With the tumult of the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement came the feeling that something momentous was happening.
For Tom Hayden and his peers, there truly was.
It has been 50 years since members of Students for a Democratic Society gathered in Port Huron to produce the Port Huron Statement.
The Statement defined their vision of "participatory democracy, a calling for students to take place in liberal causes across the country."
To celebrate the Statement’s 50th anniversary, the University of Michigan is holding a three-day conference entitled “A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in its Time and Ours.”
Tom Hayden, the writer who drafted and finalized the Port Huron Statement spoke with Cyndy about the document’s origination and what it means today.
Hayden’s perspective for the Statement was deeply rooted in literature and philosophy.
“I would say I was one of those non-conformists who read James Joyce. We tried to articulate at Port Huron what Joyce called, 'the uncreated conscious of our generation.' We were very influenced by Albert Camus. We were influenced by the Beat Generation. There was a generational exchange going on in Ann Arbor between our professors and ourselves. We were moved that there was a purpose to life that was worth dying for. Many thousands of people felt they were going to devote the rest of their lives to these causes,” said Hayden.
Hayden is equally as concerned now as he was in the past. For Hayden, environmental issues are of great importance.
“I think global warming is harder to manage than the nuclear arms race, but they’re both life-threatening factors,” he added.
Before describing the moment of the Statement’s draft, Hayden pauses, as if allowing the scene to fully manifest in his mind before vocally illustrating it.
But once it’s there, he shares it for all.
“It was similar to the founding fathers and mothers, I suppose. We knew we were in trouble. It started off in a spirit of being overwhelmed by the scale of the project but we found a participatory way to handle it. We broke it off into sections and formed groups of 12 to take the draft that I wrote and then debate it. It was ambitious stuff. They would then decide how to revise the draft and come back to the general assembly and people would make accommodations. When we were done, people felt that they had gone through a religious experience,” said Hayden.
Reading the actual text of the Statement is important to Hayden, otherwise one can easily get sidetracked in the wide variety of documents and ideas from the time.
“If you study this period, it is fascinating but you can get lost in it. Read the statement itself. It’s called ‘Inspiring Participatory Democracy’. The idea of participatory democracy is transcendent, if the representatives we elect are unable to deliver, people will try to claim dignity for themselves through direct action. The idea of participatory democracy is wider than the ballot box,” said Hayden.
Born at a time in society in which great change was occurring, Hayden hopes is document has remained applicable to modern times.
“You’ll find the document includes viewpoints because we were trying to build a coalition that would bring in other groups. It was not a dogmatic line. It was fluid. It said, ‘None of these things will happen unless you participate and we create a society where everyone’s dignity is respected.’ Students need to participate in a creative learning process,” said Hayden.
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