Tom Hayden, SDS and SNCC Alums:
Happy 50th, Port Huron Statement!

SDS National Council Meeting, September 1963. Tom Hayden stands at far left.  [Photo by C. Clark Kissinger]


“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. . . . First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry. . . . Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb. . . . The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise. . . . If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”  —opening and closing sentences of the Port Huron Statement (1962)


“The Dead Sea Scrolls of the New Left”

While “the dude,” the amiable stoner played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, claims authorship of the Port Huron Statement, it is Tom Hayden’s recollection that he was in a jail cell in Albany, Georgia, after a Freedom Ride in 1961 when he composed the initial notes of what turned out to be the historic “living document” whose 50th anniversary was commemorated April 12–13 at NYU’s Tamiment Library and Global Center for Spiritual Life. At the time of the Port Huron gathering in June 1962, Hayden was the editor of the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, and had already published the powerful “A Letter to the New (Young) Left” in The Activist (Oberlin College, Winter 1961).

In our first installment, we presented the remarks of historian Todd Gitlin, president of the Students for a Democratic Society from 1964 to 1965. This second piece is a summary of keynote speaker Tom Hayden’s remarks about the Statement and its relevance today. We were privileged to enjoy a few minutes of quality time with Mr. Hayden after the panel discussion Thursday night. A brief account of our chat with him and some other key participants appears below. (The phrase “Dead Sea Scrolls of the New Left” was Hayden’s in an interview with Democracy Now! the morning of the keynote address.)

The 50th anniversary event was organized, and Hayden was introduced, by Robert “Robbie” Cohen, professor of history and social studies in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and author of Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (Oxford, 2009). The following remarks by Tom Hayden are a blending of what he said on Thursday night and Friday morning; direct quotations are used only in a few instances; otherwise, we try to convey as accurately as possible the essence of what he said. We hope this bit of editorial license will be permitted. If any participants detect errors, please let us know (“If you see something, say something”).

“This may be our last time together”

Tom Hayden began his remarks by saying our presence here is a sign of group love. “This is a blessed group.” This will be (or may be) the last time we get together to talk about this. (Most of the members of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, who attended the 1962 Port Huron gathering were about 20 at the time. Twenty-year-olds, by the way, could be drafted but could not vote; the national voting age was not lowered to 18 until 1971.)

Hayden spoke about courage, “a renewable resource” that everyone possesses. Often you do something not so much because you decide to be brave but because you can’t leave your friends alone, or you can’t stand what the police or the draft board or other authorities are doing; it strikes you as unjust and you have to put yourself in front of it to make it stop, to protect your friends.

Hayden spoke of Charles “Chuck” McDew III, who was sitting in the audience, a former chairman of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), as “bravery in action.” I owe my life, much of my career to Chuck. (More about Chuck McDew below.)

SNCC wanted as many white college students as possible to come and help in their civil rights movement in part because white college kids getting beaten up would attract news media attention, whereas black protesters getting killed could be (and often was) ignored.

In McComb, Mississippi, SNCC and friends from the North (perhaps after being arrested) were being interrogated by the White Citizens’ Council. We were given the choice to leave the state or go to the dreaded Parchman state penitentiary. We were ashamed later at our choice to leave the state. We went back to Washington and in a meeting at the Justice Department we were told by a deputy attorney general under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that SNCC needed to get out of Mississippi. They should leave; they’ll be killed if they stay. Hayden said in effect the man was saying that the United States Constitution does not extend to the state of Mississippi. The U.S. exports democracy abroad but does not protect it at home. The Kennedy Justice Department was not going to run the political risk, stick its neck out to enforce the Constitution and protect the student activists.

Our intention in going down to the Deep South was to go to the calcified hard core of the racist unequal society in America and break it open. We thought that if we confronted this racism and entrenched, enforced poverty at its core, if we could break open the nucleus there, we could help break its grip in the North, too, and everywhere else, to make the northern clergy, society, educational institutions and businesses answer, Which side are you on?

“We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation . . .”

We were trying to pull together a coalition movement of poor, middle class, white, black, labor, etc. It was hard to do, maybe impossible, and we failed, but it was the right thing to try to do. We failed in part because we did not know all of what we were up against. For one thing, we lacked the support of older people on the left because we never could satisfy them that we were anti-communist enough. We certainly were not pro-Soviet Union, but for us, being anti-communist was not a priority. Racism and poverty in America were priorities; moral values and democracy were more important. We felt we were constantly on trial not only with conservative antagonists but even with older progressives; it was absurd and futile, like Kafka’s The Trial.

