Reflections on SDS, Black Power, War and Racism, 40 Years Later

Reflections on SDS, Black Power, War and Racism, 40 Years Later

Reflections on SDS, Black Power, War and Racism, 40 Years Later

The same three pillars of US society that Dr. King urged people to confront–racism, imperialism, capitalism–continue with unabated brutality. What can be done? History may hold some answers.


Dan Berger

January 13, 2007

President Bush opted to expand US involvement in what is already a globally condemned war, ordering a so-called surge of 21,000 troops to be deployed starting this month. Although the Democratic Party has pledged to resist this increase, the primary tactic of dissent its leaders have thus far put forward is a non-binding vote condemning the move. Three years into a war and occupation that daily bring more news of abuse, violence and destruction–perhaps now more than ever is the moment when history will look most unkindly upon apathy, restraint or passivity.

The irony of Bush’s announcement–coming just days before the country celebrates an airbrushed version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–should not be lost on us. The holiday commemorating the slain civil rights leader has long been coopted by ruling elites to justify the morality of American policies and practices. The same three pillars of US society that King urged people to confront–racism, imperialism, capitalism–are now being further entrenched through this troop expansion. Forty years ago, King regretted the status of his country as “greatest purveyor of violence” on the planet, and since then this unwanted label has only grown in veracity. With a military budget that dwarfs the rest of the world’s military expenditures combined, the United States continues to fulfill King’s nightmare with unparalleled brutality.

But what can be done? How can the anger and resentment against the open imperialism of the Bush administration and the seemingly restrained response of even a triumphant Democratic Party be channeled into successful opposition? And how can this resistance target all facets of the archconservative agenda: the racist fear-mongering, the stark repression characterizing domestic policy (particularly regarding immigration) and the neoliberal policies that have ravaged this country and still find New Orleans devastated? The phalanx of policies that sends more troops to wage a criminal war–and supports the continued bombardment of Gaza and the West Bank–also leaves Latino immigrants criminalized, New Orleans residents scattered, abortion threatened, science questioned and queer people under attack.

To be sure, the urgency of our challenge is matched only by its enormity. There is no one right path, no easy answers to building effective, sustained resistance. Still, history offers some guidelines, some examples of paths that have been fruitful or barren, from which to think about crafting our response. Mechanical applications of situations from other countries or other time periods are misguided at best. But studying the successes and failures of mass movements may help illuminate the ways in which current activists can foster coalitions across differences. Such pluralist, democratic coalitions can harness popular opposition to the Bush agenda into a politically savvy, strategically minded movement to stop the war and work toward racial, economic and gender justice.

The following excerpt from Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity is offered in this spirit of learning from history. Resistance to the war in Vietnam was not simply the province of spoiled white college kids but of the sweeping opposition movements led most fundamentally by the black civil rights struggle and ultimately growing to include most sectors of society, from business people to laborers to–crucially–soldiers themselves. The excerpt discusses the original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS–which has since been re-formed) in relation to the developing phenomenon of Black Power at the same time as the war expanded in scope and troop levels. The interplay of anti-war and racial justice in the 1960s and 1970s can, I hope, inform a similar dialectic today. The point is not to replicate that time period but to, in the words of former SDSer Robert Roth, “generate an independent political momentum that’s not just tied to who wins the election” but to fundamental social change. Indeed, it may just be our only hope.


Revised excerpt from Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, by Dan Berger (AK Press, 2006).

From “Shaking the Conscience to Shaking the System: Reflections of SDS and Black Power, War and Racism, 40 Years Later”

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began in 1960 as a national organization, though it was initially based primarily in the Northeast, with a sizable presence in Michigan, among liberal and social democratic intelligentsia. It was the student wing of the Cold War liberal (and anti-communist) League for Industrial Democracy (LID). The young students laid out their vision of a better society in 1962, in a document known as the Port Huron Statement. Written in Michigan by Tom Hayden, who would go on to become a California state senator, the statement expressed the students’ support for civil rights, disdain for nuclear proliferation, and hope for a progressive realignment of the Democratic Party. The statement rejected both the greed of the West and the authoritarianism of the East. By not categorically condemning communism, Port Huron broke with the Cold War paradigm–including that of LID–without casting itself as a communist organization (yet). SDS and LID would soon part ways, especially after SDS refused to prohibit communists from attending and speaking at the landmark April 1965 anti-war march. Calling itself a New Left, SDS believed that it was charting new waters–by refusing to ban communists, the group separated itself from the liberal Left and its zealous anti-communism. SDS was also unwilling to fall into the traps of the Old Left; it did not look to the Soviet Union for inspiration, nor did it narrowly view union organizing as the epitome of what it meant to be on the Left. Instead, SDS committed itself to community organizing.

