 to report on the activities of students there, and, that same summer, he attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, reporting on Kennedy’s nomination. Things finally started to crystalize for him, however, in the spring of 1961, when he and some friends drove to Fayette County, Tennessee, to work with share croppers who were fighting for the right to vote. The sit-in movement, he says, hit him viscerally. And, as a result, in the summer of 1961, he joined SDS, alongside Haber.
He says that Haber, Bob Ross and Sharon Jeffrey had been encouraging him to get involved for a while. Haber, according to Hayden, wanted him to be a pamphleteer for the group, producing written materials, and traveling to other northern campuses, in hopes of starting additional SDS chapters. Hayden says that he was different from the others in the group, in that he didn’t come from a UAW, old left, labor background. He describes himself at that time as being a “non-conforming intellectual with an affinity toward Jack Kerouac and On the Road.” He was primarily interested, he tells me, in traveling, getting to know those individuals who where putting their lives on the line to fight for equality, and documenting the struggle in print. This evolution continued to the point where, in 1961, Hayden chose to take part in the Freedom Rides, putting his own life on the line to challenge the status quo of the segregated American south.
HAYDEN MENTIONS IN OUR DISCUSSION THAT HE’S WRITTEN A NEW PIECE FOR THE MICHIGAN DAILY, on the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. As luck would have it, the article just went live a few minutes ago. Here’s a clip.
…Nothing turned out as I once imagined. There was one constant: the tides of movements and counter-movements kept churning. Movements based on participatory democracy eventually gained some meaningful reforms: voting rights for southern black people and 18-year olds, the fall of two presidents, amnesty for 50,000 war resisters in Canada, the Freedom of Information Act, democratic reforms of the presidential primary systems, collective bargaining rights for public employees and farmworkers, the Roe v. Wade decision, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, a long list of reforms gained in less than a decade.
Social change did occur, precious inch by bloody inch, becoming sacred ground that had to be protected, decade after decade, from both reaction and oblivion.
Underlying all of this tumultuous history lay the rocky river of participatory democracy – “the river of my people” – which kept flowing.
Now, to paraphrase Port Huron, we are the elders of this generation looking uncomfortably to the world we leave behind as inheritance. The reforms we achieved are under constant assault from the right and stagnating with the passage of time.
We are in the process of a new beginning, signaled by the deep American discontent with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of more wars to come and the immense diversion of trillions of tax dollars from our needs at home for health care and affordable education. Like the ’60s, another imperial presidency is on the rise, unleashing covert military operations in multiple countries without serious congressional oversight or civic awareness. Like the ’60s, the long war leaves greater economic inequality and environmental depletion in its wake…