Tom Hayden Always Rocked the Boat
This article first appeared in The American Prospect.
In 2013, Tom Hayden—who died Sunday at 76 from complications related to a stroke he suffered a year and a half ago while investigating fracking and oil drilling in California—donated his archives to his alma mater, the University of Michigan. The 120 boxes of material include more than 22,000 pages of his FBI files, the result of the agency’s 15-year surveillance of Hayden. Historians and journalists will mine this treasure trove of documents to learn about the key movements and personalities in American culture and politics since the early 1960s. Throughout his remarkable career, Hayden was both a prophetic voice and a political strategist, a rare combination. No single figure embodied the spirit of the generation that came of age in the 1960s more than Hayden.
As the author of The Port Huron Statement—the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that called for a new grassroots movement against segregation, poverty and war—Hayden is often described as a '60s radical. But while Hayden was a legendary and historic figure of that era, he continued his activism throughout his life, seeking to balance being a radical movement activist, elected official, teacher, and journalist.
In the 1960s and '70s, Hayden was a controversial leader of the New Left student and anti-war movements. In the 1980s and '90s, he served in the California legislature, promoting a progressive agenda but often frustrated by the limits of legislative maneuvering, especially the influence of money in politics. In the 1990s he made quixotic efforts running for Los Angeles mayor and California governor, but his heart wasn’t in it. Since 2000, when he left the legislature, he struggled to find a political home and a way to contribute to building a radical movement without having a formal role in elective office, a movement organization, or a university. A decade ago, Hayden created the Los Angeles-based Peace and Justice Resource Center—himself and a few rotating assistants—while continuing to write articles and books, speak and teach part-time at different colleges, and remain engaged in battles for social justice and global peace as a public intellectual and mentor to younger activists.
Hayden wrote more than 20 books on a wide range of topics, including native Americans, his Irish heritage and environmentalism. Inspiring Participatory Democracy: Student Movements from Port Huron to Today (2012) is both a history and handbook for campus activists. Over the past decade, he mentored students involved in the anti-sweatshop movement and fossil fuel divestment movements. Hayden was always in demand as a speaker at colleges, religious congregations and progressive conferences.
In a 1961 Mademoiselle article, “Who Are the Student Boat-Rockers?” Hayden identified the three people over 30 whom young radicals of that era most admired: Norman Thomas, the aging anti-war radical, Socialist Party leader and labor ally; Michael Harrington, the brilliant orator and activist whose book, The Other America, inspired the war on poverty; and C. Wright Mills, the maverick sociologist who exposed America’s power structure in The Power Elite (1956) and warned about the dangers of the Cold War arms race in The Causes of World War Three (1958).
Hayden’s life mirrored the lives of his three heroes. Mills, who was the subject of Hayden's master’s thesis, was a particularly important influence. The sociologist’s last book before his premature death at 45 in 1962, Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba, was a plea for Americans to understand the rebellion unleashed by the young Fidel Castro. Hayden’s most recent book, Listen, Yankee: Why Cuba Matters, urged Americans to reconcile with the island nation and help steer it toward democracy. It came out in March 2015, four months after President Barack Obama normalized diplomatic relations with that country.
Born in 1939 and named for St. Thomas Aquinas, Hayden grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan, an all-white, middle-class Detroit suburb. His father was an accountant for Chrysler, his mother a school librarian. Hayden was editor of his high school newspaper, but on the side, he started his own iconoclastic paper, The Daily Smirker, inspired by MAD magazine’s political and cultural satire. During his senior year, Hayden wrote an editorial supporting the school’s college scholarship fund that landed him in trouble: Each paragraph began with a larger bold-faced letter that, read vertically, together spelled “Go to Hell.” He was banned from attending his own graduation and kicked out of the National Honor Society.
