Barbara Haber, Port Huron: A Template for Hope

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The Port Huron convention ranks high on my list of most cherished memories. 

I came to Port Huron from two years of passionate work in the civil rights movement. Toward the end, I had experienced the space for whites in the movement contracting. Earlier, as a student at Brandeis University, I had come to define myself as a democratic socialist. As a Jew, the words “never again” called me to act against oppression.  By 1962, I was seeking people with a broadly radical vision of change.

At Port Huron I felt I had found just what I was looking for.  The people I met there were smart, humorous, politically experienced, energetic, committed, and friendly.  We held a shared assumption: that through collective thinking we could understand the world and that with passionate dedication we could change it.   The exuberant spirit born of shared moral purpose, a sense of historic mission, and the sweet company of kindred souls was infectious.

Our task, revising what would become The Port Huron Statement, gave us the medium in which we began to shape our collective political vision and get to know one another.  We were aiming at creating a piece of literature that would actually be read, reflected upon, and remembered --as, indeed, it has been! We sought to freshly envision the radical possibilities of political culture; to provide ourselves with a rough map by which we could guide our activist lives; and to fire the social imaginations of our contemporaries.  We saw ourselves not as bit players in a drama dominated by blue-collar workers, but as bona fide agents of change.  We reasoned, --correctly, I believe-- that in a society increasingly dominated by information and high technology, students, who would serve as technicians, managers, and professionals occupied a strategically vital position.

I came to Port Huron seeking personal transformation as well as political and social change. I believe this was true for others as well. The civil rights movement had, for many of us, created deep personal shifts in perception and aspiration.  The African-American struggle, with the vibrant communities that sprang up within it, was a harsh mirror in which we saw reflected the banalities and complacencies of white, middle-class life.  We saw the stereotypic and conformist social niches that were waiting for us --especially women! --and we were repelled.  We had already found something better.  Our  political task was to translate that something better into a society in which all people could live lives of meaning, vitality, and, yes, adventure. Community, founded on political engagement, was both means and end. We had a personal as well as a political stake in this project.  We needed it so that we could sustain lives beyond college that were different from those we’d been raised to expect.

 

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This confluence of the desire for personal transformation and political agency

 was central to new-left politics, and the source of both strengths and weaknesses.  Though the personal is political, and the political is personal, sometimes the two are in conflict.  Looking back, it seems to me that when we foundered, it was often because our personal ambitions, insecurities, and limited relational skills derailed us.  They prevented us from being the human beings we needed to be in order to resolve our conflicts in a way that could nurture our movement, our organization, and its participants. This was true of both women and men. I know that it was true of me.

Our civil rights experience had taught us that social change would come through a combination of tough, unyielding, grass-roots organizations, coupled with dramatic acts of protest and courage.  These acts would demonstrate to the world, in irresistible images, the themes and demands on which we wanted to focus attention. I still have confidence in this model. Not too many years later, however, it shaded into intoxication with risk and disdain for the ordinary. We came to over-value extravaganza, and sometimes confused upping the ante with being more radical and more effective.  I believe that this stance also contributed to the atrophy of our abilities to sustain relationships –with people, organizations, and ideas.

Port Huron held out a promise specific to women –that we could participate fully in creating a movement that would change our country, and by implication that we would have personal relationships of equality.  I say this although on the face of it The Port Huron Statement is hopelessly sexist.  The pronouns are male; the oppression of women, issues of family life, child-rearing, reproduction, sexual violence, and unequal opportunity and pay, are all missing. Yet, in many ways, The Port Huron Statement, and our process at the convention, held that implicit promise. 

From a feminist point of view it is significant that The Port Huron Statement begins with values. This section is an evocative description of our own lives and the moral lessons we derive from them.  It sees the quest for orienting human values as the first task of a social movement.  Working outward from concrete, immediate experience to derive general values, then using those values as criteria for comprehending structures and evaluating events, are ways of thinking that are common among women, and would later become hallmarks of feminist process.

Participatory democracy, the defining phrase of Port Huron, though vague, also contributed to our feminist framework. As we began to confront the rigidity, remoteness, and inaccessibility of institutions of power, including those in SDS,  women  recognized that it would take a radical transformation of decision-making if we were to gain full entry, and thereby get control over our lives.  Participatory democracy legitimized our demand that we be heard and considered as equals in all matters.

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The drafting process itself, at least in the values committee where I spent much

of my time, exemplified the ideals that would later be articulated by the feminist movement.  We met in a small group to collectively create text that would be included in our statement to the world.  Much care was expended to encourage reticent members to express their views.  Ideas and questions were responded to without condescension or acrimony.  Good-naturedness, tolerance, and curiosity characterized our discussions. 

Though not perfect, Port Huron set high standards, and embodied, however briefly, how to be good people, inspiring comrades, and effective organizers.

I stayed with SDS until it was taken over by the Weathermen. By 1965, though, my frustration at intractable resistance in SDS to equality for women had pushed me to define myself primarily as a feminist, though I remained active in anti-Vietnam war organizing.

 My bitterness has long melted. Looking back, I feel honored and fortunate to have been present at Port Huron and part of SDS, however painful my experience.  I also feel profound sadness.  We were such good and smart young people, men as well as women. We took on many of the right issues, for the right reasons, and had significant impact. Our overarching vision, though incomplete, still inspires. But sexism and personal shortcomings pulled apart those of us who might otherwise have been strong allies and partners, in it together for the long haul.  As allies we might have encouraged one another to sustain our radical struggles without canned ideological certainties; to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence; to overcome collectively our anxieties at the momentousness of our undertaking; to build an organization that could support our enormous enterprise. How might it all have turned out then? 

Barbara Haber has been a psychotherapist since 1984.  As a child and teen she studied art and hoped to be an artist.  She returned to painting and drawing in the late 90s.  She has been involved in anti-nuclear, anti-war and other progressive organizing.  She lives in Oakland, CA.