Port Huron Statement turns 50

Original copies of the Port Huron Statement sold for 35 cents.

Original copies of the Port Huron Statement sold for 35 cents.

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

So begins the legendary Port Huron Statement (PHS), the 75-page manifesto published June 15, 1962, that would come to define the historic student movement of the 1960s.

“The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today,” the document states. “On such a basis do we offer our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late 20th century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.”

“It must have been something in the air, something blowing in the wind,” principal author and former Michigan Daily editor-in-chief Tom Hayden, ’61, has said of the document’s genesis. “And we wanted to write an agenda for our generation.”

“They” were the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an idealistic group of activists at the University of Michigan. With publication of the PHS they would spawn a national movement heralding the New Left. Some 60,000 copies of the document were printed and sold between 1962-66; millions would look to its persuasive and powerful content as a template to focus and channel their collective discontent.

In fact, the statement’s rallying cry for “participatory democracy” still reverberates five decades later in today’s Occupy movement.

The context

In 1962 the state of Michigan was surfing the crest of the great post-World War II economic tidal wave. Detroit owned 92.2 percent of the domestic car market. Gas was 31 cents a gallon, a McDonald’s burger cost 15 cents, and most calls were made via landline by way of clunky rotary telephones.

That March, when University of Minnesota dropout Bob Dylan released his debut album, America had enough nuclear weapons to decimate the earth five times over. School children were trained to duck and cover with the illusion they could survive atomic annihilation. Few Americans had yet to hear of Vietnam, and no one could have envisioned that vital and charismatic President John F. Kennedy had just 20 months to live.

In many Southern U.S. towns, African Americans couldn’t even register to vote. With a voting age of 21, many college students couldn’t, either. In fact, students actually were legal wards of the college they attended (in loco parentis), answering to dorm counselors who enforced strict curfews and rules like “two couples, three legs on the floor, please.”

The times, they needed changing. And campuses, stated the PHS, needed reform: “The university is the only mainstream institution that is open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.”

The architects

In the 50 years since its initial publication, Hayden has attracted the bulk of media attention surrounding the Port Huron Statement. He wrote much of the original text and served as its high-profile articulator and leader of its execution. But it’s the lesser-known Robert Alan (Al) Haber, ’65, still living in Ann Arbor, who is credited as the “big brain,” the “visionary,” and the “indispensable element” of the student movement.

As the founder of SDS, Haber was elected its first president in 1960. He spent the first few years building the organizational and intellectual foundation that would support Henry David Thoreau’s call of “voting with your whole body.” In the SDS, Haber had established an educational association that, in his words, was “concerned with building a responsible and articulate left in universities and to extending the influence of this community into the political life of society more generally.” After one of the organization’s first meetings he wrote, “Pessimism and cynicism have given way to direct action.”Hayden, meanwhile, was quickly evolving from student editor into student activist. He gravitated toward Haber, a “bald, smooth-skinned, bespectacled man of average height, trim in build,” who lived in a garret behind the Daily office. As their collaboration gained momentum, the response to the changing times itself began to change.

Haber’s late father, William, was an economics professor at Michigan who helped author Social Security legislation. He ascended to dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in 1965. “I happen to be living on a college campus, an exciting and vital group of 25,000,” he told a reporter at the time. “They are students coming out of their shells; they are talking about ideas and ideals. They are thinking beyond the vocational purposes which brought them to a college or university campus.”

Tom Hayden as a U-M student. (Photo courtesy of Tom Hayden.)

Tom Hayden as a U-M student. (Photo courtesy of Tom Hayden.)

How many roads?

Much of the PHS was informed by Hayden’s experience inside the Civil Rights movement. He’d joined the Freedom Riders and participated in the fight to register disenfranchised African American voters. After being beaten and jailed, he dedicated himself to composing a call to action targeting the nation’s youth, relaying what he saw and felt and, most importantly, how to make it better. He took inspiration from Yale sociologist C. Wright Mills and Thoreau, mixed in some Jack Kerouac and James Dean, and drafted a 50-page document that described his alternative to a life of “apathetic absurdity.”

