Tom Hayden Speaks on Political Activism at Scripps

Political activist Tom Hayden came back to Claremont on Tuesday to speak to an audience of students and faculty in the Hampton Room of the Malott Commons at Scripps College.

Hayden, who taught as a visiting professor at Pitzer College from 2005 to 2006 and Scripps College in 2010, is best known for his political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, during which he was a prominent figure of the New Left movement. He also served as a California State Assembly member from 1982 to 1992 and as a California state senator from 1992 to 2000. He is currently the director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, Calif.

At the Tuesday talk, Hayden discussed his early experiences as a political activist, beginning with his involvement with a student activist organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s. Hayden drafted the SDS manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, which advocated a more participatory democracy that used student nonviolent civil disobedience to respond to the country’s racial discrimination and failed peacekeeping efforts during the Cold War.

“The idea behind SDS was to build a student movement,” Hayden said at the talk. “At the time, there were more students than ever in American history. Students had never been classified as an agency of social change by radical activists and organizers in the past.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the drafting of the Port Huron Statement, and Hayden spoke about its continuing relevance for students trying to effect social change today.

“I think the Port Huron Statement is worth reading because it speaks to a default in our institutional system, and it speaks to a remedy for everything that’s wrong with our institutions,” Hayden said.

He added that the statement emphasizes “the need for more, rather than less, civic participation from the bottom up.”

Hayden spoke of today’s persistent institutional problems, such as the concentration of power in American government. He cited movements such as the effort to legalize same-sex marriage as an example of citizens demanding their right to political influence, and he also drew comparisons between his experience as a part of the New Left movement and the more recent Occupy movement.

“I had this sense that I’d seen this before,” he said. “The first point of the Occupy statement was a demand for a ‘participatory democracy.’ This term was at the center of the Port Huron Statement.” 

Hayden also encouraged students to examine the movements that took place in the 1960s and recognize their own capacity to pursue change of a similar magnitude.

“You have the opportunity here at the Claremont Colleges to begin to open up the past as a picture of the possibilities of the future,” he said.

Professor Julie Liss, Chair of the Scripps Department of History, invited Hayden to speak. She said she hoped that students were empowered by Hayden’s lecture. 

“Students can accomplish much more than they necessarily assume,” Liss said. “We look back at the ’60s and think there was some mystique in the ’60s that allowed it to happen. It’s very easy to feel disempowered, but students have both a lot of energy and flexibility, and they can make a difference in issues that matter to them.”

Hayden ended his talk with a call to action for the younger generation.

He said, “This 50-year story is a never-ending cycle, and I think your opportunity to make an enormous difference in reclaiming the planet for the future of humanity is at hand, and I hope you’ll consider joining this effort.”

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