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Remembering Civil Rights and Peace Activist Tom Hayden

Author and activist Tom Hayden (1939-2016) poses before signing copies of his book, Ending The War in Iraq, at Book Soup in Los Angeles in 2007. (Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Tom Hayden is perhaps best known as the principal author of the Port Huron Statement, the central document of the Students for a Democratic Society, written in June 1962. It declared “we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation.”

On the fiftieth anniversary of that document, Hayden, who died Sunday at age 76, spoke at numerous events, revisiting its history. “Recently,” he wrote in 2012, “I saw the same spirit I had witnessed in the South fifty years ago—the spirit that inspired the Port Huron Statement—in the actions of undocumented undergraduates risking deportation to stand up for the Dream Act. I saw it in the Wisconsin movement to recall Governor Scott Walker, and in Occupy Wall Street's insistence that 1 percent of the population shouldn't control such a vast portion of the country's wealth.”

Hayden, who cut his teeth working in the civil rights movement in the south and in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey, first wrote for The Progressive in January 1962. His article, “Mission in McComb,” chronicled his time working on voter registration in Mississippi. “Even when the Negro gains the right to vote,” he wrote, “his ordeal is not yet over. He finds that opposing white factions contesting for his support leave him far from free.”

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In 1969, Hayden was indicted and tried for conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His conviction, as a member of the "Chicago Seven," was overturned on appeal.

In August 2004, Hayden made an impassioned call for demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. “Protest,” he wrote, “is a sacred resource of American society. It begins with radical minorities at the margins, eventually marching into the mainstream . . . . Prophetic minorities instigated the American Revolution, ended slavery, achieved the vote for women, made trade unions possible, and saved our rivers from becoming sewers.”

Despite his roots in radical organizing, Hayden also sought to work within the system, serving in the California state assembly for ten years, and in the state senate for eight. In 2012, following President Obama’s second victory, Hayden wrote in The Progressive: “Sadly, many angry white radical critics of Obama may have isolated themselves even further from this enthusiastic popular upsurge. Reading their intense blogging and listening to their rage on Pacifica [radio], one almost had the sense that they there were disappointed in Obama's success. A quick survey indicates that third party candidates failed to make any difference whatsoever in the elections in battleground states.” He continued to advocate for an “inside-outside alliance” between the political establishment and the “party of the streets.”

Hayden was a fierce critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of President Obama’s use of drones as a tool of foreign policy, writing, “The tangled path to ending U.S. drone strikes will be mapped through diplomacy, courtroom challenges, activist protests, and pressure on the mainstream media to challenge official secrecy.”

Hayden called Walker’s victory in the 2012 recall elections “heartbreaking,” but not necessarily the last word: “Electoral campaigns are governed by deadlines and voting results, unlike social movements, which can ebb and flow for decades. The pain of a stunning defeat inevitably takes a psychic toll on its participants, similar in ways to a seven-game World Series. It takes time to recover, and some never will. But politics never stops.”

Tom Hayden’s activism, optimism for the possibility of change, and efforts to pass on his legacy of activism to another generation will be sorely missed.

Norman Stockwell

Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive magazine.

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