Tom Hayden talks with me about Ann Arbor in the late 1950s, his time at the Michigan Daily, the concept of participatory democracy, and the circumstances which gave rise to the Port Huron Statement

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…


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  1. Edward
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    It’s important to document these historic events. I particularly appreciated his comments on the Soviet Union and his realization that, despite the Cold War mentality of his elders, it wasn’t the Soviet Union that was keeping black Americans from eating at lunch counters alongside whites and sending the poor off to die in foreign wars without so much as giving them the right to vote.

  2. EOS
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    You’re right, Edward. It was the southern Democrats.

  3. Taco Farts
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    ↑ That guy’s still here huh?

  4. Eel
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Those same southern Democrats that now form the base of the Republican party, I might add.

    The interview is interesting and I look forward to hearing Hayden speak tomorrow. I especially enjoyed his take on the Obama Romney race, and the insertion of nature into the election cycle. I also appreciated his comments on “kids today” and whether or not they’re engaged enough. As he notes, most young people were apathetic his his era as well.

  5. anonymous
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I knew I liked Hayden when I read the following in the New Yorker:

    As the evening progressed, the parents of both the bride and groom made speeches. Speaking off the cuff, Garity’s father, the political activist and politician Tom Hayden, who was Fonda’s second husband (neither parent want Troy to bear the weight of a famous last name), said that he was especially happy about his son’s union with Bent, who is black, because, among other things, it was “another step in a long-term goal of mine: the peaceful, nonviolent disappearance of the white race.”

  6. kjc
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    “Those same southern Democrats that now form the base of the Republican party, I might add.”


  7. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I like it when people outside the South talk of the old Southern Democrats. I find it entertaining.

  8. JC
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    1. “What Occupy lacked was a demand”: this is received Frankenwisdom. Occupy’s demands are manifold, grassroots, various, and therefore often “inaudible” to your garden-variety TPM or WSJ reader. The movement derived from and has transformed/proliferated into scores of other movements and initiatives. Let’s also not forget that Hayden’s a public official, and as such has maybe grown used to thinking in terms of electoral political action.

    2. “I have empathy for . . . how hard it is to focus on a single demand”: this undermines statement 1, which I myself have empathy for (the undermining).

    3. “[Members of Occupy] didn’t want to alienate somebody in their ranks [by pushing for the ratification of a Single Demand].” This misses the point: an explicit lack of “demands” (if by “demand” we mean what I think Hayden means, which is something like a centralized, easily-located platform or “position”) was intentional from the get-go.

    4. SNCC succeeding/Occupy Wall Street failing: “Wall Street” (global finance and the voracious Free Market) is abstract; it’s located at the headquarters of GoldmanSachs, as well as in your father’s living room (depending on his relationship to consumption and “wealth-growth,” and so on). Racism is concrete: a movement could immediately intervene in segregated lunch counters. Alot of creativity, subterfuge, and slow and patient revolution is necessary to counter the advances/degradations of the free market.

    All in all, Hayden’s a wonderful elder. Thanks for this, Mark.

  9. kjc
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    gotta read this and compare it with Tom Frank’s latest in the new Baffler (he reviews a number of books on Occupy), which I imagine will piss off a range of people.

    thanks for the interview Mark.

  10. JC
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    That’s a great piece. Thanks, kjc. I think that Tom, like so many others, is angry it “failed.” And also maybe a bit intimidated by theory. A movement such as this one can include anything, though–from dense to transparent forms of thought and action.

  11. anonymous
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say Hayden’s movement failed. Not by a long shot. They may not have created a paradise on earth, but they brought about the Great Society reforms, ended Jim Crow and killed the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile not a single Wall Street banker is in jail. I have fondness for the Occupy movement, but you can’t seriously suggest that Occupy was successful when the student movement of the New Left was not.

  12. kjc
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I think Tom is smarter than the vast majority of theorists, unfortunately. but when i was studying theory we dismissed his kind of work out of hand. i think times have changed in that regard. which is great.

  13. anonymous
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    “Dismissed his work out of hand”? Why? Is there absolutely nothing to be learned from a man that helped build the largest and most successful student movements our nation has ever known?

  14. kjc
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    oops sorry, i was responding to JC about Tom Frank’s piece. not Tom Hayden.

