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Archive for April, 2012

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

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

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

Todd Gitlin on Port Huron Statement’s 50th Anniversary

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Early ’60s idealism: The mimeographed mission statement of a new generation

[ Part 1 of a 2-part series | also @ DailyKos ]

“The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely . . .

“The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. . . . SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

“There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document.”   Todd Gitlin, April 12, 2012


As we were strolling through Washington Square Park Thursday evening we saw a light shining from the south, from the NYU library at 70 Washington Square South, and, behold, the brightness was the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives on the tenth floor.

We followed the light and found a gathering of luminaries to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, featuring Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Robb Burlage, and Martha Prescod Norman Noonan (Students for a Democratic Society) as speakers. In the audience sitting among the ordinary folks like us were history-making New Left activists and organizers you may not have heard of, such as Alan Haber, the first president of SDS, and Charles McDew of SNCC, but their work in the civil rights, free speech, anti-war, and anti-poverty movements changed—that is, made more humane and more democratic—the world we live in today. In many cases, they also risked their very lives.

Briefly, the Port Huron Statement (1962) was a sort of mimeographed mission statement of the Students for a Democratic Society: a new generation’s call for participatory democracy; an assertion of humane, liberal values; and a critique of the Cold War mentality and the military-industrial complex that were strangling civic action and imagination and diverting precious resources from social needs such as ending racism and poverty. It marked a break from the old left that was anxious to prove itself anti-communist after the ravages of McCarthyism.


1963 SDS National Council Meeting [Photo by C. Clark Kissinger]


Roadmap to the 1960s, blueprint for a generation

SDS, a student division of the League for Industrial Democracy, was founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. The Port Huron Statement, initially drafted by Tom Hayden—22 years old at the time—and elaborated through discussion among fellow SDS members, was adopted at the first SDS annual convention of about 60 members on June 11–15, 1962, at the AFL-CIO’s camp in Port Huron, about 100 miles NE of Ann Arbor, near Detroit.

The statement, intended to be a living document, guided a generation until, with racial and Vietnam War tensions escalating, around 1967 and 1968, younger activists found it not radical enough. Many of SDS’s ideas, values, and methods, however, live on in the energy and activism of the Occupy movement, the Arab spring, and the Wisconsin public workers’ struggle. We are confident that, like the Declaration of Independence, it will be commemorated on its one-hundredth anniversary, too, and well beyond, as long as there is a United States of America.

We will have more to say in the next few days about the remarks of Tom Hayden and others on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Statement, but we begin our commemoration by sharing the eloquent remarks of Todd Gitlin, who was kind enough to give us a copy. A cultural historian and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, Mr. Gitlin is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. He was president of SDS in 1964 and 1965 and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War, in 1965. His remarks Thursday night were energetic and charged with an intimate sense of the beauty and love and also frustration and tragedy that characterized the experience of the 1960s and afterward.


On the Port Huron Statement

Todd Gitlin  |  April 12, 2012  |  Tamiment Library, NYU


The Port Huron Statement was the clearest, most vivid and energetic articulation of an awakening: one of those great uprisings that are the crucibles of America struggling (against much violence and cruelty) to become itself—a commonwealth of free association and mutual aid.

The New Left wanted to make, out of the lonely crowd, the beloved community—the kernel of a moral awakening that would put intelligence to work in behalf of transcendent values and overcome as much human ugliness as possible.

This beloved community would be bound together in what Carl Oglesby would later call “brute love”—an association of free and struggling individuals joining together what an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”

Brute love was distilled from a fierce chemical reaction (and I’m not just referring to controlled substances) which began with a revolt against racist evil and stupefaction, and developed into an intoxication with the vivid solidarities that are made possible, though never guaranteed, by democratic life.

The intoxication was stirred by a discovery of the bonds that could be forged from a conviction that big changes were not only necessary but possible.

The sense of necessity was both moral and intellectual. It’s interesting: There are not, in the Port Huron Statement, extraordinary insights into the crimes and failure and inequities of American society at the outset of the 1960s:

• white supremacy;

• the military-industrial contempt for human possibility;

• the grotesque brandishing of thermonuclear weapons in the Cold War;

• the triumph of empty labor; and so on.

The keen insight of the Port Huron Statement was that a life of shared value mattered—and that it could be lived in common—and that citizenship might matter and might, for some body of people, be practical. The name that was affixed to that insight was “participatory democracy.”