Haber, Hayden, and a handful of SDS members organized a conference to discuss Hayden’s working treatise. The resulting work would take its name from this June 1962 event, based at a United Auto Workers Retreat on Lake Huron. In the course of five days, more than 60 student activists from New York to California hunkered down in rustic, beachfront cabins at Port Huron’s FDR Camp (now known as Lakeport State Park) to hash out, then publish the consensus document that would change the course of American social and political history.

Attendees included Michigan philosophy professor Arnold Kaufman, who, Hayden takes great pains to point out, coined the term participatory democracy, which is still invoked five decades later across the contentious political spectrum. Michael Harrington, author of the influential book on American poverty, The Other America, and Harold Taylor, then-president of Sarah Lawrence College, also participated.

The group structured plenary meetings around the “bones” of the document, which each got an hour’s debate. Relatively important issues became “widgets” and were given a half-hour; minor issues or “gizmos” got five minutes. Then, according to Hayden, people broke out into small democratic groups “to sit around tables, or under trees, drinking coffee, taking notes, arguing animatedly.” Ultimately the group presented the content in eight sections: values; the role of students; American politics; the economic system; racism; communism; foreign policy; and the nuclear issue.”

Tom Hayden (far left) and members of the SDS at a national council meeting. (Photo by C. Clark Kissinger.)

Tom Hayden (far left) and members of the SDS at a national council meeting. (Photo by C. Clark Kissinger.)

The Marxists in attendance left the table wanting a lot more. Utopians, wanting everything, ended up with nothing. But Hayden has since pointed out the greater goal was to reach “consensus, points of agreement, ideas that could lead to joint action.”After some long, sometimes acrimonious days and nights, the PHS emerged as a blueprint for students concerned not only with transforming their universities but also reforming voting rights, ending racial discrimination, stopping the nuclear arms race, and reorienting the economy to form a more enlightened egalitarian society reflecting Kaufman’s participatory democracy. Richard Schrader, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, says the PHS “redefined the context of American left-of-center-politics from a general attachment to bland corporatist liberalism to a new sense of grassroots activism.”

Upon leaving Port Huron, Hayden and Haber drove to Washington, D.C. At the White House, they met with resident historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (A Thousand Days) and gave him a copy of the PHS. Schlesinger said he would share the SDS’ views with President Kennedy. But it was JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who would be most impacted by the document. Richard Goodwin, former aide to both LBJ and JFK, has said the PHS inspired LBJ’s Great Society.

In his seminal book SDS, historian Kirkpatrick Sale concludes, “The Port Huron Statement so thoroughly plumbed and analyzed the conditions of mid-century American society, and so successfully captured and shaped the spirit of the new student mood, that it became not only a statement of principles for the few hundred students around SDS, not only a political expression for the hundreds who were to come into the organization in succeeding years, but even more a summary of beliefs for much of the student generation as a whole, then and for years to come.”

The impact

SDS helped to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, though the voting age wouldn’t be lowered to 18 until 1971. The group expanded to hundreds of chapters nationwide, leading the opposition to the Vietnam War before splintering into factions, effectively ending in March 1970 when members of the violent disavowed Weathermen blew themselves up while building a bomb in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Hayden went on to marry (and divorce) actress Jane Fonda, serve in the California state legislature for two decades, teach college, and author nine books, including his memoir, Reunion. He lives in Los Angeles and runs the Peace and Justice Resource Center.

Haber resides in Ann Arbor, working as a craftsman creating custom wood cabinetry and furniture, seeking clerical help with his own memoir and participating in Occupy Ann Arbor. He thinks today’s Occupy participants, much like the SDS at the time of PHS, now have enough field experience and realpolitik maturity to craft what he calls “A Manifesto for Now.” He should know. His experience in such matters is unsurpassed.

Tom Hayden and Al Haber will be back on campus this fall, along with Dick Flacks and Bob Ross, at an open interdepartmental conference run by history professor Howard Brick. “The Port Huron Statement and the Making of the New Left” is scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2012.


