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)



Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.