Students for a Democratic Society: An Overview with Key Documents
This exhibit on Students for a Democratic Society is the first in a series of exhibits that will provide an overview and brief examination of some of the major youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This exhibit will highlight several key SDS documents available through SiRO to illustrate some of the major issues that this movement addressed during the course of its existence.
Origins of SDS and The Port Huron Statement
The Students for a Democratic Society first emerged out of the Ann Arbor chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a waning national student organization focused on spreading the socialist message across college campuses.@ James Miller, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). While its origins can be traced to 1960, when a group of students at the University of Michigan reinvigorated the work of SLID, the publication of The Port Huron Statement in 1962 solidified the existence of SDS as an active organization.@ Michael Kazin, “Some Notes on S.D.S.,” The American Scholar 38(4), 644-55. This document, at nearly 25,000 words, defined the organization’s mission and detailed its stance on several key political, economic, and social issues. At the core of this document lies the organization’s call for the creation of a more participatory democracy, or one in which the political, economic, foreign, and social decisions made by the United States government more accurately respond to and reflect the interests of the American people. At present, the authors argue that “[t]he dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform,”@ Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement,” in The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 239-84. leaving Americans to become disengaged and disinterested in a role in public life. According to SDS, this dangerous disconnect between the American people and the government that represents them required a reexamination of the values that guide American political, economic, and social governance. The leaders of SDS advocated a move towards a system that would support equal political participation by all Americans and value the role of peaceful protest and critical questioning.@ S.D.S., “The Port Huron Statement.” To achieve this ultimate goal, SDS focused on addressing several key issues - most notably entrenched racism, economic inequality, and American militancy - through mobilization efforts and community organizing.
Fighting Racism and Alliance with the Black Power Movement
The early work of SDS was heavily influenced by the work of civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which directed efforts to combat racism and promote civil rights among black communities in the South. Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of SDS and a key author of the Port Huron Statement, worked alongside SNCC members on voter education and registration initiatives in rural black communities in the early 1960s, and this influence is evident in the close ties between SDS and civil rights activists, and later with the Black Power movement.@ Miller, Democracy is in the Streets. SDS led several initiatives to fight racism across college campuses and regularly aligned itself with key civil rights and black power issues over the years. As the following posters illustrate, SDS vocalized its support for initiatives like the “Free Huey” movement, which aimed to release Black Panthers founder Huey Newton after indictments of first-degree murder, and for the increasing resistance towards prisoner mistreatment at places like Attica prison, which had a large black population. As the Black Power movement grew in size and SDS became more preoccupied with anti-war activities, however, the nature of this alliance changed significantly.@ Miller, Democracy is in the Streets. While SDS remained supportive of Black Power efforts, they wrestled with the most appropriate way for their members to fight on behalf of civil rights and Black Power. The below speech by Huey Newton to SDS in 1968 illustrates the changing nature of this relationship as both SDS and Black Power grew into distinct ideological and activist movements, and the ways in which they addressed questions of effective means of white support for black communities.
Anti-Militancy and Anti-War Work
SDS perhaps became most well-known for its anti-war efforts across the United States, and particularly on college campuses. While SDS was primarily focused on issues related to civil rights and economic inequality in its early years, the expansion of the American military presence in Vietnam became a touchstone for the movement. It’s first major foray into anti-war work occurred in 1965, when SDS organized a national protest against the war in Washington, D.C.@ Miller, Democracy is in the Streets. The march proved to be wildly successful, with over 15,000 people attended, and as a result SDS’s membership increased from 2,500 in April 1965, when the march was held, to roughly 10,000 by October of that same year.@ Kazin, “Some Notes on S.D.S.” From this point on, SDS became increasingly occupied with anti-war protests, becoming more radical in its stance against the war and diverting its energies to organizing anti-war efforts across the U.S. Several SDS publications illustrate the varied tactics and approaches that SDS used to mobilize anti-war efforts, particularly among college students. Publications like the Vietnam Study Guide and Annotated Bibliography provided a template for developing and leading educational programs about the war, with the intent to help participants better understand the history of the war and the United States’ involvement in the conflict. Others, like the Guide to Community Organization, provide a fantastic illustration of the community mobilization efforts that SDS organized across communities and college campuses and formed the backbone of their activist work.
One of the most notable features of The Port Huron Statement, and one of the distinguishing features of SDS’s approach to activism and political change, is its emphasis on the role of universities and college students as key agents of social, political, and economic change. The authors of the Port Huron statement sharply critiqued the existing university structure for breeding complacency and apathy among students while suppressing opportunities to build true critical thinking skills. Instead, they argued, universities primarily attempt to indoctrinate students to established modes of thinking while their professors and administrators, in the interests of improving public relations and securing funding opportunities from the government and corporations, sacrifice their support for the intellectual pursuits of their students.@ S.D.S., “The Port Huron Statement.” Despite this current state, however, the authors of the Port Huron Statement argued that universities, with college students leading the way, could form the basis of true social change. This belief in the power of college students to lead the way for a more participatory democracy is reflected in their efforts to mobilize college students and their emphasis on leading events to address issues like racism and the Vietnam War across college campuses.
While SDS rocketed to national prominence, first with the publication of The Port Huron Statement and later with the 1965 national anti-war protest in D.C., by 1969 it had largely devolved into factional rivalries within the organization. Divergent groups within SDS - including the Progressive Labor Party and the rise of the more extreme Weathermen - created tensions that ultimately prevented SDS from being able to function effectively as an activist organization and move forward with clear objectives.@ Kazin, “Some Notes in S.D.S.” While SDS failed to recover from this factionalization, its community mobilization efforts across college campuses and its activist work became some of the hallmarks of 1960s social and political activism.