When news broke that Tom Hayden had died, many remembered him as the Vietnam War protester, former husband of Jane Fonda or the California legislator. But classmates and fellow activists at the University of Michigan still think of the impassioned and eloquent student who more than anyone shaped a signature document of the 1960s: the Port Huron Statement.
“He was intensely alive, hardworking, indefatigable and courageous,” said Todd Gitlin, who later wrote “The Sixties,” “Occupy Nation” and several other books about activism. “He exhibited this capacity to put a name on things and invoke the possibility of changing the world.”
Completed in 1962, the Port Huron Statement was the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the leading youth groups and representatives of the New Left for much of the decade. The statement’s language had an urgency and historical consciousness that recalled the Declaration of Independence and other foundational American texts, beginning with its opening statement: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
A 25,000-word rejection of the so-called silent generation of the 1950s, the statement captured the hope and anxiety of the new decade, the awareness of material comfort and the distress over a society the students viewed as complacent, unjust and misguided. The Port Huron paper linked the civil rights movement to the nuclear arms race and other causes and advocated participatory democracy, whether through voter registration, peaceful protests or through candidates who would challenge political machines.
“When we talk about the ‘spirit of the ‘60s,’ you have to think of the Port Huron Statement. It was idealistic and aspirational, but also practical. And one of the extraordinary things about it was its elevation of political language,” Gitlin said.
Authorship of a group statement is often disputed, but friends of Hayden, who died Sunday at 76, agree that his was the essential voice and liken his role to that of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents were critiqued and altered by quarrelsome peers, but both needed an individual capable of synthesizing and making poetry out of collective ideals.
“He was the best writer among us and was able to articulate so well all the ideas and philosophies we had been debating,” said Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer, another University of Michigan student who worked on the Port Huron Statement.
“A lot of work was done on that statement after Tom first wrote it,” says former SDS member Robert J.S. Ross, a research professor of sociology at Clark University. “There were a lot of sentences pulled out, and others pulled in. Everybody had a hand in it. But Tom was channeling us all.”
The statement was widely circulated and championed, but it was tested as the decade’s traumas accumulated, from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the growing and seemingly endless U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By the mid-1970s, the SDS had broken apart, and many young people had despaired that peaceful change _ or any change _ was possible.
But Hayden’s friends say that he never gave up on civic engagement and that the document remains vital, even if few current students have read it.
“I was on a panel with Tom once that was well publicized and had about 70 there. And half of them were old,” Ross said with a laugh. “But I think the statement really speaks to democracy being an active, not a passive process. And in that regard I see it as a living document.”
Lehrer, who became a leadership coach and co-owner of an art gallery in Northern California, said Hayden was deeply committed to democracy.
“What stands out for me about Tom, fifty plus years ago, was his commitment to a lifetime of participatory democracy,” she said. “I remember him getting up and saying he wasn’t only going to be in activist for this period (as a student). I can still see him saying that, and I remember saying, ‘Right on.’ “