May 23, 2013
Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement
Posted on Apr 10, 2006
By Tom Hayden
Editor’s Note: In May of 1962, 21-year-old Tom Hayden, a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), took the lead in drafting “The Port Huron Statement,” the manifesto of the SDS and a handbook for a generation of student activists.
As a student at the University of Michigan, Hayden believed that apathy bred by middle-class comfort was a major obstacle to social justice for the oppressed. The Port Huron Statement called on students to leave the ivory tower and seek that justice through direct participatory democracy. The document also railed against the military industrial complex, racial bigotry, and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Hayden went on to travel the world as an activist, journalist and defender of human rights, in addition to serving in the California legislature for 18 years. In September 2005, he re-issued The Port Huron Statement with a new introduction, which is re-printed in full here. As a new preface to that introduction, Hayden has written a short essay for Truthdig about how the legacy of that document continues to find expression in the current generation of young activists.
Specifically, Hayden writes about Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American college student who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the Israeli destruction Palestinian houses in Gaza. Hayden finds in Rachel Corrie a powerful moral example of commitment to social justice.
In the preface and introduction that follows, Hayden offers a personal story of political awakening and commitment as an inspiration and wake-up call to those willing to shake the apathy of comfort for a life of activism and ethical commitment.
I never knew Rachel Corrie, but her parents spoke in our Los Angeles home not long after her death, and I have met some of her friends. Her diaries, together with her parents’ account, remind me poignantly of the days long ago when those of my generation bore witness in places like McComb, Miss., Albany, Ga., and Selma, Ala. We took seriously what we had learned in school or from our families, and wanted to put the lessons on the line, close the gap between rhetoric and reality. In these times, young people like Rachel Corrie have left their safe, white Portlands behind to explore what solidarity means in places like Palestine, Chiapas, Central America, Bolivia and Venezuela. They seek justice, and they seek it now. They commit their middle-class skills and, if necessary, their lives to working with those who have no prospects amidst plenty, in hopes of awakening America’s conscience.
Those who want to censor Rachel Corrie’s voice today remind me of those who tried to censor the voices of my generation long ago. Then, as now, they said morality was complex, not simple, that context was overriding, that if we stood against racial injustice in Mississippi it would be exploited by Communists in other lands. That racism and brutality in America, however regrettable, could never be considered equivalent to racism and brutality in other, more sinister, places. That there was no moral equivalence between American killing and Communist killing. And so we had to bury our own dead who were dredged out of a Mississippi swamp while their families wept angry tears.
As you can imagine, we found this complexity too complex to accept morally. After all, it was not the Soviets who killed, beat or jailed the civil rights workers, but Americans with the protection of American officials, from the Neshoba County sheriff to the director of the FBI. It has taken over four decades for the families to see the beginnings of legal justice and accountability. Similarly, it was not Palestinians but Israelis who killed Rachel Corrie with American equipment funded with American tax dollars, and who continue to question her story with American collaboration.
The pattern only became more grotesque during Vietnam, when you became pro-Communist if you questioned the killing of innocent people by American soldiers with American napalm paid for with American dollars. You know how that went, and how it turned out.
My question is this: Has Israel now become the moral equivalent of Mississippi then? When will Rachel Corrie’s words and spirit exist free, on their own, the way she died? If my question is disturbing, outrageous and provocative, you will understand the role that idealists must play across the generations, and why the Port Huron Statement is relevant today. I hope my reflections on “the way we were” are helpful in the present.
THE WAY WE WERE: And the Future of the Port Huron Statement
Originally published by Avalon Publishing Group as the introduction to “The Port Huron Statement:The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution” Fall 2005.
Outside Port Huron, Mich., where a dense thicket meets the lapping shores of Lake Huron, the careful explorer will come across rusty and timeworn pipes, and a few collapsed foundations, the last traces of the labor camp where 60 young people finalized the Port Huron Statement, the seminal “agenda for a generation,” in 1962. Like the faded camp, the once-young authors, I among them, are now reaching the last phase of life. Memory is all important now, for memory shapes the hopes and possibilities of future generations. It is for these future generations that the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is being republished in its entirety.
