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Tom Hayden's Legend Started With the Prescient and Still Relevant Port Huron Statement

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Tom Hayden

Photo: Jay Godwin / Wikimedia Commons

Hayden, dead at 76, was a master strategist, brilliant speaker and long-distance runner for change.

Tom Hayden was a political prodigy: a visionary in his youth, he foresaw the political contours of the emerging counterculture in the 1960s as if he had a crystal ball. In many ways, Hayden’s greatest achievement was one his earliest: by largely authoring the founding statement of a radically new student organization, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Hayden gave political shape to a restless generation of young Americans eager to break with American practices of militarism and domination abroad and racism and repression at home.

The Port Huron statement, named after the city in Michigan where SDS leaders met in June 1962, presented a sharp break with political dissent in America. For the entire 20th century, leading up to the 1960s, radical politics in America was chiefly derived from European formulations. Left-wing Americans were deeply shaped by European socialism and Soviet (i.e., Russian) communism. The American Communist Party, by 1962, was bereft of ideas and morally bankrupt because of its allegiance to Soviet policies. The varieties of socialism then alive, if not flourishing, in the United States owed their collectivist character more to Europe than to the New Deal of 1930s Depression America. Throwing off the intellectual shackles of Europe, and giving life to an authentic American revolutionary thoughts, was nothing short of Hayden’s ambitious goal for both the Port Huron Statement and the SDS as a movement.

While the SDS faltered and failed by the end of the 1960s, riven by differences of tactics and interpretations, the ideals of the Port Huron lived on for decades. Even today, Hayden’s words can be read profitably by the activists engaged in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements.

In the wake of Hayden’s death on Sunday, what’s most worth remembering is his opening statement, titled “Agenda for a Generation.” Just as Bob Dylan spoke for young Americas in the early '60s, so did Hayden and his colleagues. The introduction begins modestly but ominously: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

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