  1. barbara kusisto - 1982

    I was in college at this time and the SDS was truly a fringe group of socialist, albiet “idealist”, marxists, who did not know what they were doing or where they were going to end up. I and the majority of students did not have any respect for these idiots, who should have been in class. I was so afraid at the time that these persons would cause damage to our country, if they ever obtained power when they reached our age now! Lo and behold it has happened; our country is at the edge of economic collapse due to their policies and we are 5 trillion dollars (at last check and growing) in national debt due to these same idiots and their now younger followers as they have forced misguided and ruinous policies on us. Our country is now suffering because of them and I will never forgive them.


  2. Mary Lund - 1971

    What a great piece of history. Mr. Adolf (SC4) had us read the book. It is still worth reading. To think our small town had such an impact on the new wave of thinking (for that time period), it is very impressive.


  3. Miles Schmidt - 1972

    I share Ms. Kusito’s opinion. I too travelled the “hallowed halls” of the UM during the turbulent 60’s. SDS = Students for a Demented Society! Atheistic, elitist, and wrought on revolution – change for changes sake. Reminds me of the “Hope and Change” crowd and all of the ills we have experienced over these past 3.5 years.
    When will liberals understand that socialism (or marxism) never helps the downtroden but only the eilitist in control. think I’m kiddding? Witness David Horowitz’s and others’ conversions after waking up to the horrors of state imperialism.


  4. Michael Summers - 1971

    “The university is the only mainstream institution that is open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.”
    -Port Huron Statement 1962
    I don’t know if this was true in 1962, but when I arrived at Michigan 5 years later, it was not. Now 50 years later, does anyone believe that universities are the champions of alternative viewpoints? There is only one accepted package of views. This is the course of Marxist ideology.


  5. David Drake - 1968 (LSA), 1974 (L)

    Michael–you took the words right out of my mouth!


  6. Steve Fleck - 1971

    SDS as it evolved (although not in the Port Huron Statement) was in some ways, yes, arrogant and elitist, and some of its offshoots violent and certainly self-defeating. But it’s very hard to blame them for today’s political impasse and economic near-collapse and depression; that’s overwhelmingly due to the triumph of the far right, determinedly pursued since Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964.
    The left of the later sixties and early seventies had its share of blame in that triumph, mainly because they furnished the excuse for mobilizing popular reaction to its excesses; but to blame for them for the policies of Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2, the major causes of our current situation, is a huge intellectual error.
    Where I teach there is indeed a wide spectrum of political and social views. As was true at UM in my time too. The Vietnam War certainly polarized the electorate as never before in the 20th century, and that polarization has only accelerated, from well before the dirty tricksters and Karl Roves who have very consciously furthered it. My fellow commenters so far, unfortunately, mostly reflect that polarization.


  7. Robert Soshnik - 1973

    How ironic that the framers of the SDS, a group which sadly was later fractured and radicalized, and nearly universally vilified, sought nothing more than to change our democracy from within our democracy.


  8. Dan Benn - 2003

    For me there was cause for concern when the Occupy movement was referenced in a positive light. Did SDS also have aimless visions of other people repaying their student loans because ‘hey, they have money, I don’t, and I don’t think that’s very fair, man’ and other such well thought-out motivations? The problem with most protests is that people cite a problem, but no logical solution to said problem. If Occupy were more centered on holding Wall Street accountable and less playing with contingencies/insurances/funny money, there could be a real impact to prevent a future financial crisis. However, the resounding message from the movement seems to be “we want free money” and no two people give the same definition as to their goals. Much like “Click To Share” activism on Facebook, most people don’t have the motivation or drive to actually spend real time and money to effect a change. It’s a matter of “Ideally, the world should be like…” soapbox statements versus “If we do this, we can make this better” actions. I’ve not studied the SDS enough to say they fall in this category, but advocating a different way of thinking doesn’t guarantee change. Intellectuals pondering over the world’s problems over drinks does as much good as people sitting home watching Jersey Shore if they don’t take real action on their thoughts.


