With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles–Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, James Miller’s “Democracy Is in the Streets,“ Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties and Thomas Powers’s Diana among them–SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy’s intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider’s history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the “talking heads” danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing–one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the ’60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. “We were very serious organizers,” Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. “We intended to change the world.” Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.