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Hayden: Student activism still relevant 50 years later

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Former Michigan Daily Editor in ChiefTom Hayden speaks at the Port Huron Statement Conference in East Hall Thursday. Buy this photo

By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 1, 2012

Half a century ago, University alum and political activist Tom Hayden sat in a jail cell crafting the Port Huron Statement.

Fifty years later, the statement — which he later finished in a cramped house on Arch Street — is considered one of the most influential documents for American left-wing activists. After speaking at conferences across the country, Hayden, also a former state California senator and editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, returned to the University on Thursday night to deliver the keynote address at the conference, A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement In Its Time and Ours, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication’s debut.

Political novelists, University professors and members of the original Students for a Democratic Society, the organization that drafted the statement, gathered on campus to give lectures and participate in panel discussions about America’s new left and the future of participatory democracy. About 500 University students, Ann Arbor residents and former members of SDS packed into an East Hall auditorium on Thursday night to listen to Hayden’s speech.

In his address, Hayden discussed the writing process behind the 25,000-word document, as well as its ramifications today. He said the statement was influenced by many different activists and groups, as well as individual SDS members.

“One lesson that I learned is that ideas don’t come out of one person’s head,” he said. “Ideas are nothing if they’re individual ideas.”

He said the real genius of the statement was that it unified of people who already had respect for each other’s ideas.

“(Members of SDS) couldn’t necessarily get over all of their political disagreements,” he said. “But they knew they had to be creating the uncreated conscious of their time.”

Humor was prevalent throughout Hayden’s speech, forcing him to pause multiple times to let the laughter die down before continuing.

“I think I’m on emotional overload, returning to this campus,” Hayden remarked. “I feel like Barack Obama at the first debate.”

Al Haber, the first president of SDS, said he’s hoping the conference will spurn a new student-led movement to address society’s woes, as SDS and other University students did years ago. He noted the University’s rich history of activism, including serving as the site of the first teach-ins protests against the Vietnam War and the birthplace of the U.S. Peace Corps.

“What I’m particularly pressing for is that we see this as activist and prospective, not as academic and retrospective,” Haber said. “Consider yourself part of this community, and what would you put in that manifesto for now? What are the (issues) you see as critical?”

Howard Brick, the conference’s organizer, said he was pleased with Hayden’s address and the crowd’s response.

“There was a spirit and enthusiasm that I thought was remarkable,” Brick said. “Tom speaks in a way that’s capable of keeping the spirit alive.”

Public Policy senior Michael Bloom said he thought the event was phenomenal.

“Tom Hayden was obviously a revolutionary figure and the Port Huron Statement was really a milestone in activism throughout the country, especially here at Michigan,” Bloom said.

LSA junior Theresa Johnson said she came to the event after she read the statement in her American Culture class, and was interested in learning more.

“I think (the statement) still plays a role in today’s society and being unified,” Johnson said. “Especially with the election coming up, and having your voice heard when you want it to be.”

— Lucy Perkins contributed to this report.