A conference featuring 1960s Movement old-timers, held just days before a presidential election, would seem to have invited instant obscurity. “A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement In Its Time and Ours,” held in Ann Arbor, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, also bent low under the unexpected burden of the Superstorm Sandy. New Yorkers and New Jerseyites arrived by Skype (if their buildings had regained power) or mostly, not at all. Still, it was sweet. Graduate students and young professors, undergrads and community members in the audience had a lot to say to each other and, with luck, to a wider audience through networks personal and political.
Someone commented on the near-total absence of leaflets and petition forms. Politeness, no doubt with a dash of weariness, prevailed on this front. There was, for that matter, nothing that seemed to bring out yesteryear’s rhetorical violence among the nonviolent. Obama-haters on the Left were hard to find, and in general people had come from near and far to reminisce, mull, and above all renew acquaintances decades old, very possibly for the last time.
The high point in terms of audience size was surely Tom Hayden’s evening address to a more-than-packed auditorium, with sound-and-image systems set up remotely because of the overflow audience, heavily weighted to campus undergrads. He pleaded, before beginning, that he had slept little in two nights. But as a power point began to show old photos of people from the original Port Huron event, Hayden perked right up. Once again, he had a considerable crowd in his grasp and he knew it, joking, usually in a self-denigrating fashion, and then making one political point after another about the social and ecological crisis in front of us all, and the necessity to gather strength from collective memory as well as collective resolve. By the end, he had the crowd on its feet, as might have been predicted.
But let’s go back a bit.
What was “Port Huron” and the Port Huron Statement, now fifty years gone by, anyway? Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was rooted in the old Intercollegiate Socialist Society founded at mostly Eastern elite schools, plus the University of Wisconsin and a few others way back in the 1910s. The Intercollegiate Socialist Society had become the Student League for Industrial Democracy by the early 1930s. SLID, in Madison and elsewhere, led the largest students protests, mainly in the middle 1930s, against the threat of a future war. The threat of fascism ended this phase, and SLID made a tepid recovery in the Cold War 1950s, until a 1960 announcement of new identity or at least a new name. A large handful of student government, leaders including future luminaries like Hayden and Todd Gitlin, drew inspiration from the 1960 election and the glowing promise of the Kennedy administration’s vaunted liberalism—and youth.
At the Port Huron conference, held at a United Auto Workers summer camp on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan, a few dozen young men and women spent days and nights discussing a draft of a manifesto drafted by Hayden. Erstwhile editor of the Michigan Daily, already a recognized figure in Democratic politics and even in the White House, Hayden was a grandly talented wordsmith. But when he was to claim, on a half dozen campuses this year, that the Port Huron Statement “wrote us” rather than being written by this little group, he had a point. It was a generational statement about weariness with the Cold War mentality and the treatment of American young people as mere cogs in a great economic machine. On the positive side, it contained idealistic hope for the success of the civil rights movement (all on hand were activists, albeit few nonwhite themselves), and a desire to make the world anew by realizing Americans’ best aspirations. Nobody had written like this in a long time. Soon after it sold as a twenty-five-cent pamphlet, and it powered SDS intellectually toward a key role in the 1960s student movement.
This fall’s conference, proposed and guided by Michigan intellectual historian Howard Brick, was a pretty big production. Significant finance for travel and logistics, dozens of notables, ex-notables and plain rank and filers come from considerable distances. Cultural figures (poet/novelist Marge Piercy among them) as well as scholars of the Movement too young to have been in it (Alice Echols, Sarah Leonard, Marilyn Young by Skype among others), and the surviving savants (Todd Gitlin and Richard Flacks, most notably) all made themselves heard to sometimes intense audiences.
A little pamphlet, “Paul Potter in His Own Words,” had been created for the donation of the late SDS president’s papers to Michigan’s famed Labadie Collection, offered a powerful reminder of the ideas and times past on the minds of many present. Potter had famously provided the oratory at the April, 1965, March on Washington that roused a massive antiwar, radical movement into existence. It was a cry of anguish but also a determined indictment of American liberalism’s failures, as the Vietnam War exemplified the decisions of the White House and its vaunted wise men. “We must name the system!”—Potter’s own famous phrase. Quotes in the pamphlet recapitulated, from a later point in life, the student leader’s deeper logic. He did not want to say “Capitalism” because, for him and others, that would be a retreat to an old and tired logic. The social system was more than economics. He and his fellow SDSers (including myself, standing amid the crowd, like others barely able to contain my own emotions) wanted, he explained, “a name to describe what was wrong with America [and] that had authentic political content for us.”
There was more C. Wright Mills than Marx in these phrases, just as in the Port Huron Statement, and more than a small dose of French philosopher Albert Camus as well. These young people of the early 1960s were crypto-existentialists, but remarkably clean cut. In the photos of Port Huron, some of them were uneasy even about raising their fists for a photo (civil rights had taught them not to symbolize violence). They were trying hard to find their peers. And they succeeded, even if most of them faded out of SDS by the middle 1960s, leaving the organization to youngsters more scruffy, more openly radical, and at least for a few crucial years, too wrapped up in real organizing to be bothered much with further manifestos (a few were attempted, none impressed much of anyone).
Ann Arbor, the original home of the new SDS and its determined organizers, turned out to be the perfect place to regather if not exactly recommence—next door, so to speak, from Wisconsin and the La Follette legacy so recently refreshed by the Uprising. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to summarize the conversations. But the impending election underlined the distance traveled since the heady days of Kennedy liberalism, however swiftly brought down.
SDS, as many speakers reminded their audience and themselves, had based itself upon the successes, strategies and hopes of the civil rights movement more than anything else. A new movement of young people was destined (they thought) to bring into being a “beloved community” of all races, renouncing not only violence but also class privilege (“We are not middle class!” Paul Potter insisted, even in the face of contrary facts.) By speaking truth to power, by plunging themselves into the lives of ordinary people, they would not so much provide a vision but precipitate the visioning around them in ever-widening circles.
Pretty naïve, as young people can easily be when a new era seems to be opening. As young (and not so young) people were in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, and for similarly interracial reasons. Against the realities of late October 2012, tempered more by anxiety than buoyed by optimism, the Origins Story of the Students for a Democratic Society seemed very distant. And yet, not totally unfamiliar nor completely irrelevant for today’s woes and potential joys, either. The actors had grown old. The need for a radical movement of some kind, unburdened of familiar ideological language and claims, had become greater than ever.
Paul Buhle, along with Mari Jo Buhle and Dan Georgakas, edited the Encyclopedia of the American Left.
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