Fifty years ago this weekend, a group of students at a Michigan camp finished writing the Port Huron Statement, which was the manifesto for the activist group, Students for a Democratic Society. The principle author was Tom Hayden, who continued his activism throughout his life as well as being a legislator, teacher, and editor. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with Hayden about the occasion.
TOM HAYDEN: What everybody recalls was the Northern Lights exploding and coming out over our heads as we finished drafting this presumed agenda for our generation. It was a camp on the shore of Lake Huron that was owned at the time by the United Auto Workers, and we were 50 or 60 young people trying to form a student movement, which at the time was a very improbable concept.
MELISSA BENMARK: Improbable because?
HAYDEN: In the 60's, there would come to be millions of American students, I forget the number, but prior to that, when I was born, a much smaller number went to college. So, social movements were built around working class or racial minorities, not so much around the idea of students as agents of social change.
BENMARK: The Port Huron Statement became pretty much required reading for many social change groups in the 60's and way, way beyond that. When you were writing it at the time, who did you want to have read it?
HAYDEN: Well, I think a lot of it came from within. Many of us were part of religious traditions or political traditions and were trying to feel an inspiration, be ‘in the spirit,’ so to speak, and to find our own voice, really.
Secondly, of course, it had a purpose, external purpose. We were hoping other students would read it and join us. Beyond that, I don’t remember anybody having any long-term expectations. We did have a feeling that something very, very inspirational and unusual had just happened—the writing of the document itself.
BENMARK: If you were to pick out something that you’d like to be able to look in on fifty years from now—a trend, a thought, an idea, an action—that you think will play a role in the development and hopefully the evolution and not devolution of democracy, what do you think that would be?
HAYDEN: I think that the Internet provides a technical means that was not at our disposal…I used yellow pads and leaflets…a technical means for more people to receive and download more information, and I think we see that in the communication among student movements around the world. I can’t see beyond the Internet.
I do think that the Occupy Wall Street movement went wrong in not continuing to focus only on Wall Street. My experience is, whether it was Vietnam or segregated lunch counters, you had to keep going back again and again, getting arrested if necessary, resisting the draft if necessary. You had to stay on focus and eventually public opinion would come to your side, assuming you made some sense, and the institutions would give way.
So, I would like to see much more transparency on Wall Street, much more fairness, much more democratic control of it. Everybody knows it’s been usurped by an oligarchy and we need to return to a much more bottom-up form of economics.
I grew up in Royal Oak and I kind of loved my drug store and my local book stand, and I think that kind of small business combined with public schools, public universities that we had, needs to be preserved against the onslaught of Wall Street hierarchies. It seems to be out of control at least for now. It can’t last, it won’t last, but I hope I’m around to see some kind of change in that area.