From the outset, SDS was a group with a multi-issue approach. One of its initial projects was known as the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). This endeavor sent earnest white students to poor, often black urban areas throughout the Northeast and Midwest in an effort to build “an interracial movement of the poor.” Though the program built off lessons learned from the civil rights movement–especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)–it tended to minimize race in its attempts to organize “around economic and political grievances” based solely on the “natural alliance among all poor people.” It was a sincere effort that taught many SDSers a lot about organizing and built solid friendships among many early SDS members. And it taught many SDS activists that the “natural alliance” would not materialize without specific attention to combating white racism.

By the mid-1960s, SDS was on the upswing. Following its organizing of the first national anti-war march in 1965, SDS staff numbers grew tremendously. Regional offices sprang up across the country, and soon the organization was no longer one where everyone knew one another. After that first national anti-war march on Washington, the organization came under attack by the mass media as “subversive” and “unpatriotic.” American youth responded eagerly: SDS membership grew from 3,000 people in June 1964 to 15,000 in June 1966.

In the early to mid-1960s, SDS felt that the public was uninformed, especially about the war in Vietnam and racism in the South. Once the public and the government were made aware of these issues, SDS members felt, things would surely change. There was faith that the government would not knowingly participate in or tolerate illegal, unethical acts. This faith was coupled with a tremendous optimism concerning the people of the United States and their ability to make change, along with an assumption that the government would be receptive to change. It was thought that just by calling attention to atrocities in the South and in Vietnam, people would be moved to act and pressure the government to make change.

Six years after its quiet beginning in 1960, SDS was shifting its approach as a result of dramatic world events. The group began to identify the problem as one of the use and control of power in society. In other words, the structure of society needed a total overhaul; the legitimacy of the United States itself was called into question. As this process occurred across the country, fueled by the emerging radicalism of the Black Liberation Movement and the deepening crisis in Vietnam, a revolutionary movement began to materialize nationwide.

“Our movement had begun with the hope that we could ‘shake the moral conscience of America,'” says David Gilbert, then an SDS activist in New York City, now a political prisoner. “But painful experience had taught us that there was an entrenched power structure which profited from and systematically enforced oppression. We could not make a dent in the overwhelming social violence of the status quo without coming up against that power structure.”

Central to this radical shift was the cry for Black Power, raised first in 1966 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was the vanguard civil rights organization in the South, a major source of inspiration to radicals and progressives movement at large. Most SNCC members (and leaders) were black, but liberal whites had been allowed to join. Now they were being “asked” to leave; some would say thrown out. SNCC’s logic was simple, even unassailable. It demanded that whites leave the group to organize in their own communities, because that was where the system of racial oppression was based, not in the black communities where they had been organizing. (In his memoir, Stokely Carmichael/ Kwame Ture said this decision was also motivated by the fact that the presence of anti-racist whites in black communities was more likely to invite vigilante violence.) Black Power went even further. It defined the central task for oppressed people as achieving power, not simply “equality” within the country’s existing structures.

Black Power created a ripple effect throughout the movement by raising self-definition and self-determination as central components to radical political struggle; it explicitly connected demands for an end to racial apartheid in the South with the struggles of black people in the North and throughout the country. The more cutting edge elements of this movement also made connections between the black struggle here and struggles by other Third World people throughout the world. Black Power was an acknowledgement that racism was not a Southern problem but was fundamental to the structure of the United States. Whether they supported it or not, other black groups now had to define themselves in relation to Black Power, and white activists were challenged to think about politics in an entirely new way. Black Power advocates argued that the roots of the problem were to be found not in individual white racism but in systematic white supremacy–the exclusion of black people (and other people of color) from meaningful participation in the political and social realms, accomplished through economic domination and, when necessary, brute force.