At the University of Michigan, Hayden became editor of the Michigan Daily and a leader of the school’s burgeoning radical student movement. In the spring of 1960, the 20-year-old Hayden met 32-year-old Michael Harrington, the charismatic socialist activist, in Ann Arbor at a student conference about civil rights. Hayden and Harrington had much in common—they were both Midwestern middle-class Irish Catholics, with literary and journalistic bents—but Hayden resisted Harrington’s efforts to recruit him to the Socialist Party’s youth group, thinking that joining a group labeled “socialist” would marginalize him, particularly at a time when the Red Scare was still a strong force in American politics.
In the summer of 1960, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, Hayden took a cross-country hitchhiking trip, intending to write about his experiences for the Michigan Daily. In the Bay Area, he met activists who were organizing pickets in front of Woolworth’s and Kresge five-and-dime stores to support the southern civil rights sit-ins against segregation. Some activists took Hayden to rural Delano, Calif., where he encountered the near-slavery conditions under which Mexican farmworkers toiled.
He also interviewed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was walking a picket line outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles to demand that the party endorse a strong civil rights platform. “There I was,” Hayden recalled years later, “with pencil in hand, trying to conduct an objective interview with Martin Luther King, whose whole implicit message was: ‘Stop writing, start acting.’ That was a compelling moment.” King gently told Hayden, “Ultimately, you have to take a stand with your life.”
When Hayden returned to Ann Arbor that fall, he committed himself to the life of an activist, helping to organize VOICE, a left-liberal campus political party that called for a greater “student voice in the decisions affecting our lives.” Ann Arbor activists Al Haber and Bob Ross recruited Hayden to join SDS, which began in 1960 to enlist white students on northern campuses to support the southern civil rights movement. Along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), SDS became the decade’s key catalyst for recruiting and radicalizing the baby-boom generation’s most effective activists.
In 1960, Hayden became SDS’ first field organizer. In the South, he was inspired by the courage of SNCC volunteers, especially Bob Moses. He filed stories about these events for the Michigan Daily and national magazines. Hayden and another activist were beaten and arrested during a civil rights march in McComb, Mississippi, as part of a voter registration drive. On his 22nd birthday, he was arrested again, in Albany, Georgia, for trying to integrate the waiting room in the local train station.
“To those who did not pass through the Southern civil rights experience, willfully going to jail may seem like a career-threatening act of despair,” Hayden wrote in his 1988 memoir, Reunion. “It was not. It was both a necessary moral act and a rite of passage into serious commitment.”
Hayden began writing the SDS manifesto while sitting in the Albany jail. In June 1962, SDS leaders and sympathizers convened for three days at a United Auto Workers retreat center on Lake Huron, Michigan to debate Hayden’s draft and plot the organization’s—and their generation’s—future.
The Port Huron Statement reflected the early SDSers’ hope for a new beginning in American political life, inspired by the nonviolent direct action of the civil rights movement and the growing nuclear arms protests. It begins: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
It concluded: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
Hayden and his SDS colleagues believed that young people could play a role in changing America. His statement asserted a vision of society rooted in the concept of “participatory democracy.”
The early leaders of SDS were, like Hayden, born in the late 1930s and early '40s. They imbibed the optimism of post-war America even as they were worried about the dangers of the nuclear arms race, the Red Scare, racism and poverty, and the culture of middle class consumerism. By the middle and late 1960s, many of these early SDSers, as well as many of the somewhat younger baby-boom generation of radicals, had lost faith in liberalism and the Democratic Party.
Under Hayden’s leadership, SDS played a significant part in four major issues: Reducing restrictions to free speech and political activism on college campuses; supporting the southern civil rights movement; mobilizing student opposition to the war in Vietnam; and setting up community organizing projects in cities across the country to help mobilize the poor. Although SDS’ projects met with mixed results, they helped train many activists who went on to play important roles in community organizing, anti-war, environmental, women’s rights, and other movements over the next half century.
