Before the winter iced over Occupy Ann Arbor’s encampment in Liberty Plaza last October, a small but sworn group of members gathered there for the local movement’s third meeting. For an achingly deliberate two hours, they ground out their decision-making procedures, dwelling on even the hand signals used to approve or disapprove motions.
But if the exercise was tedium to some members, who filed out before long, it was also the embodiment of the principles outlined in the Students for a Democratic Society’s manifesto, The Port Huron Statement. The manifesto, which turned 50 on June 15, called to action the most active generation of student protestors through what its authors termed “participatory democracy.”
“They viewed it as an agenda for action, and participatory democracy was both their goal and their message,” said History Prof. Howard Brick. “They wanted their own organizations and the movements that they joined to be models of participatory democracy and at the same time aim to change the whole society root and branch, from top to bottom, into a genuinely democratic society.”
That notion of participatory democracy, as both a means and an end, galvanized tens of thousands of students to protest nationwide. By the mid-1960s, SDS had printed 60,000 copies of the manifesto and was flourishing on college campuses from the University of Michigan to the University of Chicago to the University of Texas at Austin.
Guiding a generation of students through a national protest movement, the principles codified in the Statement became not just those of the movement but of the young students’ generation, the historian Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in his book “SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society.”
“The Port Huron Statement so thoroughly plumbed and analyzed the conditions of mid-century American society, and so successfully captured and shaped the spirit of the new student mood, that it became not only a statement of principles for the few hundred students around SDS, not only a political expression for the hundreds who were to come into the organization in succeeding years, but even more a summary of beliefs of the student generations as a whole,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
Among the authors of that summary were University students — principally Ann Arbor resident Alan Haber, who reconstituted SDS in 1960, and Tom Hayden, then-editor in chief of The Michigan Daily and the manifesto’s main author.
When SDS members gathered for a convention at a United Auto Workers retreat in Port Huron, Mich., on June 11, 1962 to draft the Statement, it had been a small group with a few hundred members and several chapters since 1960.
But the group, headed by Hayden, had more than a half-century of radical socialist movements, the burgeoning civil rights and peace movements and a current of intellectuals railing against what they saw as the post-war concentration of power and wealth to rest on for inspiration.
“When SDS came to write its manifesto, it had all those elements in its backpack,” Brick said. “It’s that long socialist heritage, the new critics, the intellectuals and the civil rights and peace movements — all of that together provided the stimulus and the clues for SDS for the manifesto.”
What emerged from the convention on June 15, 1962 was a 70-page agenda for action that at once waxed disenchanted and professed hope through the participatory democracy of grassroots movements aimed at overturning the social order from below.
While Haber and Hayden drove to Washington after the conference hoping they could seize President John F. Kennedy’s attention with the Statement, they never intended to ply the Statement through official channels, Brick said.
“The whole Statement was geared to the idea that they were engaged in promoting social protests and grassroots movement to change society, not that they were going to get the ear of the president and get officials to change things,” Brick said. “It was mass movement that they saw changing things, not a benevolent leader.”
In fact, one of the hallmarks of the manifesto was that it saw universities as pivotal hosts of the insurgent social movements.
“We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence (in pursuit of social change),” the manifesto read. “They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life. They must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power.”
The Statement and its principles still reverberate, even after SDS dissolved due to internal fractures in 1969.
Brick said Occupy Wall Street and its local offshoots, the Arab Spring and the student protests in Quebec, among others, are similar to the protests carried out in the 1960s by the New Left — the collective name of the activists who in the 1960s sought a “new left” that fought for social justice and equality.
“The Occupy movement, by advocating dramatic social change for the purposes of equality and justice, has something of the spirit of the old New Left, and its commitments to democratic practice resembles the New Left,” he said.