  9. rex hauser - 1978,1980,1988

    I saw much of SDS as a young Ann Arborite, and met several of the national leaders. It is in many ways unfortunate that the polarization so embittering to many was fomented by our own government, as the example of Fred Hampton’s murder displayed. The latter drove,or seemed to drive (in addition to the asassinations of 1968) most SDS leaders into the underground. Then much of the base for social change and leadership was lost/not fostered at the campus level, yet not grown in many other sectors of society. Most of the country was not ready for violent revolution anyway, and reacted against it at the ballot box. If we all had stuck with MLK Jr. (and thus stuck with the civil rights agenda, anti-war, and pro-economic rights/human development) maybe we wouldn’t have divided into two Americas so much.


  10. John Condon - 1967

    It is hard to escape the fact that this country which had passed on to the 1960’s “peace, love, dope” generation vast wealth has squandered it completely. While not a perfect society pre-Timothy Leary and Tom Hayden’s America lived by a constitution and values which were of great benefit to all and permitted so much more than any society before it. In return this generation spent all of the country’s wealth in pursuit of absolute equality after they realized that the Civil Right’s triumph did not guarantee absolute equality but only equal opportunity. That mad dash has been followed by the angry pursuit of an elusive nirvana’s equality at the expense of diminished opportunity for all.
    They demanded and got control over the body politic to the point that now we have an Obama in office. His vision is of absolute equality and it is clear for all to see what he and they have delivered. I have been watching this decline from my freshman year in1963 and while the facts and evidence are obvious and apparent it should be clear that telling an entire minority that they need not depend on themselves and the should merely collect entitlements has resulted in the most severely failed minority in our country and according to the poverty pimps not advanced that minority in over approximately 50 years.


  11. Barrett Kalellis - 1969; 1973

    The movement that spawned Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis and other fellow travellers was a benighted waste of time, led by a bunch of know-nothing Marxists who learned nothing from history and never grew up, with the exception of Davis and Jerry Rubin who went into business. Compared to the Occupy Wall Street denizens, however, they were at least articulate.


  12. Steve Rauworth - 1970

    Typically, most comments rationalize the status quo or the writer’s personal disappointments, and tell us nothing we don’t know. SDS’s principles were, and are sound, which is why the money-is-everything society that even most of its critics continue to support cannot embody them in our sham democracy. The question, unanswered by SDS or anyone else yet, remains how to get there, and Occupy, while easy to snipe about, is the best current hope. If you want real change, to paraphrase and turn on its ear a justifiably vilified adage from the old days, “Occupy, Love It Or Leave It”. It needs flexible, imaginative, committed people, not bitter apologists.


  13. George McGilliard - 1965,1967

    To stand for something important is difficult; to stand against that same while important in its own right is less difficult by far. Had Port Huron Statement never been devised, had the SDS never occurred, nor would have done this dialogue and many others like it.


  14. alan haber - 1954-65

    i am astounded by the lynch mob virulence of some of these comments.
    We in sds, and in the port huron statement, advocated for democracy, human rights, reasoned discussion, a wider justice and freer life for all.
    Clearly some University “graduates” don’t like democracy, prefer the rule of banksters, monopolists, and warriors. It escapes me how our bands of idealists and activists are to blame for the horrors of contrived wars and the predations of the gluttonous rich. Fascism was a preferred system by many in the pre World War Two world, and it still is, with a tight interlock between the political, the economic and the military elites.
    It is laughable that we are the ones called arrogant and elitist.
    We did not invent the political struggle between democracy and fascism, but we did find our place on the side of justice and we did contend with the powers that be and their murderous ways.
    Those in the moral limbo of complicit silence may lash out at our imperfect-nesses, but they fail the test of courage to challenge a status quo rooted in oppression and rationalized by the gun.
    We sought a better way of living, more loving, more cooperative.
    The Michigan Today article talks about the Port Huron Statement as an object separate from the organization spirit that created it. it was not Tom Hayden’s work or my work that made it happen. It was a determination arising in our generation then, particularly among young women, to do something about the wrongs we saw. Women like Sharon Jeffrey and Carol Cohen and Sandra (Casey) Cason, Dorothy Dawson, Becky Adams, Betty Garman, Mary (Maria) Varela, Sarah Murphy, Barbara Jacobs (to name but a few) all in all, were more significant than the men, like Tom and me who tend to get the attention (male) writers. They brought a human directness, and love, as well as organizing skill and knowledge, that made sds different from other political organizations.
    The University community will have the benefit, for the first time ever, to hear a panel of some of these sds women tell the story from their view. This panel will be part of the University conference on the Port Huron Statement, October 31, November 1 and 2, 2012.
    I hope the blow hards and know-nothings, commenting here, will come and attend, perhaps to learn something they missed as students, and still do. The more receptive commentators will find a chance for creative engagement with some of the pioneers in the freedom movement and struggle for human liberation.
    Our organization did not survive the Vietnam war, the “counter-intelligence program,” (cointelpro,) and the mind numbing horrors we witnessed in opening our eyes to the reality of world politics. As individuals. in the years since, we of that generation who then looked uncomfortably at the world we were inheriting, have continued in myriad ways working to build a peace system of non-violence, partnership, sharing, caring, generosity, kindness and healing, to replace the war system in which we were born and grew up, of patriarchy, violence, domination, imposition, impunity, etc.
    SDS of course is still organizing, students for a democratic society again, and now also, seniors for a democratic society. The umbrella movement for a democratic society (.org) is undertaking an activist projection to interact with the academic reflection, beginning with the the question, for those who care: what would you want in a “manifesto for now.” Participation is invited. Its about democracy. (http://bit.ly/manifesto4nowwiki) Alan Haber, Ann Arbor.


