In June 1962, 59 activists, mostly students, were holed up in a United Auto Workers (UAW) camp in Port Huron, Michigan. They were debating the contents of a manifesto that, they hoped, would be a clarion call to build a movement of college students to challenge the state of American society: the hypocrisy of racial segregation, the overblown rhetoric of the Cold War, the pervasiveness of poverty in the world’s richest nation, and the apathy of its citizenry.

The discussions were personal, intense, and dramatic. At one point, after the group had adjourned for the night, the lead author of the draft, Tom Hayden (’61), unrolled his sleeping bag in the doorway between the meeting room and the cafeteria, where everyone would eat breakfast. The delegates would literally have to trip over him—and wake him up—before resuming their discussion. He didn’t want to miss anything.

SDS self-destructed in 1969, but despite its short existence, it achieved mythical status among both the celebrants and detractors of 1960s activism. It also contributed to U-M’s reputation as an activist campus. But what did this short-lived group really achieve, if anything? SDS was, after all, a bunch of white, middle-class students inspired by the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament, labor activism, socialism, and Communism. They embraced existing causes, but their novel way of framing them attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

On the 50-year anniversary of the publication of The Port Huron Statement, scholars, participants, and alumni weigh in on what changed because of SDS—and, perhaps equally important, what didn’t.

Civil Rights Roots

In the years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery bus boycott, when the specter of the H-bomb haunted humanity and Sputnik challenged American hegemony, student activists were building the foundations of a mass movement. In 1960, Alan Haber (’65), a longtime campus radical, organized SDS at U-M with the broad vision of focusing on national and international issues that could unite students on multiple campuses.

Haber and Sharon Jeffrey (’63) formed the early SDS leadership core. In 1960, they organized the conference “Human Rights in the North,” the first of its kind at U-M. They invited the students from North Carolina A&T College, who had famously staged  sit-ins at a racially segregated F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Greensboro students captivated the nation, and they and others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attended the conference.

“[The conference] was a meeting place for . . . black and white and students and labor and church. That’s really where the first relationships of trust and mutual humanity began in the development of SDS,” says Haber.

Around that same time, another campus activist was making waves: editor of the Michigan Daily, Tom Hayden (’61).

In 1960, Hayden was working with other students to oust Deborah Bacon, the Dean of Women, who was known for her draconian enforcement of paternalistic standards for U-M’s female students, whose private lives she tracked. Hayden and other students pursued the matter with the Board of Regents, forcing Dean Bacon to resign.

Shortly thereafter, Hayden was recruited to SDS.

As the southern civil rights movement gained greater national attention, SDS used its multi-campus network and its ties to southern activists to help build a group of sympathetic white activists in the North. In its early days, SDS dedicated most of its attention to the civil rights movement, but the group advocated for a wide range of issues—student civil liberties, economic equality, and others—within the framework of a broad critique of American society. With its lively, seminar-style discussions, SDS also offered a welcome antidote for students frustrated with an often banal classroom atmosphere.

SDS, under Haber’s leadership as president, grew. The organization wanted to articulate a vision for not only SDS, but also for a broader student movement. In December 1961, the leadership met in Ann Arbor and selected Hayden to draft a manifesto that would do just that.

In late May 1961, Hayden was sequestered in his New York City apartment, trying to finish the first draft of the manifesto in time for the June 12 convention, where its discussion, debate, and revision would dominate the agenda.

Hayden finished a draft with less than two weeks to spare, and he joined 58 other activists from SDS and beyond at a UAW camp in Port Huron for the convention. Sharon Jeffrey utilized the connections of her mother—a UAW activist—to secure the venue at the last minute.

The camp pulsed with activity and enthusiasm, and the attendees split into groups to consider various sections of the draft. After days of debate, with little sleep, the attendees approved a revised draft, with suggestions for more changes. Before they departed, Hayden was elected the second SDS president.

“We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” This paragraph—with echoes of the Constitution, allusions to America’s post-war prosperity, and explicit emphasis on young people—opened The Port Huron Statement.

Membership in Students for a Democratic Society burgeoned after the Port Huron Statement was signed and helped propel demonstrations like this one on State Street in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War. Pictured here, just to the right of the car (left to right), are Diana Oughton, William C. Ayers, and Milton "Skip" Taube.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Not Entirely New

The manifesto presented a comprehensive critique of the American political system. The verdict: It was broken. The Democratic Party was held hostage by racist Dixiecrats, a segregationist offshoot; the Cold War threatened to destroy humanity with two superpowers strategizing mutually assured destruction; rabid anti-Communism was often a red herring that distracted politicians from tackling real social ills; the wealthiest country in the world had substantial numbers of citizens living in squalor; and postwar prosperity had bred complacency.

None of this was entirely new. These were common critiques among leftist groups of the era, and many had already been working for years on these causes. What made The Port Huron Statement so important is that it linked all of these issues into a single, larger cause with a unique vision: It called for the radical transformation of the American political system, and it called on student activists in universities to help lead the way toward building a “participatory democracy” that involved citizens in all of the day-to-day decisions.

“The most important thing about SDS is that they connected issues in a fresh way. That’s what made them a radical organization, and what made them distinctive and appealing to many people,” says Howard Brick (’75, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’83), the Louis Evans Professor of History in LSA.