In 1964 Hayden moved to New Jersey to build the Newark Community Union. For three years, Hayden and his colleagues knocked on doors in Newark’s black ghetto, recruiting jobless and low-wage residents to the community group to help them gain a voice over slum housing, police brutality, inadequate schools, and other issues. But progress was slow, and Hayden began to lose patience as corrupt, local, white politicians resisted change and as funding Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty dried up as the war in Vietnam intensified. In August 1967, Newark exploded in riots, one of dozens of urban uprisings during that “long hot summer.” Hayden wrote a long analysis of the roots of the riot, Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response based on his organizing experiences and the eyewitness accounts he collected from local residents about slum conditions and police brutality.
During Hayden’s years in Newark, local FBI agents urged their supervisors in Washington to increase surveillance on him. “In view of the fact that Hayden is an effective speaker who appeals to intellectual groups and has also worked with and supported the Negro people in their program in Newark, it is recommended that he be placed on the Rabble Rouser Index,” they wrote.
While living in Newark, Hayden devoted careful study to Vietnam’s history and culture and to U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia. In 1965 he joined pacifist historian Staughton Lynd and Communist Party official Herbert Aptheker on a fact-finding trip to North Vietnam, a journey that violated U.S. State Department rules. They were attacked in the media and the State Department temporarily withdrew Hayden’s passport. He and Lynd wrote a book, The Other Side, about their journey. In 1967, he returned to North Vietnam with other antiwar activists to investigate the impact of US bombing on civilians. The North Vietnamese government asked them to bring home several American prisoners of war. Because the United States did not recognize the Hanoi government, the Vietnamese wanted to release them to Americans involved in the peace movement.
Hayden’s antiwar activities embodied a distinctive combination of political pragmatism and moral outrage. By the late 1960s, many radicals had begun to view the war as an inevitable outcome of America’s empire building, lust for profits and racism toward populations of color. Frustrated, some called for more militant tactics. Although Hayden often shared this perspective, he opposed violence and bombings and still had faith in the potential of electoral politics, particularly in Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 antiwar and antipoverty campaign for president.
Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968 was traumatic for Hayden. At RFK’s funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Hayden cried over the tragic loss of the one politician he believed had the ability to unite the antiwar and antipoverty movements. That summer, Hayden joined other activists in planning protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. For eight days during the convention, the Chicago Police Department and the National Guard attacked the protesters, including Hayden, with tear gas and billy clubs, while the Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as their standard-bearer.
An official investigation would later describe the violence as a “police riot.” Despite this, Nixon administration officials indicted Hayden and seven others for conspiracy to riot. The trial made headlines for months, as both sides turned the court proceedings into a political battleground. Hayden privately opposed some of the theatrical antics of his codefendants, particularly Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. In 1969, Hayden and five of the others were convicted of traveling across state lines to incite a riot and sentenced to five years in prison. Hayden never went to prison, however. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1973, in part because Judge Julius Hoffman sided with the prosecutors.
In the early 1970s, Hayden began to rethink the wisdom of the antiwar movement’s focus on public protest. In 1972 he and other peace activists formed the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC). They brought speakers, slide shows, and music to churches, campuses, and venues near military bases (to attract disillusioned soldiers) to educate the public about the war and to urge them to vote for antiwar candidates for Congress. During this period, Hayden met and married actress Jane Fonda, who was a high-profile opponent of the war. The IPC, whose traveling “road show” included actor Donald Sutherland, singer Holly Near and former POW George Smith, as well as Fonda and Hayden, played an important role in pushing Congress to reduce war appropriations.
In 1971 Hayden moved to Santa Monica, and in 1975 challenged incumbent Senator John Tunney, a moderate Democrat who had supported the Vietnam War. With Fonda’s seed money, he knitted together a feisty statewide campaign, but he ironically found himself attacked by some leftists for working within the system. The media also assailed Hayden for what they considered his radical views. Although no major daily newspaper endorsed him, Hayden shocked political pundits by garnering almost 40 percent of the vote.