  15. alan haber - 1954-67

    My last long comment was much too grumpy. Some of the comments on the article were thoughtful and constructive. i think the one about A debate between the sds democrats and William Buckley/Russell Kirk crowd would be most interesting and worthy of University sponsorship. We did once have a debate with Mr. Buckley.
    Most to the point was the call and need for people to be flexible, imaginative and committed.
    i hope Michigan Today will continue this discussion in subsequent issues leading up to the anniversary conference, and also publish a post-conference report.


  16. JoAnne Simson - 1961 (M.S.)

    Thank you, Alan Haber, for redeeming this comment thread from the vituperation of those who don’t seem to understand what the world was like before the ’60s. Yes, there was an “ideal America” portrayed in movies and TV, but many, many Americans had no access to that ideal. So many lived in poverty and fear, were excluded from meaningful work and/or participatory democracy. The SDS and other groups that gained courage from them helped open the culture to diversity and a more real democracy. It pains me to see how that democracy has been squandered in the first decade of this century. Again, thank you.


  17. Leonard Lash

    I was a graduate student during the early days of the SDS. Because of my studies and research, I was unable to join them, but I did read of their actions and, when lucky, talk to some of their members. They were liberals, some still call them socialists, who were ready and willing to speak out for the principles of our constitution and liberalism. I know of no harm that they did but am aware of the good they did. I am a proud supporter of the SDS.


  18. David Moskowitz MD - Harvard AB 1974, MD 1980

    I attended Groton School in 1965-70, and was taught to fear and loathe the left, even though 2 of our graduates, Hutch Jenness and Mark Liberman, became leaders of SDS at Harvard. It was only later that I stopped being a fascist and became a liberal/socialist, two words more vilified now than they ever were before in American discourse. I am thankful to the anti-war movement for still being alive and without PTSD; the draft began petering out by 1970, when I turned 18, and I escaped having to go to Vietnam. Not that I wouldn’t have, at the time. It was only a few years later that I began to see what a total waste the war was, except for the usual war profiteers and military-industrial complex who have run societies since the beginning of time. Thank God for the brave (and slightly older) Baby Boomers for pointing out that things had to change. We’re nowhere near a participatory democracy yet, but it sure feels good to write a comment here. Maybe we’ll be able to vote on bills in Congress by iPhone before too much longer. God knows people in Congress have no more acquaintance with the bills their lobbyists (and Party) shove down their throats than we do. As for equitable and effective healthcare, I have a simple solution to avoid imminent national bankruptcy, and it can be summarized in one phrase: give the VA back to the PHS, whence it came in 1921, and let the reconstituted PHS take care of the 50 million. Forget Obamacare: it’s a sop to 4 private insurers–Humana, Aetna, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and United.


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