The Port Huron Statement was drafted in 1962 by university students
who had organized themselves into a group called Students for a Democratic
Society, or SDS. Anyone with an inkling of the history of the 1960s
will remember the SDS as being one of the more radical revolutionary
campus groups of that time. In 1962, however, the SDS was visionary
and innocent, not yet tainted – as everything else came to be – by
America's war in Vietnam.
One founding member of the SDS who helped draft the statement was
Tom Hayden, former state Senator from California. Hayden wrote an
article for the Nation Magazine on August 5th, 2002, noting
the 40 year anniversary of the Port Huron Statement and describing
the purpose behind its inception.
" The original idea," wrote Hayden, "conceived at a winter meeting
in Ann Arbor in 1961, was modest: to produce an organizing tool for
the movement we were trying to spread through SDS. Then the statement
became more audacious. The roughly sixty young people who finalized
the statement during a week at a United Auto Workers retreat in Port
Huron, Michigan, experienced what one could only call an inspirational
moment. As the words flowed night and day, we felt we were giving
voice to a new generation of rebels.
"Like today, 1962 was a time when many students were waking up, but
the vast majority were smothered in apathy. We couldn't resist racism
and war, we realized, without first piercing this freezing indifference
bred by affluence, conformity and the legacy of McCarthyism. The vast
majority of students internalized the message of their elders that
they were too young, too inexperienced, too unqualified to make a
difference. Most students could not vote, and the universities acted
as our substitute parents under the doctrine of in loco parentis.
Nor was there much record of student activism in American history
to bolster us. In the class discourse of the traditional left, students
amounted to nothing. But now the black student revolt in the South
was setting an example of a different way to see ourselves in history.
On some campuses, professors and students were questioning the cold
war arms race. There were stirrings on the fringe, too, where students
were listening to Bob Dylan and rock and roll. SDS represented the
first defections from the mainstream.
"It was no wonder, then, that the statement was inspired by participatory
democracy. Participation is what we were denied, and what we hungered
for. Without it, there was no dignity. Parents and professors lectured
us, administrators ordered us, draft boards conscripted us, the whole
system channeled us, all to please authority and take our place in
line. Now it was our turn. What became a worldwide youth revolt began,
it should be remembered, in the multiple failures of the elders."
What Hayden and the SDS sought with the drafting of the Port Huron
Statement was the creation of a New Left in America. The Old Left
was dead, murdered by associations with Stalin's perverted version
of Communism and by Joe McCarthy's Red Scare jihad. This New Left
would be based upon the idea of participatory democracy, a revolution
within the social fabric of America that would bring the people once
and for all into a functional marriage with the government that purported
to represent them.
The SDS saw the bedrock of this revolution based on the campuses
of America, within the hears and minds of young people who needed
to be convinced of their strength within the society. The Port Huron
Statement pointed to a variety of social ills permeating America in
1962 – the civil rights struggle, an economy based upon war, the grinding
apathy that gripped the citizenry, and the gulf between laborers and
the economy they worked to improve – as areas that participatory democracy
would help to cure.
The ideas espoused by the Port Huron Statement were torn to shreds,
as was much of the American social fabric, by our bloody war in Southeast
Asia. "But we could not imagine," wrote Hayden in The Nation, "that
Vietnam was just around the corner. The Port Huron Statement made
just a passing reference condemning aid to the South Vietnamese dictatorship.
Unexpectedly, the American commitment deepened in the year following
Port Huron. When the moment of choice arrived in 1964-65, the Democratic
administration sent 150,000 troops to Vietnam, guaranteeing that the
commitment to ending poverty and racism would ebb. The visionary promise
of Port Huron died on a battlefield that triggered a radical polarization
instead of reform at home."
Many dreams were destroyed in that turbulent time. The promise of
the Port Huron Statement was one. The concept of a New Left was another
– the anger and strife created by Vietnam rent the Left into a thousand
pieces, wounds that persist to this day. Yet the relevance of the
Port Huron Statement lives on, both in our everyday lives and in this
"The Port Huron Statement claimed to be articulating an 'agenda for
a Generation,'" Wrote Hayden. "Some of that agenda has been fulfilled:
The cold war is no more, voting rights for blacks and youth have been
won, and much has changed for the better in the content of university
curriculums. Yet our dreams have hardly been realized. The Port Huron
Statement was composed in the heady interlude of inspiration between
the apathetic 1950s and the 1960s' sudden traumas of political assassinations
and body counts.
"Forty years later, we may stand at a similar crossroads. The war
on terrorism has revived the cold war framework. An escalating national
security state attempts to rivet our attention and invest our resources
on fighting an elusive, undefined enemy for years to come, at the
inevitable price of our civil liberties and continued neglect of social
justice. To challenge the framework of the war on terrorism, to demand
a search for real peace with justice, is as difficult today as challenging
the cold war was at Port Huron. Yet there is a new movement astir
in the world, against the inherent violence of globalization, corporate
rule and fundamentalism, that reminds us strongly of the early 1960s.
Is history repeating? If so, "participatory democracy" and the priorities
of Port Huron continue to offer clues to building a committed movement
toward a society responsive to the needs of the vast majority."
This Manifesto does not seek to reinvent the 1960s. Those days are
dead, and a new reality has encompassed us all. But the spirit of
the Port Huron Statement and the desperate need for participatory
democracy in this most dangerous time for America still stands unassailed.
It is in the spirit of the Port Huron Statement that we stand behind
this Manifesto, for the passion which generated it lives on today.
Now, more than ever, that ethic must be spoken aloud for all to hear.
The Port Huron Statement can be read in its entirety here: