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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.

History Prof. Matthew Lassiter pointed out that these actions
showed an important aspect of early SDS activity.
“There’s a sense that the campus has to become a
platform for issues off campus. That’s one of the most
significant contributions of SDS and SNCCC.”

 

PORT HURON STATEMENT

Perhaps the opening words of the Port Huron statement sum up the
early SDS best of all.

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest
comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the
world we inherit.”

The Statement goes on to say, “As we grew, however, our
comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First,
the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation,
symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry,
compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the
enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the
Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and
millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly
because of our common peril, might die at any time.”

To Lassiter, the importance of the Port Huron document lies in
its idea of participatory democracy as a single answer to a host of
societal ills. “SDS had to come up with language that
connected civil rights, the Cold War and (other social
problems),” he said. “The answer was participatory
democracy.”

Lassiter pointed out that the Port Huron Statement proved its
mettle as the Vietnam War escalated. “We wouldn’t be
reading the Port Huron Statement if it wasn’t for
Vietnam,” he said. Vietnam showed how all the problems with
society were grounded in a lack of participatory democracy,
Lassiter said. The voting age at the time was 21, meaning that
young men could be drafted but could not vote. “Vietnam
crystallized what was happening,” he said.

 

SDS INTO TODAY

Haber also emphasized the role of SDS in tying together action
on multiple social issues under one overarching organization,
saying that a group like SDS is needed to bring together the
fragmented groups of the left today. “There’s really a
vacuum on the political scene,” he said. “The new left
or activist generation isn’t really out there.”

After a meeting Tuesday night which Haber called to restart SDS
on the University campus, the question remains: is there a role for
the senior activist group in today’s political
environment?

LSA senior Dan Sheill, the chair of the College Libertarians,
attended Haber’s meeting. He said he felt the meeting lacked
clear goals and Haber used vague language. “He kept saying we
should go by our intuition,” he said. “I didn’t
really understand what he was saying.

“They were really vague in what their beliefs were,”
he said, adding, “(Haber’s) main goal, though he had
little direction, was to get a student group planted on
campus.”

The nature of activism was the topic of interest for Lassiter,
who did not attend the meeting but who said that activism today is
much more widespread than it was in the days of SDS.
“Students think everyone was energized then and are apathetic
now. That’s false,” he said. “If the government
started drafting middle-class college students, there would be a
mass movement fast.

“I think the challenge today is the same as the SDS faced
in the 1960s,” he said. “The challenge is to critique
in a platform that figures out a way to connect global issues,
campus issues and national issues.”

Lassiter said that if he could offer advice to progressive
activists, he would tell them to take lessons from the conservative
movement, which he says is better organized and integrates youth
into the national movement. “The left is far more fragmented
than the right,” he said. He added that creating a national
organization like SDS before Vietnam would also help cure some of
the fragmentation.

Engineering freshman Jeremy Linden attended the meeting, which
he said didn’t accomplish anything and focused on
“inane conspiracy theories.”

“There was no action taken, no dates set,” he said.
He said it seemed like “a bunch of liberals in a bull
session.”

Linden also said he didn’t think the liberal political
scene would accommodate such a broad organization. “The
political scene has changed to issue-based groups, not just broad
coalitions of leftists.” He said many people care a lot about
one issue and will be active for that problem but don’t
necessarily agree with all of the issues involved in a broad
platform.

Haber also said that the activist scene is more fragmented today
than it was in the past, but said this just heightens the need for
an overarching group to facilitate communication between issue
groups.

LSA junior Pete Woiwode, a member of liberal activist groups
such as Anti War Action!, Students Supporting Affirmative Action
and Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, said
Haber’s intentions for restarting SDS on campus are
important, but said he doesn’t feel the need for one
overarching group. “I don’t think one organization is
the answer. There are many different issues,” he said.
“His vision is really really important … that these
things are interconnected and if you don’t see that,
you’re going to get stuck.

“He’s trying to invigorate the sense that this world
is ours to take back.”

 

 

Click "http://www.michigandaily.com/pages/pdf/2004-02-13frifocus.pdf">here
to view the pdf version of this Friday Focus (requires Acrobat
Reader).


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