A true force of history, Tom Hayden was also an important voice at The Nation, where he served on the editorial board and contributed numerous articles and ideas over the years. To commemorate his passing and the major impact he had on his times, The Nation asked friends of Tom to offer personal remembrances of the man and his work. “I never stopped learning from Tom. I’m sure that all of us can say that,” wrote fellow organizer, Mark Rudd. Many others, including Mike Davis, Joan Walsh, Greg Grandin, Phyllis Bennis, Victor Navasky, and Dick Flacks share their fond memories of Tom, and the impact he had on their writing, lives and activism.
Fifty-two years ago this December, an obscure group of young activists, Students for a Democratic Society, held a national council meeting in New York to discuss the next year’s work. As I recall there were about 40 people present, some of them recent veterans of Freedom Summer, others peace and civil rights activists at campuses such as Swarthmore, Michigan, Chicago, Harvard and Tufts.
I was 18, recently expelled from Reed College in Portland, and a coolie in the tiny SDS national office running a mimeograph machine and stuffing envelopes. If it had put to vote, I undoubtedly would have won election from my peers as the most politically naive and painfully inarticulate member of the fledgling New Left.
Although the intricacies of the National Council debate were largely beyond my grasp, the action agenda was breathtakingly audacious. SDS was essentially proposing to declare war on LBJ’s war in Vietnam with a march on Washington the following April, while simultaneously recruiting students into long-term urban organizing projects with the hope of catalyzing an interracial movement of the poor in the North. There was also a proposal to expose Wall Street’s role in financing the apartheid regime in South Africa with a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank.
As NC members drifted into the city for the meeting, I asked one of the veterans—that is to say, a 22-year-old—what to expect. She told me, “Wait till Tom Hayden speaks.” He was already a tribal legend: editor of the Michigan Daily, the principal author of the Port Huron Statement, the victim of a infamous beating in broad daylight in Mississippi, and so on. I expected a brilliant orator, fire coming out of his nostrils.
In the event he was gruff and dog-tired. When he finally spoke, I was embarrassed because I missed the point he was making, if indeed he was even trying to make a point. It was more like a long haiku. I had no idea what to make of him. He was only 26, but struck me as having the manner of a world-weary city-desk editor or father confessor twice his age.
There were many leadership styles to emulate in the movement, but it was the quiet anti-charisma of Bob Moses—the architect of SNCC’s astonishingly courageous Mississippi project—that most influenced SDS in those last days before its uncontrolled explosion into the biggest radical student movement in American history. Tom’s charisma was also anti-charismatic, an unrhetorical gravitas tinctured by Irish melancholy and authenticated by his willingness to repeatedly step into the line of fire.