It was, I think, intended more as a principle of social life than as a way of holding meetings. It was not understood as an alternative to strategy or to the collective work of intellect, but as their fruition.

The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely. The intimation that the world could be remade—starting right now and right here—this was the movement’s idea—all of the movement, as Linda Gordon points out in her paper, not just the white guys.

The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. For some in the movement those values were spoken in an other-worldly spirit; for some not. It didn’t matter. All the eyes were on the prize.

SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document. Within the lines, there were a lot of intellectual puzzles that the Port Huron Statement could not solve. No one has since. They may not be capable of solution. For example: What if most people do not want, at least not so much, to make the decisions at affect their lives? Shall we then disband the people and convene another one?

But the Port Huron Statement did not say: Follow us from Point A to Point Z. It said: Here we are, a bunch of people, “raised in at least modest comfort,” who are going to make the effort to live lives we are not ashamed of, in order to live in a country we are not ashamed of. And that was a very great thing.

At the same time, we are all well aware of what we could not accomplish in the movements of that time. And that is why we ought to be refreshing the language of values, and reawakening the awakening, and acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with our better angels.

I mean not just ourselves, the core of a movement and its passions. I mean also the vast outer movement. Just as there was a conspicuous ’60s, the one recorded in the photogenic confrontations and iconic images of courage and horror, there was also a subterranean ’60s—less well known but just as important. The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should I do?

That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.

What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.

Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Todd Gitlin is the author of many books. His latest, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, will be published in August by !t books, a division of HarperCollins. It will be available as a Kindle ebook in May.

The Port Huron Statement was typed and mimeographed by some of the people, now in their sixties and seventies, who were in attendance Thursday night. The first mimeographed printing, in August 1962, was of 20,000 copies; the second printing, of 20,000 copies, was in December 1964. Copies sold for thirty-five cents each. It is now a paperback published (2005) by Thunder’s Mouth Press, a good deal at $14.95.


Photo of 1963 SDS National Council Meeting by C. Clark Kissinger, found at TheNation.com. Photo of Todd Gitlin by Piotr Redlinski.

RFK, MLK: “This mindless menace of violence in America”

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit [of hatred and revenge] flourish any longer in our land.” —Robert F. Kennedy, April 5, 1968


On the day after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the Cleveland City Club about the epidemic of violence that was draining the blood and spirit from America. The immediate context was the killing of Dr. King. In the background of course was the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. In the future lay Robert Kennedy’s own assassination only two months later, and countless other shootings and killings, including the near-assassination of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in January 2011. Her shooting is called to mind by Kennedy’s reference to the ease with which “men of all shades of sanity” can acquire weapons. Click here for a YouTube clip with audio of the speech (and more).*


“Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation”

Remarks of Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the Cleveland City Club

Cleveland, Ohio, April 5, 1968

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one—no matter where he lives or what he does—can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on. . . .

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence—whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

. . . we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire. . . .

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies, nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear—only a common desire to retreat from each other—only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

“We must learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.”

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.


* Click here for a YouTube video of the speech: decent audio, good imagery, and annoying, unnecessary background music.

More speeches by Robert F. Kennedy can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum online.

For more about extremism and violence in America, see our previous posts “Rev. King and Gun Violence: ‘Study War No More” (1/17/11) and “ ‘Kill the Bill’ vs. ‘Stop the War’: A Tale of Two Protests” (4/11/10).

For more on the domestic firearms industry, see Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.


Bottom photo of Robert F. Kennedy by Yoichi R. Okamoto, January 28, 1964.


4/4, 44 Years Ago . . .

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” —Aeschylus


It was the night of April 4, 1968, when word spread that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain by an assassin in Memphis. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then campaigning in the Democratic primaries, was at an event in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis. He asked campaign aides, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” They did not. Senator Kennedy’s words to the crowd, delivered impromptu with scarcely a glance at the notes in his hand, kept the peace that night, at least in that part of Indianapolis, and continue to resonate with wisdom and consolation. (Click here for an audio version [NPR].) Two months later, RFK himself was assassinated in Los Angeles.


“To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”

Remarks by Robert F. Kennedy on the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

. . . In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.



Early morning, April four,

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They cannot take your pride

In the name of love . . .

—U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)


Photograph by Dan Weiner: Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.


See also “There Is a Creative Force in This Universe” (1/16/12) on MLK’s work with the Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his death.