In September 1959, when the old “slid” adopted the name “Students for a Democratic Society,” I undertook to build a new organization, action and education, affirming economic democracy and identifying in the indigenous radical tradition of “our founders” Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Clarence Darrow and progressives like fighting Bob Lafollet after whom I'm named. From June 1960, I was sds President and also on staff, though sometimes fired, It was beginning, buoyant, heady times in the movement, civil rights, peace, justice, revolution, change the world. I met a lot of beautiful people many of whom I tried to recruit, some successfully. I made friends where I could. Our “manifesto,” which we decided on to attempt, in Ann Arbor at our December 1961 meeting, was to express who we were, what we believed, how we saw the world and what we intended to do about it.
So, from its beginning, I had a special relation to the Port Huron convention and what became our statement. It was my job to make it happen. When we decided to do a manifesto, we began asking ourselves and everyone on our lists, what should be in the manifesto? Lots of suggestions came, there was a collective back and forth. Tom was the genius and word-crafter who put it all together, with consultants over his shoulders on different sections. The office crew was typing on different typewriters, making stencils, mimeographing, collating, stapling. We didn't get the draft all pieced together until we were ready to make the drive from New York to Port Huron. Getting the place in Port Huron to meet was uncertain until hardly more than a week before we planned to meet. Stress, anxiety, excitement.
At Port Huron, this “organization in the movement,” that I had devoted myself to building, actually came into being. I was satisfied, tired, and ready to go back to school. It was hard work, getting us there. I looked forward to when there would be a new President of sds and I could not have to worry about it. My last sds job, I thought, would be getting people off the beach, and into workshops and meetings. I was so grateful for everyone who came, giving a real life human reality to an idea, a dream, an imagining, a commitment, a necessity. The draft manifesto gave us work to do together, to read, to think, talk, listen, meet. We took the draft apart and put it back together, and debated instructions of how to make it better. We were mostly pretty respectful of each other. Sincere. As such things go, it was a good meeting, foretastes of trouble notwithstanding.. We made a new something, its future unknown.. We were a we. I had a taste of that beloved community that so infused the Southern movement. “Embraced by an unending love,” I call it now. I was full of love. Love was what it was all about. We were brave-hearts. We believed in freedom. We would overcome. We will.
The convention then, at the very end, surprised me, passing a motion of appreciation that so touched my heart, honoring me to say I live in demonstration of my beliefs. That was true, and I have kept on doing it, or trying, and can't imagine stopping. They said I was “founder, theoretician, organizer, publicizer and personal locus of sds.” They called me “the creator of a community of people, who, united, are the partial beginning of a visible social movement and its future power will owe much to him.” They spoke of my sense of obligation, and celebrated my existence. No one had ever said anything so nice about me. I was moved. I was given a place of notice. I hope I have held it well. Of course, my part was mostly a consistent, perseverant will, and finding good people. It was everyone who made it happen, each offering something of themselves to a whole, beyond any of us. I did press the importance of organization, and continue to do so.
The Port Huron Statement was linked to the organization effort and movement building strategy of sds There was an impulse toward action in all the recitations of facts. Even without the organization, it articulates a framework of activist values and a vision of “participatory democracy” that has been a reference point in many people's education and continues to serve the movements. After Port Huron, sds made the history it did; some good, some not so. Definitely we created a heritage of controversy. 10s of thousands of young activists challenged nearly every pillar of the status quo, including among ourselves. Men discovered that women held up half the sky, and more. We all discovered war.
I wish the successors of the Port Huron early generations in sds had kept the organization together, after the 60s. I wish the Movement for a Democratic Society, had bloomed then in its many petals, as when first envisioned, intergenerational beyond college, insurgent in its different institutional setting. Once on a panel called “Remembering sds,” I said it was a good idea; we should “re-member sds.” The political culture in America has lacked in the absence of the continuity of a multi issue, change the system “education and action organization dedicated to increasing democracy in all phases of our common life.”
There is now a new student sds, to which I gave some help; and seniors and survivors for democratic society are all over the country, latent, remembering, active in our varied ways; and a new “mds” has formed, as a placeholder at least for that spirit of continuity, keeping the faith, and encouraging organization.
I would like to see a “manifesto for now,” or more humbly, a statement for these times, or at least the effort at collective thinking again, and more inclusively, as we attempted 50 years ago. We are now many generations active, and conscious all over the world. There are things obvious now that weren't yet on our minds at all. Thinking together is urgent.
While “mutually assured destruction” has receded, global-nuclear-war-wise, the doomsday clock is ever closer to midnight. The unimaginable, for which we attempted the unattainable, still haunts the horizon. Calamities await the whole life system. The movements around the world are needed to be more successful both in holding back the warrior beasts of global capital, and in putting before the people a “viable alternative.” the option of a different government, and a winning plan of how to make it happen: shifting to a peace system from the war system, from the old order of domination, patriarchy, triumphalism, etc, to a peace economy and a culture of peace and non-violence, partnership, caring, sharing, helping, healing, and the old virtues of generosity and hospitality. The means of communication now, and the strength of the people's movements in every country make this possible.
Thinking back, I was a different person then, my eyes not so full of tears as now, seeing horrors on so many fronts. Then I was a serious student of history, an intellectual, believing in science and that there were answers to all questions, I had taken on a political task. I was doing it. At Port Huron, it was done.
When the League for Industrial Democracy attacked our document, our camaraderie was sealed, as we had to defend what we said and argue with our elders. New tasks followed. Economic Research and Action Project, Radical Education Project, others. I've been at it all my life.
After the 60s, I went within, as many did, boarding up my books, still on the shelves, using my “free-lance-radical-intellectual” grant money to buy tools, open a “splinter group” woodshop, and begin training and working as a cabinetmaker. After my apprenticeship, I tried to organize a movement based presidential campaign, 1975-76, (I was the only professional cabinet maker ever to apply for the job.) We were too divided among ourselves, to make a union, and perhaps still are.
Now I'm a carpenter, no longer studious or insisting on answers. Besides an activist, forever young, I think of myself as a Jew, sharing a prophetic mission, calling for a turning of hearts, lest there come the great destruction, calling the powers-that-be to the table of peace, to end the wars, (I made the table,) chastising Israel for its sinful ways and failures of faith, (I build arks for the Torah.) Jews weren't even a category when we talked politics back in those days, Now I'm near persona-non-grate among many fellow Jews, for applying the honest human values of my Port Huron youth to current life. I advocate for union, u n I o n, the unlimited network integrating our nations. Nationalism is the scourge we didn't identify, and fascism the enemy behind the curtain. I work locally in Ann Arbor , Michigan on the campaigns for the commons and for a community center for the homeless. Its been said I'm still unrealistic.