The Port Huron Statement was the declaration of principles issued June 15, 1962, by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a major radical student organization in the United States during the 1960s. Having only a few hundred members across the country at the time the Statement was drafted, SDS drew tens of thousands of students into its ranks as the movement against the Vietnam War grew—before a deep factional split destroyed the organization in 1969. During SDS’s history of activism, 60,000 copies of the Statement were distributed. It has become a historical landmark of American leftwing radicalism and a widely influential discourse on the meaning of democracy in modern society.
SDS grew out of an older organization, the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), which had roots dating back to 1905 and flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. Much reduced in size by the 1950s, SLID was renamed and reorganized in 1960, principally under the influence of its Ann Arbor chapter led by students Al Haber, Sharon Jeffrey, and Bob Ross, as well as (a bit later) Tom Hayden and Richard and Miriam (Mickey) Flacks—all of whom attended and spoke at the “New Insurgency” conference, along with many other SDS veterans. The United Auto Workers (UAW), based in Detroit and led at the time by the liberal “social unionist” Walter Reuther, loaned SDS its conference facilities in Port Huron, Michigan, for the June 1962 convention that drew up The Port Huron Statement. University of Michigan professor Arnold Kaufman coined the phrase, “participatory democracy,” which became the watchword of the Statement and SDS’s vision of radical social change in American life.
The Port Huron Statement sought to frame political goals for an alliance of “liberals and socialists” in terms suited to the era of the Cold War and relevant to the youth of the time. It rested on an acute sensitivity to the threat of world-destroying nuclear war, the mood of “apathy” believed to dominate student life in the 1950s, the damage done to the reputation of the radical Left both by the monstrous dictatorship in the Soviet Union and by the scare tactics and repression identified as “McCarthyism” in the United States, and the inspiring moral example offered by renewed African American civil rights activism by the early 1960s. The Statement argued that changing contemporary society in the direction of racial equality, social and economic justice, peace, and worldwide prosperity (for formerly colonized peoples as well) was urgent, and that “a new left” capable of agitating for change must base itself on compelling moral values and an unshakable commitment to democratic politics.
The keynote of the document—suggested by SDS president Al Haber’s idea that “democracy is a radical idea,” phrased by the young journalist Tom Hayden, and reliant on the doctrine of political philosopher Arnold Kaufman—was to be found in its evocation of participatory democracy. The term offered a vision that went beyond electoral contests between two established political parties to imagine a society reorganized to engage active citizens in governing all institutions of public life, rather than leaving them in the hands of a tiny elite of privileged decision-makers and authorities. While the Statement, some 70 pages long and published as a pamphlet sold for 35 cents, addressed a myriad of issues from the arms race to the condition of the labor movement, the role of white segregationists in the Democratic Party, and the need for “development” in the poor countries of the world, its heart lay in the following passage:
We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity. As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.
The Port Huron Statement built upon the record of the civil rights movement for Black freedom and racial equality. It came before—and therefore failed to recognize the import of—such movements as feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, and a broad multiculturalism consciously open to Latina/os, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, though Port Huron principles had some influence on almost all of these. In fact, the Statement’s influence has been so wide (even if it is not commonly recognized by name today) that references to it have cropped up in landmarks of recent popular culture such as the movie The Big Lebowski and the hit TV show Mad Men.
Besides participatory democracy, however, the most telling notions conveyed by The Port Huron Statement were its insistence on the role of students in social reform and the urgency of its appeal for fundamental change. The Statement concluded in this way:
We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence [in pursuit of social change]. . . . [Our agenda] will involve national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty. They must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy. They must make fraternal and functional contact with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus. They must import major public issues into the curriculum—research and teaching on problems of war and peace is an outstanding example. They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life. They must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power.
As students for a democratic society, we are committed to stimulating this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program in campus and community across the country. If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.