Another obstacle that we could never quite see was the invisible collusion of labor and other supposedly democratic organizations with the U.S. government, namely the CIA. This may sound like a conspiracy theory, and maybe it is, but the federal government did not like our aim of de-escalating the cold war. As Hayden wrote in The Nation:

The unmovable obstacle to the coalition we hoped to build with organized labor was the secret pro–cold war element within liberalism, directly and indirectly tied to the CIA, which was fiercely opposed to our break from cold war thinking. On the one hand, the UAW’s Reuther brothers helped fund and provide conference quarters at Port Huron; . . . On the other hand, the right-wing AFL-CIO foreign affairs department carried on the anti-communist crusade with its covert operations. . . . There was no way, in other words, that the New Left could have joined organized labor in 1964–65 around the the Port Huron foreign policy vision, because the AFL-CIO was shackled to the CIA without our knowledge. —Tom Hayden, “Participatory Democracy: From Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street,” The Nation, April 16, 2012

We could not have anticipated the effects of the Vietnam war (which had not escalated into a full-blown war at the time of the Statement) or all the assassinations. I remember coming back on a bus from a Democratic party conference or event in [February] 1965, listening to Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and learning of the assassination of Malcolm X. Some historian should analyze the effect of the assassinations on the New Left (in particular), how demoralizing and disorienting it was to lose these inspiring leaders one after another.

Our movement should be thought of not so much as an organization as an organism, an organism that is constantly adapting to a hostile environment. In this struggle to adapt we kept going back to first principles, the values expressed in the Port Huron Statement. We were learning by doing, by constantly keeping moving, adapting to changing circumstances. “I’m an organizer, but every organization I’ve ever been part of has fallen apart.” (Laughter.)

We were influenced by Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, and the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. These were all about young people who felt out of place in the mainstream of American life, who wanted a different kind of life. We grew up feeling maladjusted, wondered if we were crazy. These works told us we were not alone. As we met more people like us at the university, we realized we can’t all be crazy and they can’t lock all of us up. This period around 1960–62 was not “the sixties” as the decade came to be known. My first wife, Casey, who had been a member of an existential Christian group in Austin, said of those early years, “it was a holy time.”

Concerning recent events, Hayden said that he did not predict Occupy Wall Street or anything like it, so he cannot or should not give advice or dispense wisdom about it. Although he finds Occupy Wall Street vital and important, he found the public workers’ protests in Wisconsin (as shown below) more his idea of participatory democracy. In Wisconsin in early 2011, day after day, and weekend after weekend, 75,000 to 100,000 ordinary citizens—teachers, nurses, bus drivers, and other public employees—and their families went out in freezing temperatures to protest Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican state legislators’ attempt to repeal public employees’ rights to collective bargaining. The sign of a movement, said Hayden, is when people in the street are not members of an organization but are acting because they refuse to take any more of unacceptable conditions. One slogan he liked was “BEER, BRATS, CHEESE, UNIONS!” An organization did not make up that sign, he said; that comes from real, daily life. And when they’re out there with thousands of others, they feel they are participating in history. He was at one rally in Madison, and a woman came up to him and asked, “Are you Tom?” Yes, I am. She said, “I’m your cousin.” (Hayden is originally from Wisconsin. There are about eighty of us around the state, he said, and some of us have never met.)

One of the organizers of the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrations was a former SDS member, Paul Booth, who had been at Port Huron in 1962. Just as he was back then, at Madison he was again acting as a field marshal, getting people making sure people had transportation and signs, etc. Though he was at Port Huron in 1962, he was later kicked out of SDS because he was not radical enough.



A few random snippets:

Hayden said that at some point around 1962 or 1963, some official in the Kennedy administration offered him a job with the Peace Corps, or in a Peace Corps–like agency, that would have taken him to South America. He was not sure if the administration was trying to arrange a meet-up with Che Guevara (joke) or possibly just to get him out of the country for a few years.

At the five-day Port Huron meeting in June 1962, when the SDS members were working long hours discussing and revising the draft of the Statement (of which Hayden had written the original draft), Hayden kept himself awake by sitting in a doorway with a toothbrush in his shirt pocket, and whenever someone stepped over him on the way to the bathroom, he would sit up a little and brush his teeth to keep himself awake a while longer.

Through a connection with one of our fellow SDS members’ parents, we were able to get to the White House to give a copy of the Statement to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian and special assistant to President Kennedy (1961–63). Did JFK read the part about de-escalating the cold war?

As an indicator of how influential, or dangerous, the Port Huron Statement has been perceived to be, the conservative jurist Robert H. Bork in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, describes the Statement as “disastrous,” an “ominous document” and “a guide to today’s cultural and political debacles.”

“ ‘Mickey, I’ve just seen the next Lenin,’ Dick Flacks, the Jewish son of CP [Communist Party] members, exulted to his wife, a fellow child of Jewish Party members, after he first met Tom Hayden—who himself came from a thoroughly unradical Irish Catholic family,” according to historian Michael Kazin in American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (p. 231).

