Tom Hayden Always Rocked The Boat: An Appreciation of the Legendary Political Activist

Tom Hayden Speaking at 2013 DSA National Convention 

By Peter Dreier

In 2013, Tom Hayden—who died on 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), which 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 1970s, Hayden was a controversial leader of the New Left student and anti-war movements. In the 1980s and 1990s, 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—consisting of himself and a few rotating assistants—while continuing to write articles and books, speaking and teaching part-time at different colleges, and remaining 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 socialist orator and activist whose book The Other America inspired the war on poverty – and who founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecessor of DSAEditor), 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).

This article originally appeared in The American Prospect. Read the full article here. 

Peter Dreier is the  Dr. E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and  Chair, Urban & Environmental Policy Department, Occidental College

Recent  book:  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012)



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Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 80 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 45 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.


Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 19 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.