  15. Occupy Ypsi
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    This Friday, Ypsi’s own Maria Cotera will take part in a panel at the Port Huron + 50 conference that begins this evening at the University of Michigan. The panel will be chaired by Peter Linebaugh, and will also feature Marina Sitrin, Brandon Mitchell (MC Kadence), and others.

    Friday, Nov. 2, from 4:15–6:15 PM — Pendleton Room

    New Insurgencies Then and Now

    Chair: Peter Linebaugh

    -Dick Flacks, “Participatory Democracy as Vision and Practice”
    -Sarah Leonard, “Activism and Spectacle–Attitudes Toward Organizing”
    -Marina Sitrin, “Historical Movements Reinventing Democracy, from Greece and Spain to Occupy!”
    -Maria Cotera, “Teaching and Learning about Radical Politics Through Digital Media”
    -Brandon Mitchell, “Radical Politics, Strategy and Goals”
    -Mari Jo Buhle, “Women and the Wisconsin Uprising”
    -Paul Buhle, “The Wisconsin Uprising and the Progressive Legacy”

    Complete conference program is here:

  16. JC
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    kjc: I didn’t mean to say Frank’s lame and theory’s great–not at all. I like elements of both quite a lot. But his dig at Judith Butler is just resentment. A progressive movement needs Judith Butler as much as it needs Grace Lee Boggs. And his claiming to be on the pulse of Occupy’s death is just another way of promoting his own brand.

  17. Site Admin
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    FYI. linked to this post today.

  18. Meta
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Concerning the college kids of today and why they’re not fighting back, it could be because they’re largely wealthy and white. This is from the Boston Globe.

    Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards.

    Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron’s college guide and matched them up against the institutions’ advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.

    Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.

    A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.

    Applicants who stood no chance of gaining admission without connections are only the most blatant beneficiaries of such admissions preferences. Except perhaps at the very summit of the applicant pile – that lofty place occupied by young people too brilliant for anyone in their right mind to turn down – colleges routinely favor those who have connections over those who don’t. While some applicants gain admission by legitimately beating out their peers, many others get into exclusive colleges the same way people get into trendy night clubs, by knowing the management or flashing cash at the person manning the velvet rope.

    Read more:

  19. kjc
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    JC: i hear you. i’m not gonna say Judith Butler should never get a slap though.

  20. Brian
    Posted September 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I knew I liked Hayden when I read the following in the New Yorker:

    he was especially happy about his son’s union with Bent, who is black, because, among other things, it was “another step in a long-term goal of mine: the peaceful, nonviolent disappearance of the white race.”
    He should start by committing suicide. That would set an example, yes?

  21. brainful
    Posted September 8, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Pretty sure alcohol had already mostly killed him.

  22. Meta
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Tom Hayden will talk about the ‘climate crisis’ in Ann Arbor on Sept. 15.

    U-M grad, author, and activist Tom Hayden will return to Ann Arbor on Monday, September 15 at 7 p.m. at the downtown library, at 343 S. Fifth Ave., to discuss a call to battle against the climate change crisis.

    On the eve of huge rallies at the opening of the U.N. climate treaty talks, the U-M graduate and California environmental leader Tom Hayden discusses how Michigan and the Great Lakes region can move the U.S. towards the protections of a clean energy economy. The problems of economic recession and climate crisis must be addressed in a Global Green New Deal, he says.

    Read more:

  23. Eel
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The Hayden story in the Ann Arbor News ends on a strange note.

    “Hayden, the batting champion of the Los Angeles Dodgers fantasy baseball camp in the 1980s, has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1971.”

    I’m sure they cut and paste that from somewhere else, but, given the subject matter of the article, it makes absolutely no sense.

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] civil rights movement, you might also like my interviews with former SDS presidents Alan Haber and Tom Hayden… An interesting aside… Boots Riley mention to me over dinner that his father was, […]

  2. […] with the likes of Alan Haber, the first president of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), and Tom Hayden, be sure to tune in during the first hour of the show, during which we’ll be going deep on […]

  3. […] I was surprised to hear from Sinclair that he has little to no interaction with Alan Haber, Tom Hayden, and other members of SDS, who were fighting for societal change on the U-M campus at the same […]

  4. […] I was surprised to hear from Sinclair that he had little to no interaction with Alan Haber, Tom Hayden, and other members of SDS, who were fighting for societal change on the U-M campus at the same […]

  5. […] has passed away last night. Here, for those of you who may have missed it the first time around, is our discussion from 2012, which, sadly, I’ve yet to finish my transcription […]

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