19 July 2011

Ken Handel : The Port Huron Statement Spoke Truth to Power

The Port Huron Statement. Image from Bibliopolis.

Speaking truth to power
The 1962 Port Huron Statement describes the goals, values, and strategies of Students for a Democratic Society -- and continues to inform and inspire.
By Ken Handel / The Rag Blog / July 19, 2011

“My Generation,” released by The Who in 1965, is one of that group’s most popular songs -- and a rallying cry for disaffected youth. Three years earlier, in 1962, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) created “An agenda for a generation,” an action plan for young people seeking broad societal change.

(SDS was the leading organization of the Sixties New Left. At its peak it had more than 100,000 members in 400 chapters around the country.)

The 59 SDS members who assembled in the small Michigan town of Port Huron in June 1962 could not accept a status quo that tolerated the possibility of nuclear annihilation, state-sanctioned racism, and a nation suffering from extensive poverty amidst affluence. Scholar James Miller, in Democracy Is in the Streets, described the Port Huron Statement (PHS) as being “one of the pivotal documents in post-war American history.”

In their own words

In Rebels With A Cause, a film on SDS created in 2000 by Helen Garvy, Port Huron participants reflected upon their experiences. Tom Hayden, the document’s primary author, described “sitting around in small groups talking about your values and how they applied to politics and to economics.” He also spoke of the American tradition of “decentralized democracy, or direct democracy, or town-meeting democracy.”

Sharon Jeffrey identified two key themes the document addressed: “…participatory democracy: this was something that somehow it had a resonance to it… This was really significant because it touched very deeply… sort of like the soul of who we were”; and the importance of values.

On this point, Steve Max commented, “The idea that you make your own values as a group was a new thing. That values weren’t just inherited and weren’t just transmitted from the older generation but that people could actually sit down and work out an ethical framework, as an organization…”

Political and cultural influences

In the first paragraph of the Port Huron Statement, SDS members acknowledged their privileged status: they were “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities…” But in what Hayden has termed “a manifesto of hope,” the 41-page document envisioned an end to racism, a transformation of democracy, a reconception of the economy, and a conclusion to the cold war.

In his book, The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama, Hayden noted the influences that contributed to the document’s explicit idealism.

Port Huron participants had witnessed the independence of many African nations, and Cuba’s successful revolution. They abhorred South Africa’s policy of apartheid and its violent repression of the African National Congress. They allied themselves with other students fighting racism in the U.S. -- and in particular, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They had read inspiring books, seen influential films, and rocked around the clock. Port Huron, Hayden says, “was a spontaneous beginning, but one informed by legacy.”

Does Port Huron still resonate?

June 2012 represents the Port Huron Statement’s golden anniversary. And the alienation and apathy SDS sought to counter nearly 50 years ago is even more prevalent today: only six percent of a Harris Poll expressed confidence in Congress. In the 2010 mid-term election, 59.1 percent of registered voters chose to withhold their ballots.

To counteract hopelessness, the document offered a new definition of individual rights and of the role a person plays in the political system:

Participatory Democracy: “…we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.”

Values: “Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic...”

SDS succumbed to factionalism and dissolved in 1969. But the Port Huron Statement is the group’s living legacy. Just as “My Generation” continues to win new fans, so too can the Port Huron Statement assist today’s citizens in fulfilling their aspirations and in making government more responsive.

Monte Wasch offers a unique perspective on the PHS. As a 20 year-old City College student he attended the Port Huron gathering. When he returned to New York, Tom and Casey Hayden temporarily moved into his apartment. There, Hayden worked on final PHS edits, which Wasch typed up.

“I remember,” he comments, “a summer of optimism and challenge. Optimism because we all felt we were on the cusp of something exceptional and unique in the history of American progressivism. The challenge was -- as a new generation with a progressive, reform set of values -- to leave behind the narrow sectarian battles that had long characterized the Left. The PHS prescribed a new model for social change and non-sectarian progressive action by developing a new model for social change: participatory democracy.

[Ken Handel is a freelance writer and editor. This article was also posted to Suite101.]


Students for a Democratic Society
Port Huron Statement, SDS Documents
Democracy Is In the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago by James Miller (Simon and Schuster, 1987.) “Pivotal Document”: Page 13; “manifesto of hope”: Page 77
Rebels With A Cause, a documentary film written, produced, and directed by Helen Garvy, 2000.
The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama by Tom Hayden. (Paradigm Publishers. 2009). SDS influences: Page 21-23

Poll Citations:
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