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Personal Statement: Fifty years later, still making a statement

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Published October 25, 2012

Few Ann Arbor residents know that The Statement, the Daily’s weekly news magazine, is named in memory of the Port Huron Statement, drafted by myself as the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society 50 years ago.

This week, the University will host a conference to explore the legacy of what many Ann Arbor students birthed half a century ago.

The vision of the Port Huron Statement lives on. The first principle of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement was a call for participatory democracy, the guiding concept of the Port Huron Statement.

From SDS to Occupy, students have led movements demanding a voice. We believed in not just an electoral democracy, but also in direct participation of students in their remote-controlled universities, of employees in workplace decisions, of consumers in the marketplace, of neighborhoods in development decisions, family equality in place of Father Knows Best and online, open source participation in a world dominated by computerized systems of power.

The Port Huron Statement represented the dawn of an era, which began with the student sit-in movement and the Beat Generation, and didn't end until 1975, with the fall of Richard Nixon and Saigon.

Students in Ann Arbor played a leading role in defining this era. One year after graduating from the University, where I edited The Michigan Daily, I drafted the 25,000 word Port Huron Statement that served as a manifesto for “participatory democracy,” which initially came to us from a University faculty adviser, Arnold Kaufman. The Students for a Democratic Society founder, Al Haber, fostered a hotbed of debate between 1961 and 1963, before our vision came to fruition in Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and the first national Vietnam teach-ins organized at the University.

Ann Arbor was also a central site of the New Frontier. University students, myself included, approached Sen. John F. Kennedy in October 1960 to request that he endorse international service as an alternative to the military draft. He read our letter and, over worries from his advisers, proposed the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union that night.

As an example of what might have been, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a “Great Society ... where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods,” at a 1964 University commencement address. The author of LBJ's speech, Richard Goodwin, credited the Port Huron Statement as being a major influence. Goodwin later wrote a note “to Tom Hayden, who ... without knowing it inspired the Great Society,” referring to participatory democracy and the administration's anti-poverty programs.

JFK's assassination staggered us, but his signing of the nuclear test ban treaty before his death made us hope for a thaw in the Cold War arms race, which almost obliterated millions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I left graduate school at the University in summer 1964 to begin community organizing in the slums of Newark, N.J. As a member of about 200 SDS activists who planned to devote our lives to a nationwide equivalent of the Mississippi Summer Project, I believed that “an interracial movement of the poor” could empower a new constituency demanding jobs and economic equality.

The United Auto Workers, which was led by Walter Reuther, gave us the Port Huron Conference Center courtesy of a top officer, “Millie” Jeffrey, whose daughter was an SDS leader at the University. The UAW also donated funds to the SDS community organizing projects, as well as major resources for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the United Farm Workers and the early activists of what became the National Organization for Women. In that brief period, our hoped-for coalition seemed to be coming together.

The final sentence of the Statement warned, however, that “If we appear to seek the unattainable, let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” The unimaginable was about to happen.

The Cold War was the mountain we could not climb. Much like today's War on Terrorism – the official Cold War assumption was that nothing could be spared to protect Americans from conspiratorial threats. The paranoid Cold War assumption was that the Soviet Union now was plotting to take over the world. Small countries like Vietnam were seen as pawns in this global plot. Peace and civil rights groups at home, even leaders like Dr. King, were surveilled as The Enemy Within.

The Port Huron Statement challenged all that, proposing nuclear de-escalation and disarmament. We did this not because we were “pro-Communist” but because we knew that militarized and unbalanced anti-Communism would divert America's attention away from our needs at home.