The practical implications of viewing black people as a colonized population were made clear by the violent urban riots sweeping the country, the most famous of which occurred in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965; it lasted for six days, involved more than 30,000 people, and caused an estimated $200 million damage. Thirty-five people were killed and more than 4,000 were arrested. Two years later, forty-one people were killed in a Detroit riot. The Black ghettoes of the United States were rising up, seemingly in concert with those violent rebellions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In cities large and small, the riots found people fighting police and the National Guard, the armed enforcers of a racist state.

Ashanti Alston was one of many black youths impacted by the urban rebellions. When his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey (population 60,000), erupted in rebellion in 1967, the 13-year-old Alston was inspired by seeing armed black people take over the city–and kick the local police out of town, if temporarily. Even in 1967, Alston remembers the harsh treatment he received at school or out in the street from white people, who owned almost the entire town. “The only things that weren’t owned by white people were the barber shop, the funeral parlor, and the churches,” he recalls, despite the town’s sizable black population. “That rebellion was my entry into what I considered the revolution. From there I really put a lot of effort into trying to read Malcolm X’s autobiography. [He and] Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were shaping a far more radical consciousness, or at least a more radical approach to black liberation.”

From July to October of 1966, rebellions occurred in Omaha, Nebraska; Chicago; Cleveland; Brooklyn; Milwaukee; Dayton, Ohio; Waukegan and Benton Harbor, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; San Francisco; Oakland; and more than 25 other cities. The following year, riots erupted in 128 cities, and there were 131 such uprisings in the first six months of 1968 alone. The country was exploding.


The turn from civil rights to Black Power also had a big impact on SDS, causing the organization to raise solidarity with the black movement as a cutting edge issue. “Even though at that point we were primarily an anti-war group, more and more the situation of black people in the US became a focus,” says Scott Braley, an SDSer from the lily-white and deeply conservative Midland, Michigan. The challenge Black Power raised for white organizers was simple in form, difficult in practice: organize other whites against racism. It was a challenge to the history of the white Left, in which struggles by people of color have largely been ignored, co-opted, or sold out. This was quite a challenge, Braley recalls, because it gave white activists a much more defined role and responsibility. “It is hard enough to organize white people around general progressive ideals, let alone an anti-war program, or an anti-racism program. An anti-racism program was much harder to organize white people into, rather than just being part of some general ‘movement.'”

Although SNCC was instrumental in its ascendancy, the cutting edge of the Black Power movement soon became the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Formed in 1966 by Merritt College students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers would become the most famous, the most controversial, and ultimately the most targeted organization of the 1960s. As an organization, the Black Panther Party organized among poor, unemployed and incarcerated black people; elucidated a clear 10-point program of demands and political platform; and instituted wide-ranging community programs, from self-defense to political education and free healthcare and food programs. The Panthers, from the outset, were very much in the tradition of Malcolm X and the philosophies he espoused. “It seemed like they were putting Malcolm’s philosophy into practice,” Alston says, explaining what drew him to establish a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Plainfield at age 17.

The Black Panther Party received national, then international, attention as it engaged in grassroots community work, pilloried institutional oppression and publicly identified with global struggles for socialism and national liberation. As a result of their militant and empowering programs, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared them the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States,” opening the way for a vicious attack on the group by police forces at every level, through overt and covert, legal and illegal means. This repression would soon lead to the destruction of the group, the murder of some key leaders, and the incarceration of many Panthers (some of whom still remain behind bars).

Meanwhile, SNCC was still on the scene and helping to lead anti-war organizing. The civil rights group publicly criticized the federal government for making war across the world without providing for the safety and well-being of civil rights workers in the South. SNCC leader Robert Moses, among others in the group, was also involved in anti-war work and pushed the organization to include it as part of its program. When Navy veteran and SNCC organizer Sammy Younge was murdered in Tuskegee, Ala., on Jan. 3, 1966, for trying to use a “white” restroom, the organization responded quickly with a statement. In it, SNCC asserted that it had a “right and a responsibility to dissent with the United States foreign policy on any issue the United States government [has] been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in such countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and in the United States itself.”

SNCC went right to the heart of the matter, connecting the murders of black people with those of Vietnamese and other Third World people–all emanating from this country’s refusal to respect human rights and abide by the law. As the SNCC statement said, “Younge was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. … Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The United States is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs and desires.” SNCC urged people to work in the movement rather than accept the draft. SNCC, the Panthers and other revolutionary Third World groups in the United States connected anti-racist struggle domestically with the war in Vietnam as emanating from the same system of white supremacy and capitalism–of imperialism. This political articulation pushed SDS forward with a more radical anti-war, and specifically anti-draft, program.