The Port Huron Statement gave activists the language with which to articulate their ideas for social change. It called on radicals to challenge the established order as a whole. This strategy instantly made every leftist student protest action on every campus part of the same cause. Want to challenge segregation in the South? Fight for free political speech at your northern college so you can spread the word about SNCC and the struggle for civil rights. Want to build a participatory democracy nationwide? Start organizing the disenfranchised in an underprivileged neighborhood near your campus.

Many of the Port Huron participants felt they were on the verge of something big, even as they were participating.

The Port Huron Statement wrote us, not the other way around,” recalls Hayden. “In other words, there were feelings in the air, blowing in the wind, that made it possible for us to articulate a yearning, a protest, a strategy, and a vision—of students as the catalysts of a great social movement leading towards a more participatory democracy.”

An estimated 60,000 copies of The Port Huron Statement were sold or distributed in the 1960s, though this certainly underestimates the number of people who actually read it. It’s easy to imagine dog-eared copies passed among dozens of like-minded friends. Beyond these numbers, it was cited and anthologized by other leftist publications.

Brick is careful to note that “a publication does not create movements. Movements provide the seedbed for publications.” The Port Huron Statement can be viewed as a reflection of the times, a deep look into the movement’s underpinnings, as opposed to a recipe for action.

After the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964, the Johnson administration dramatically escalated military action in Vietnam. In March of 1965, U-M professors and students—with SDS participation—held an all-night teach-in on the Vietnam conflict. It attracted thousands of students and was copied on campuses nationwide. In April, SDS played the key role in organizing the “March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam,” the first national protest against the growing war. It attracted an estimated 25,000 activists.

The anti-war cause took off, in part, because it was building upon the participants and networks established by more than a decade of work by proponents of civil rights, nuclear disarmament, student activism, and women’s rights.

“The anti-war movement was the product of these movements synthesized into one,” says Brick. And SDS grew along with the broader anti-war movement. With scores of chapters at campuses nationwide, and with its ability to incorporate Vietnam into its broader political critique, SDS was well placed to receive a huge influx of anti-war students. Membership exploded.

An Earthquake in the Bedrock of Society

By 1968, SDS had an estimated 100,000 members at more than 300 campuses. It was the nation’s largest radical student membership organization, and its members and leaders were seemingly omnipresent at nearly every significant student protest.

Then, at the height of protest activism in the late 1960s, SDS fell apart.

1968 witnessed a series of cataclysms including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the Tet Offensive; and the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Different factions within SDS debated how to respond, and the group simply could not contain the divergence of opinion.

In 1969, the group split into rival factions, and one of the splinter groups, the Weathermen, co-founded by Bill Ayers (A.B. ’68), embraced violence. By then, Hayden, Haber, and Jeffrey were long gone.

“The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, they really did attack rather fundamental aspects of the way American society was organized and its conventional rationales, notions of ‘American’ values,” says Brick.

“It was like an earthquake in the bedrock of society. Protest unleashed forces—sharp conflict, reaction, and repression—that these groups simply didn’t have the institutional strength or the experience to withstand.”

Still, SDS remains an important element of a phalanx of New Left groups dedicated to social change during the time.

Beyond its roles in the civil rights and anti-war movements, SDS membership and alumni went on to play prominent roles in women’s liberation and gay and lesbian liberation movements. The Port Huron Statement has reflected and shaped the goals and aspirations of countless activists around the world.

That’s not to say SDS was faultless while it was in existence. Perhaps most egregiously, women were largely relegated to minor, if any, leadership roles. Others have argued that, at key moments in the 1960s, SDS opted for the wrong course, choosing to embrace a multitude of projects instead of concentrating its efforts on a few strategic fronts.

These debates have raged for 50 years. Scholars, SDS alumni, and activists old and new will be able to make their case at the conference, “A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in Its Time and Ours,” which takes place on U-M’s campus from October 31–November 2, 2012.

“The 50th anniversary gives us a chance to study how radical dissent back then took on new life after a time of conservatism, the Cold War 1950s,” says Brick, one of the lead conference organizers. “The resurgence of protest around the world during the last two years has stirred a lot of interest in the 1960s New Left. Everyone’s talking about the parallels—and the differences—between that time and ours.”

The conference will bring Hayden, Haber, Jeffrey, and others back to campus. It’s unlikely any of them will be occupying administrative buildings. Now, the radicals are honored guests.

Sources: Echols, Alice. “‘Nothing Distant About It:’ Women’s Liberation and Sixties Radicalism,” in David Farber, ed., The Sixties: From Memory to History (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1994), pp. 149–74. Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (Hill and Wang, New York, 1994).Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam Books, New York, 1993). Hayden, Tom. The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2005). Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, New York, 1987). Klimke, Martin. The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and the United States in the Global Sixties (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011). Miller, James. “Democracy Is in the Streets:” From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987). Smith, Allen. “Present at the Creation...and Other Myths: The Port Huron Statement and the Origins of the New Left,” Peace & Change 25 (2000). Walker, Linda Robinson. “The Last Dean of Women,” Michigan Today (Summer 2002).
Photo (top): C. Clark Kissinger

This article will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of LSA Magazine