Tom Hayden delivered these remarks to a gathering of activists at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It appears as part of the Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.
Let me tell you some of my story and lessons I have learned over these past five decades. I have always tried to improve my country, always trying from the places around me.
I was smart and ambitious and athletic, but something never felt right in my suburb, school and church. I felt more at home with the underdogs and misfits than with the authorities. I was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye against Alfred E. Newman at Mad magazine.
I editorialized against overcrowded classes in high school. I editorialized against racist fraternity discrimination at the university. I went to the Democratic Convention in 1960 and was moved by Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and a new student movement.
I moved to Georgia, became a Freedom Rider, got beaten up for civil rights. I helped start a movement on campuses called Students for a Democratic Society that believed in what we called participatory democracy, the right of everyone to a voice in the decisions affecting their lives. We wanted to bring the spirit of the Southern movement to the North.
I left graduate school and became a community organizer in the slums of Newark for four years. During that time the US government, led by the Democratic Party, invaded Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of troops after promising not to. The draft started up, and I was classified IY, the category for potential troublemakers.
Watts blew up in 1965. My Newark neighborhood became an occupied war zone in 1967, and that was it for the war on poverty. I wanted to know who we were really fighting, so I went to North Vietnam in December 1965, my first trip outside America. I was shocked at the civilian destruction, and the brave resistance of a small nation of peasants. I came back and immediately lobbied for a negotiated withdrawal, and got nowhere.
Now I was living in two worlds, still knocking on doors in Newark and opposing a war that was ending the war on poverty I believed in. The contradictions becoming too much, I helped organize antiwar protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Nixon, the FBI and even Lyndon Johnson said we were part of an internationally funded communist conspiracy. I was still fighting against wrongdoing at home, while my father’s generation thought we were pawns of an enemy abroad.
I went back to Berkeley set on organizing youth and student communities. I was yanked away to be indicted by the Nixon government for the street riots in Chicago. I spent about five years, including five straight months on trial, living under a cloud, until the courts threw out the case of the Chicago 8. I really didn’t know if we were descending into a police state or not. During our trial, one defendant, Bobby Seale, was chained and gagged, and two Panthers working on his legal defense were shot with ninety police rounds while sleeping in their apartment.