Some wish that our legacy be washed out with the refuse in those pipes. Out of sight, out of mind. For the conservative icon Robert Bork, the Port Huron Statement (PHS) was “a document of ominous mood and aspiration,” because of his fixed certainty that utopian movements, by misreading human nature, turn out badly. David Horowitz, a former ‘60s radical who turned to the hard-core right, dismisses the PHS as a “self-conscious effort to rescue the communist project from its Soviet fate.” Another ex-leftist, Christopher Hitchens, sees in its pages a conservative reaction to “bigness and anonymity and urbanization,” even linking its vision to the Unabomber! More progressive writers, such as Garry Wills, E.J. Dionne and Paul Berman, see the PHS as a bright moment of reformist vision that withered due to the impatience and extremism of the young. Excerpts of the PHS have been published in numerous textbooks, and an Internet search returns huge numbers of references to “participatory democracy,” its central philosophic theme. Grass-roots movements in today’s Argentina and Venezuela use “participatory democracy” to describe their popular assemblies and factory takeovers. The historian Thomas Cahill writes that the Greek ekklesia was “the world’s first participatory democracy” and the model for the early Catholic Church, which “permitted no restrictions on participation: no citizens and non-citizens, no greeks and nongreeks, no patriarchs and submissive females.” In modern popular culture, authorship of the PHS has been claimed by the stoned hippie played by Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski.”
The story of the 1962 Port Huron convention has been told many times by participants and later researchers,  and I will describe it here only briefly so as to focus more on the meaning of the statement itself. The 60 or so young people who met in Port Huron were typically active in the fledgling civil rights, campus reform and peace movements of the era. Some, like myself, were campus journalists, while others were active in student governments. Some walked picket lines in solidarity with the Southern student sit-in movement. More than a few were moved by their religious traditions. My adolescent ambition was to become a foreign correspondent, which was a metaphor for breaking out of the suffocating apathy of the times. Instead, I found myself interviewing and reflecting on Southern black dispossessed sharecroppers; students who were willing to go to jail, even die, for their cause; the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., as he marched outside my first Democratic convention; and candidate John Kennedy, giving his speech proposing the Peace Corps on a rainy night in Ann Arbor. I was thrilled by the times in which I lived, and I chose to help build a new student organization, the Students for a Democratic Society, rather than pursue journalism. My parents were stunned.
SDS was the fragile brainchild of Alan Haber, an Ann Arbor graduate student whose father was a labor official during the last progressive American administration, that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Al was a living link with the fading legacy of the radical left movements that had built the labor movement and the New Deal. Al sensed a new spirit among students in 1960, and recruited me to become a “field secretary,” which meant moving to Atlanta with my wife, Casey, who had been a leader of the campus sit-ins in Austin, Texas. While participating in the direct action movement, and mobilizing national support by writing and speaking on campuses, I learned that passionate advocacy, arising from personal experience, could be a powerful weapon.
Haber and other student leaders across the nation became increasingly aware of a need to connect all the issues that weighed on our generation—apathy, in loco parentis, civil rights, the Cold War, the Bomb. And so, in December 1961, at 22 years of age and fresh from jail as a Freedom Rider in Albany, Ga.,, I was asked to begin drafting a document that would express the vision underlying our action. It was to be a short manifesto, a recruiting tool, perhaps five or 10 single-spaced pages. Instead it mushroomed into a 50-page single-spaced draft prepared for the Port Huron convention in May 1962. That version was debated and rewritten, section by section, by those who attended the five-day Port Huron meeting and returned to me for final polishing. Twenty thousand copies were mimeographed and sold for 35 cents each.
The vision grew from a concrete generational experience. Rarely if ever had students thought of themselves as a force in history or, as we phrased it, an “agency of social change.” We were rebelling against the experience of apathy, not against a single specific oppression. We were moved by the heroic example of black youth in the South, whose rebellion taught us the fundamental importance of race. We could not vote ourselves, and were treated legally as wards under our universities’ paternal care, but as young men we could be conscripted to fight in places we dimly understood, like Vietnam and Laos. The nation’s priorities were frozen by the Cold War: a permanent nuclear arms race benefiting what President Eisenhower had called “the military-industrial complex,” whose appetite absorbed the resources that we believed were necessary to address the crises of civil rights and poverty, or what John Kenneth Galbraith termed “squalor in the midst of affluence.”
Apathy, we came to suspect, was what the administrators and power technicians actually desired. Apathy was not our fault, not an accident, but the result of social engineering by those who ran the institutions that taught us, employed us, entertained us, drafted us, bored us, controlled us, wanted us to accept the absolute impossibility of another way of being. It was for this reason that our rhetoric emphasized “ordinary people” developing “out of apathy” (the term was C. Wright Mills’) in order to “make history.”  Since many of us had emerged from apathetic lives (neither of my parents were political in any sense, and I had attended conservative Catholic schools), we began with the realization that we had to relate to, not denounce, the everyday lives of students and communities around us in order to replicate the journey out of apathy on a massive scale.
We chose to put “values” forward as the first priority in challenging the conditions of apathy and forging a new politics. Embracing values meant making choices as morally autonomous human beings against a world that advertised in every possible way that there were no choices, that the present was just a warm-up for the future.
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