Tom Hayden: 1960s Activist Icon

May 3, 2013

Tom Hayden has been called the grandfather of the 1960s American Peace Movement.

One of the Chicago Seven and a founding member of the SDS, Hayden helped write the seminal document establishing the New Left—the Port Huron Statement. In conversation with KNAU’s Constance DeVereaux, Hayden, now 73, looks back on a life of activism and the motivation for drafting that statement.

HAYDEN: I guess we were looking for a way to systematically string these issues together. At the heart of it was a complaint that our generation faced an intolerable apathy, the threat of a nuclear war, the embarrassment and paradox of discrimination, and poverty. The solution, we thought, was for students to become catalysts, or agents of change. They could create a form of action—direct action—as well as organizing that would bring about a democracy of participation as opposed to just occasionally voting. That’s where the core idea of a participatory democracy came from.

DEVEREAUX; Do you think that someone reading the original document might think that with just a few tweaks rather than major revisions that you could release it tomorrow and it would still be timely? Or, is it really just historical?

HAYDEN; It’s definitely relevant. But, I mean, you’re talking about something we wrote as 21 year olds 50 years ago. So, you know, this is before the Women’s Movement. This is before Silent Spring about the environment and the pesticides by Rachel Carson. This is before the murder of John Kennedy, before the launching of the ground war in Vietnam, the draft, all that. So it stands as the expression of a moment. I do think there is something poignant about it because it was so full of promise and I know for a fact that students pick up on it right away and it depresses them because they say it sounds like now when they’re not really aware of all the improvements in their lives. So, it’s kind of bittersweet. But, definitely, despite being quaint, students engage in it; especially activists. There’s a reference to the one percent controlling the wealth. It appears in a footnote, I think, on page 27 or something like that. They seize on that, you know. What did you do about the one percent?

DEVEREAUX: There’s one sentence in the statement that has always sort of puzzled me. It says: Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. What does that mean and were you in fact the last generation?

HAYDEN: No, we survived. But it was very apocalyptic. I don’t know if that’s because we were young. You have to understand that while this sounds over the top only six months later we went through the Cuban missile crisis and I was in Washington, protesting and I remember being told that the missiles were actually about to launch. It was a very traumatic time we were living through. I think that that’s what that sentence is about.