Few Ann Arbor residents know that The Statement, the Daily’s weekly news magazine, is named in memory of the Port Huron Statement, drafted by myself as the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society 50 years ago.
This week, the University will host a conference to explore the legacy of what many Ann Arbor students birthed half a century ago.
The vision of the Port Huron Statement lives on. The first principle of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement was a call for participatory democracy, the guiding concept of the Port Huron Statement.
From SDS to Occupy, students have led movements demanding a voice. We believed in not just an electoral democracy, but also in direct participation of students in their remote-controlled universities, of employees in workplace decisions, of consumers in the marketplace, of neighborhoods in development decisions, family equality in place of Father Knows Best and online, open source participation in a world dominated by computerized systems of power.
The Port Huron Statement represented the dawn of an era, which began with the student sit-in movement and the Beat Generation, and didn’t end until 1975, with the fall of Richard Nixon and Saigon.
Students in Ann Arbor played a leading role in defining this era. One year after graduating from the University, where I edited The Michigan Daily, I drafted the 25,000 word Port Huron Statement that served as a manifesto for “participatory democracy,” which initially came to us from a University faculty adviser, Arnold Kaufman. The Students for a Democratic Society founder, Al Haber, fostered a hotbed of debate between 1961 and 1963, before our vision came to fruition in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and the first national Vietnam teach-ins organized at the University.
Ann Arbor was also a central site of the New Frontier. University students, myself included, approached Sen. John F. Kennedy in October 1960 to request that he endorse international service as an alternative to the military draft. He read our letter and, over worries from his advisers, proposed the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union that night.
As an example of what might have been, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a “Great Society … where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods,” at a 1964 University commencement address. The author of LBJ’s speech, Richard Goodwin, credited the Port Huron Statement as being a major influence. Goodwin later wrote a note “to Tom Hayden, who … without knowing it inspired the Great Society,” referring to participatory democracy and the administration’s anti-poverty programs.
JFK’s assassination staggered us, but his signing of the nuclear test ban treaty before his death made us hope for a thaw in the Cold War arms race, which almost obliterated millions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I left graduate school at the University in summer 1964 to begin community organizing in the slums of Newark, N.J. As a member of about 200 SDS activists who planned to devote our lives to a nationwide equivalent of the Mississippi Summer Project, I believed that “an interracial movement of the poor” could empower a new constituency demanding jobs and economic equality.
The United Auto Workers, which was led by Walter Reuther, gave us the Port Huron Conference Center courtesy of a top officer, “Millie” Jeffrey, whose daughter was an SDS leader at the University. The UAW also donated funds to the SDS community organizing projects, as well as major resources for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the United Farm Workers and the early activists of what became the National Organization for Women. In that brief period, our hoped-for coalition seemed to be coming together.
The final sentence of the Statement warned, however, that “If we appear to seek the unattainable, let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” The unimaginable was about to happen.
The Cold War was the mountain we could not climb. Much like today’s War on Terrorism – the official Cold War assumption was that nothing could be spared to protect Americans from conspiratorial threats. The paranoid Cold War assumption was that the Soviet Union now was plotting to take over the world. Small countries like Vietnam were seen as pawns in this global plot. Peace and civil rights groups at home, even leaders like Dr. King, were surveilled as The Enemy Within.
The Port Huron Statement challenged all that, proposing nuclear de-escalation and disarmament. We did this not because we were “pro-Communist” but because we knew that militarized and unbalanced anti-Communism would divert America’s attention away from our needs at home.
In 1961, the eminent professor Robert Angell told me soothingly over breakfast that I could trust Kennedy’s new defense secretary, Robert McNamara – he called him Bob – because he was “one of us,” a liberal intellectual who lived just off Geddes Avenue and drove into his Ford Motor office in Detroit every day. On June 9, just as the Port Huron convention was opening, McNamara gave a speech in Ann Arbor defending what he called a “centrally-controlled campaign against all of the enemy’s vital nuclear capabilities” in the event of a crisis. It foreshadowed our greatest fears, which almost came true in the Cuban Missile Crisis just months later.
Tragically, the Cold War led liberal intellectuals like McNamara, along with our key allies in the UAW, into the bloody quagmire of Vietnam. McNamara channeled his personal brilliance into propaganda when he asserted in August 1964 that the bombing of North Vietnam was due to “naked aggression” by Hanoi, a claim he privately knew to be false. When LBJ pledged “no wider war,” only two Democratic senators opposed the Gulf of Tonkin war authorization. After promising not to send American ground troops during his presidential campaign, there were 184,000 Americans deployed to Vietnam by late 1965.
Nothing turned out as I once imagined. There was one constant: the tides of movements and counter-movements kept churning. Movements based on participatory democracy eventually gained some meaningful reforms: voting rights for southern black people and 18-year olds, the fall of two presidents, amnesty for 50,000 war resisters in Canada, the Freedom of Information Act, democratic reforms of the presidential primary systems, collective bargaining rights for public employees and farmworkers, the Roe v. Wade decision, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, a long list of reforms gained in less than a decade.
Social change did occur, precious inch by bloody inch, becoming sacred ground that had to be protected, decade after decade, from both reaction and oblivion.
Underlying all of this tumultuous history lay the rocky river of participatory democracy – “the river of my people” – which kept flowing.
Now, to paraphrase Port Huron, we are the elders of this generation looking uncomfortably to the world we leave behind as inheritance. The reforms we achieved are under constant assault from the right and stagnating with the passage of time.
We are in the process of a new beginning, signaled by the deep American discontent with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of more wars to come and the immense diversion of trillions of tax dollars from our needs at home for health care and affordable education. Like the ’60s, another imperial presidency is on the rise, unleashing covert military operations in multiple countries without serious congressional oversight or civic awareness. Like the ’60s, the long war leaves greater economic inequality and environmental depletion in its wake.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, “The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock,” just as we wrote at Port Huron. That unchanged economic inequality threatens political democracy at the core.
What can one say in the face of these terrible challenges, so reminiscent of yesteryear? Perhaps, just perhaps, the ripples of today’s student protest movements foreshadow a coming revolt of those who will not settle. Or perhaps today’s generation will accommodate and live the rest of their lives in a defensive crouch. Who can be sure? We know that movements begin unexpectedly. Rebellion begins anew, like a first flower forcing winter’s passing, as it happened in Ann Arbor in that springtime long ago. The Port Huron Statement is a message sent in a bottle, and participatory democracy a tradition for future rebels to drink from.
Tom Hayden is a founding member of the student activist group Students for a Democratic Society and a former Daily editor.