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Friday Focus: Birth of a student movement

BY EMILY KRAACK
Daily News Editor
Published February 13, 2004

Fall of 1959 was a time like none other. The University received
a record high budget, a massive steel strike hit the country and
two young men were taking very different steps along a path that
would eventually establish the University’s reputation for
progressive activism.

 

TWO FORCES ON CAMPUS

Alan Haber — who today is trying to restart a
long-abandoned movement in Ann Arbor — was active in liberal
youth politics since entering the University in 1954. In 1959, he
had been the Vice President of the Student Division of the League
for Industrial Democracy for a year when it was decided that a new
name was needed for the group. “SLID just made it sound like
we were backsliding,” said Haber, a life-long Ann Arbor
resident. The group decided to rename themselves Students for a
Democratic Society.

The group, which had chapters mostly on Northern college
campuses, initially focused on the issue of race discrimination in
the Northern states at a time when segregation in the South was
just starting to come under public scrutiny. Haber, the first
president of SDS, said they decided to work on racial
discrimination in the North because members knew of dress stores in
the North where black patrons would not be helped and hair salons
that would not serve black customers.

While Haber was starting SDS, another man who would soon be
known nationwide was a fledgling college journalist at The Michigan
Daily — Thomas Hayden, the man who would later become a
president of SDS and organize a conference to draft the 1962 Port
Huron Statement, a document that guided SDS in solidifying its
ideas of social justice values. Hayden worked his way up to become
editor in chief of the Daily in 1960.

Phil Sutin, former senior editor at the Daily, wrote a
prize-winning essay series on the beginnings of campus activism at
the University. The series, which ran in the Daily in May of 1965,
describes a Hayden all but lost in the memories of America today.
The article from May 5, 1965 reads, “Hayden was an activist,
perhaps the leading activist in the entire activist period. A
quiet, soft-spoken individual, Hayden had charismatic charm, a
searching, positive idealism and courage to act upon his
convictions.”

Sutin, who graduated in 1964 and now writes for the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, said there was a time when people would be amazed to
hear he had worked under Hayden, but that has changed.
“Nobody knows who Hayden is anymore,” he said.
“Hayden was a crusading journalist before the Vietnam crisis,
before the civil rights movement (hit its peak).”

 

EARLY SDS: LOCAL ACTIVISM THROUGH EDUCATION

When many people think of SDS, their first thoughts go to the
group’s radical 1968 occupation of Columbia
University’s administration building or the 1970 detonation
of a bomb in a New York City town home which killed three members
of the Weathermen, a group known for violence targeted at symbols
of the existing “system.”

However, SDS before the Vietnam war escalated into crisis
projected a very different image. “SDS and the movement in
general was somewhat different in the time that I wrote about than
afterward,” Sutin said. He said the group was more
intellectual and composed of college elites from top schools such
as the University of Michigan, Harvard University and University of
California at Berkeley. Many of Michigan’s student activists
also had relatives in the University administration, such as Philip
Power, an earlier Daily editor in chief whose father had been a
regent of the University.

“The student part was an important part of the Students
for a Democratic Society,” Haber said. “People who saw
themselves as studying and writing felt very comfortable at
SDS.”

The rallying cry of the group in the early years emphasized this
link between study and politics, stating, “Knowledge has
relevance to power.”

Haber emphasized that the early SDS movement focused on research
and writing. Hayden himself did much of his activism on the pages
of the Daily, writing profiles of University administrators and
crusading against perceived injustices perpetuated by the
University.

Despite the academic approach of many SDS activities, not all
activism took place on paper. Haber described pickets of Kresge and
Woolworths, two campus stores that had affiliates in Southern
states and discriminated against black patrons.


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