With this political radicalization came an increasing turn to confrontational tactics. In one of the major SDS protests of 1966, Harvard and Radcliffe students confronted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara when he went to the Ivy League school to talk to a preselected group of fifty students. Harvard/Radcliffe SDS demanded that McNamara have a public debate about the war, or at least speak to a larger crowd; first this demand was made by SDS alone, and then the group presented a petition with 1,600 names on it, all supporting a public debate. Harvard and McNamara both refused. Almost 1,000 SDSers surrounded the building where the architect of the Vietnam War was speaking. When he emerged in a police car, student radicals conducted a sit-in, preventing it from moving. McNamara stood atop the car to field questions. Not surprisingly, the questions focused on US involvement in Vietnam and support for the military dictatorship in South Vietnam. The confrontation ended with police carrying the defense secretary over their heads out of the area. It was a sign of things to come.

“There became this realization that we weren’t just going to shake up their consciousness and change things, that there was actually a power structure that was determined to keep up the current relationships and was quite willing and capable of using force and violence,” David Gilbert recalls. “I think that that realization created a crisis in the movement.”


Fast forward forty years: Similar issues of war and racism continue to define the world, even if we’ve moved from the era of Camelot to a postmodern permanent war wonderland called globalization. White supremacy and patriarchy propel both the international and the national contexts. Empire has both a domestic front and an international one, operating with some similarity on both sides of the borders. The legacy of SDS and the myriad groups that emerged in its wake have helped shape the racial justice initiatives of white activists today, in the burgeoning critique of US global military hegemony and in the growing Left opposition to transnational corporate crime and pillaging. At the same time, this legacy is positively amended and altered by the queer and transgender movement, by the strength of women’s leadership in activist projects the world over, by the passion for transparent democracy in movement organizations as well as formal political structures. Even when they falter, most modern US social movements recognize that they must in some way confront racism. While such considerations have sometimes gotten mired in discussions of group dynamics without sufficient attention to developing an anti-racist program, the Black Power and white anti-imperialist movements have successfully raised the issue of white supremacy as one the Left–and society–must deal with.

The ongoing emphasis on racial justice and sexual and gender freedom is not the narrow parochialism of a much-maligned “identity politics,” but the strategic and dynamic centerpiece of Left momentum today. The task for people in the United States is, for example, to unite the democratic possibilities of the World Social Forum with the anti-racist militancy of the prison abolition movement; to join women’s activism against fundamentalism with the emerging networks of transgender health and safety; to connect support for the popular rebellions in Latin America with support for Africans fighting the AIDS crisis; to link opposition to the wars in and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq with the ongoing struggles for justice led by people of color within this country. Former SDS leader Bernardine Dohrn identifies this challenge as “how to be internationalist and yet grounded here in organizing work with a real radical critique of American power and inequality.”

The specifics of what such solidarity will mean in the new millennium are still developing and taking shape. The practical lessons are emerging in the student-worker alliances of Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a farmworker union comprised primarily of Latino and Haitian workers); the cross-border solidarity modeled in organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, School of the Americas Watch, and projects focused on conflict zones like Haiti or the Philippines; and in the local relationships being built in cities and towns across the country, centered on building organizations and coalitions committed to racial, economic, environmental, gender and sexual justice. Talk of dismantling “intersecting and interlocking systems of oppression” has replaced talk of fighting “the system.” Yet solidarity remains at the root of movements for social justice, as they build toward a unified and global mass movement. They are movements united under the slogan “Another world is possible,” with networks of resisters who have set out to bring such a world into being.

What is the contemporary context set by the most oppressed–communities of color in America and people of the Third World/Global South/Two-Thirds World–today? What are appropriate responses to systemic oppression? How can movements simultaneously exist in and relate to contexts that are local, regional, national and global? Who are the leading progressive forces in the struggles of the 21st century? How can the various forms of privilege and oppression be confronted? What is the creative range of political responses possible and necessary? The radical US Left of the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t offer the answers or provide an instruction manual. But it does present a legacy of constantly raising and grappling with these questions, a toolkit that new generations can use to develop both a vision of a better society and the means of creating it.

Dan Berger is a writer, activist and graduate student in Philadelphia. He is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books, 2005).

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