A talk with Tom Hayden and other participants

After the initial waves of old friends and admirers and well-wishers, we got to talk with Mr. Hayden for a few minutes. We found him calm, kindly, tolerant, almost Zen-like, interested, still passionate but disciplined, focused. We talked some about the composition of the Statement, and told him about Levees Not War, mainly a conjunction of infrastructure, anti-war, and environment. Ever think of those three things together? All the time, he said with a smile, in all seriousness. Yes, this is someone who sees the interrelationships of things. He said he was in New Orleans just the week before and enjoyed it. Picking up on some things he had said in his remarks, we asked about the composition of the Port Huron Statement, and the positioning of the values section in the front, and who had contributed to the economics chapters (e.g., figures on income inequality, allocations for defense spending). He said much of the material on economics came from Robb Burlage. I don’t really remember how the values section came to be moved up to the front; I guess it was a group decision, after discussion. It just kind of came out where it came out, maybe about the fifth section, and someone suggested we move it to the front, which seemed like a good idea.

Chuck McDew told us that when he was chairman of SNCC (1961–64), one of his organizers was arrested in Baton Rouge for addressing students at Southern University about registering to vote. McDew went to Baton Rouge with $10,000 in cash to pay the organizer’s bail. McDew himself was arrested on spurious charges and spent many months in jail in Baton Rouge and more months at Angola state penitentiary. After that experience, he said, he wanted to leave the United States altogether.

Robb Burlage, who was editor of the student newspaper of the University of Texas at the time of the Port Huron meeting in June 1962, on Thursday evening made one of the most remarkable comments: We in the SDS (and the progressive movement generally in the 1960s) did not take responsibility, or prepare well enough, for “the craziness” that the 60s veered off into in the 1970s. There was so much to work on and there was only so much that could be accomplished in that brief period in history when the conditions were ripe, but looking back on it over the years it’s clear that we did not do enough to prepare for our accomplishments to last, to cultivate relationships with younger waves of students and activists.

Historian Michael Kazin addresses the shortcoming in his recent book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation:

Contemptuous of liberals, they failed to build durable interclass, interracial coalitions that might have sustained the new age of reform led by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and prevented or delayed the rise of the New Right. Disenchanted with old formulas for remaking American society, they gave little thought to devising new ones. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, frustration at the lack of an alternative led an aggressive minority in the movement to take up one variety of Leninist dogma or another, while other activists sought to refashion a liberalism cleansed of Cold War hypocrisies. Neither project was successful. Soon, for the first time in over 150 years, no American radical movement survived that was worthy of the name.

And yet, Kazin goes on to say, “the New Left articulated a critique of everyday life which was in time taken up by millions. . . . [By the 1980s] Tens of millions of Americans, perhaps even a majority, had come to reject racial and sexual discrimination, to question the need for and morality of military intervention abroad, and to worry that industrial growth might be imperiling the future of life on earth. Neither the power nor the influence of the radicals who had helped promote these changes were what they had desired. But their message had certainly been received.” (American Dreamers, pp. 212–13)

As the 1960s went on and the Vietnam war and racial tensions escalated (among other pressures), some of the early, Port Huron–era SDS members were found by younger students to not be radical enough for what the times called for. Some, like Paul Booth, mentioned above, were kicked out. (For more about this, read Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties and The Whole World Is Watching, and Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS.)

Burlage told us that when he was the editor of the University of Texas newspaper, his father got threatening, hate phone calls demanding that his son stop writing pro-integration, pro–civil rights editorials. His father shielded him from these messages at the time, and only told him later.

Further Reading, Viewing

Tom Hayden on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, on participatory democracy from Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street (April 13, 2012).

Tom Hayden, “Participatory Democracy: From Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street,” The Nation, April 16, 2012

Tom Hayden and Dick Flacks, “The Port Huron Statement at 40,” The Nation, August 5, 2002.

PDF scan of the original draft of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, as distributed by Alan Haber to the attendees at the SDS Northeast Regional Conference, April 23, 2006

For the final, published Port Huron Statement (online), click here.

Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (includes excerpts from the Port Huron Statement).

Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.

Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS.

Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.

Faith S. Holsaert et al., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.

Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.

Read Levees Not War on these related issues:

Occupy Wall Street, 2011

NYPD Occupies Zuccotti Park; OWS Evicted in Night Raid

Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class

Wisconsin Pro-Union Demonstrations, 2011

Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline

Disaster Capitalism Will Solve U.S. Budget Deficit? Ask New Orleans and Wisconsin

“Shock Doctrine” in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, as in Egypt, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”

Civil Rights

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe” : The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street

Rev. King and Gun Violence: “Study War No More”

“Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968

Nuclear Weapons, Energy

Hiroshima, 65 Years On: “Countdown to Zero”

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten

Jim Bohlen, a Greenpeace Founder, Dies





Tom Hayden, SDS and SNCC Alums:
Happy 50th, Port Huron Statement!