UC Santa Barbara recently played host to community activists, students, faculty, and staff members gathered in celebration and reflection during a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement’s creation as a historic manifesto penned by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Richard Flacks, Professor of Sociology emeritus at UCSB and one of the original signers of the Port Huron Statement, opened up the conference with a speech titled “What Happened at Port Huron.” In it, Flacks discussed the broader cultural, social, and political movement gripping the minds of American university students in the 1970s, as well as their source of passion and desire for a new participatory democracy different than what their elders may have desired.
“It was the willingness to believe that your actions can change the world,” Flacks declared. “Yet, what was it about this movement that the youth knew more than the old and could reshape the world?”
In 1962, a group of students expressed their desires and demands for a more progressive, democratic, and tolerant society through the drafting of the Port Huron Statement. As audience members watched video clips and documentaries featuring interviews with other Port Huron and SDS members and signers, they were exposed to multiple perspectives depicting the same sentiment: something new and dramatic was happening at Port Huron, and members were seeking to ignite a better consciousness amongst older generations.
“With the moral collapse of the communist movements, there was a need for a new left created on new terms,” described Flacks. “And there was empowering evidence that structures and powers could be overturned as ordinary people all over the world were getting together in defiance.”
While Flacks recounted his experiences and memories of Port Huron, he began to shift focus and attention towards the actions and endeavors of the keynote speaker of the evening: Tom Hayden, the principal drafter of the Port Huron Statement and co-founder of SDS.
“Tom was a leader,” Flacks said. “He went to Vietnam to protest the war, pursued an elective office career, got a over a million votes as a progressive activist, and served 20 years in the California state legislature.”
As Flacks introduced Hayden to conference members, he also touched upon Hayden’s academic career and interests as a published author and scholar.
“Tom Hayden has written more books than any of us in academia ever wish we could, with more variety than we could ever dream of,” stated Flacks. “He is still our teacher.”
Once Hayden took center stage at the podium, he began discussing how the goals and issues addressed in the pages of the Port Huron Statement were still relevant within today’s society. He described the reactions of students in a class he is currently teaching at UCLA when they read through the Port Huron Statement for an assignment.
“It’s interesting and morbid how many students read it today and are startled to see how similar their situations are,” expressed Hayden. “I think this shows how glamorized social movements of the past are.”
Hayden described the Port Huron Statement as a letter in a bottle going out to future generations encouraging direct action by students by creating a participatory democracy, trying to understand what it is to be inspired. He also touched upon a concept put forth by author Henry Thoreau describing the need to vote with your whole life, not just a piece of paper.
“Participatory democracy is relevant within all other movements,” declared Hayden.
Hayden also discussed how the internet as an open source of information and communication could encourage the growth of participatory democracies on a global scale by allowing users to vote or chat on anything they wish.
However, Hayden not only touched upon the golden moments of the social movement perpetuated by the Port Huron Statement, but also the dark moments when the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy threatened to arrest or altogether stop the momentum and clamoring of social change.
“We bought into the idea that could be a peaceful transition in society,” Hayden stated. “You never factor in assassination within a social movement, it’s a huge factor the historians don’t cover.”
Hayden attributed the eventual impediment of the social movement fostered by the Port Huron Statement to a number of factors, namely the communist stigma attached to it by critics and oppressors, as well government officials impersonating SDS leaders, spying on meetings, and targeting student leaders.
“It seemed like every chapter leader was an FBI agent,” said Hayden. “And many people were targeted for termination; Flacks was a target.”
Then again, Hayden also said that the Port Huron Statement and its signers encouraged the accomplishment and realization of many of its goals and agenda items, discontinuing the need for direct action by organizers.
“Most people are in meetings because they’re missing something in their everyday life,” Hayden explained. “Once they get it, they don’t go to more meetings, they tend to enjoy it.”
Hayden’s final reflection was on how he considered his generation to be the “might-have-been generation” within American history.
“We never discovered what it was like to have power,” Hayden concluded. “But, I believe, looking back 50 years at Port Huron, that we were right.”