After the election, Hayden and others founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), a statewide grassroots organization which Hayden modeled on Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement that Sinclair created in the wake of his unsuccessful but inspiring 1934 gubernatorial campaign in the Golden State. In its decade-long existence, CED won local and statewide victories including ballot campaigns on rent control and solar energy, nuclear energy, tobacco and cancer-causing chemicals. It also helped elect more than a dozen progressive candidates to office.
One of those candidates was Hayden himself. He joined the California State Assembly in 1982 and went on to represent Santa Monica and Los Angeles’ liberal west side in the state Senate 10 years later. Soon after he was elected to the Assembly, the Republicans tried to oust him for being a “traitor.” As Hayden recounts in Reunion, among the people who traveled to Sacramento to oppose that effort was Jimmy Jackson, one of the Vietnam prisoners of war Hayden had helped release.
Described as “the conscience of the Senate” by the Sacramento Bee, Hayden served 18 years in the state legislature. He worked closely with progressive groups to sponsor and enact legislation on a variety of environmental, educational, public safety, and human rights issues. He frequently criticized his colleague’s ties to corporate campaign donors. Interviewed for an ABC television documentary, Hayden accused Willie Brown, the powerful Assembly Speaker, of catering to the tobacco lobby by killing legislation to increase taxes on cigarettes. In response, Brown stripped Hayden of a committee chairmanship and transferred him to a much smaller office.
While serving in the legislature, Hayden played a key role in negotiating a truce between rival black and Latino gangs in Los Angeles, an experience described in his 2004 book, Street Wars. Term-limited, Hayden left office 2000 and earned his living by writing, speaking, organizing, and teaching part-time at several colleges. He wrote eyewitness accounts of global justice movements around the world, including moving firsthand accounts of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (the “Battle in Seattle”). He helped organize opposition to the war in Iraq, which he outlined in his 2007 book Ending the War in Iraq.
In 2008 Hayden helped launch Progressives for Obama, investing in the young Illinois senator some of the same hopes he'd had for Robert Kennedy. Hayden supported Obama’s progressive initiatives, but criticized what he considered the new president’s weak policies to bolster the economy and his reluctance to quickly withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“No sooner had a social movement elected [Obama] than it was time for a new social movement to bring about a new New Deal,” Hayden wrote. “Lest his domestic initiatives sink in the quagmires of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, a new peace movement must rise as well.”
This year Hayden initially supported Bernie Sanders for president. As he wrote in The Nation in April, he believed the senator from Vermont had the potential to "legitimize democratic socialist measures, and leave an indelible mark on our frozen political culture." Then, in a move that triggered controversy, he switched to endorse Hillary Clinton because he thought she would be more successful in defeating Donald Trump and healing America’s racial divide. Hayden’s choice was grounded in a broader view of politics based on his decades as a movement activist:
“So here we are, at the end of one generation on the left and the rise of another. Both camps in the party will need each other in November—more than either side needs to emerge triumphant in the primary. We still need the organizing of a united front of equals to prevail against the Republicans. It will take a thorough process of conflict resolution to get there, not a unilateral power wielding by the usual operatives. It’s up to all of us.”
Even as he sought to recover from the debilitating stroke that eventually ended his life, Hayden was reassessing the impact of activism on politics and policy. His final book, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement, will be published by Yale University Press in early 2017.
An excellent athlete, Hayden gave up playing baseball in high school but returned to the sport in middle age. He was particularly proud of being the batting champion of the Los Angeles Dodgers fantasy baseball camp in Florida in his 40s.
"I was seized by the desire to play again," Hayden told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't think that feeling ever really goes away."
Ever the organizer, he helped start a seniors baseball team. Although he had his first heart attack in 2001 at age 61, he continued playing on the team on a weekly basis for another decade.
Hayden is survived by his wife Barbara Williams, an actress and singer; their son, Liam; and Troy Garity, his son with Fonda.