At 72, I look back with pride and compassion---as well as gratitude--- to the Port Huron Conference and the years surrounding it when I was active in Students for a Democratic Society. Pride because we were determined, organized, and active in a wide movement that accomplished sweeping changes. Compassion because we were young, intensely focused on the change we wanted and how to get there, and hurting in ways we didn’t understand or didn’t believe were worthy. Compassion also as a memory of how we felt for the people who were without justice or the blessings we had known as a birthright. Some of us, and I was one, were filled with fear that our world would be set ablaze in a nuclear holocaust at any moment. We were filled with guilt---or urgency--- about the wrongs of segregation and poverty and couldn’t spare a moment for “frivolous” personal joy. I personally was troubled (depressed, we would say now) and uncertain of my direction in the adult life I was entering after college.
I feel gratitude for the opportunity to participate in a historic movement that made grand changes in our national culture and laws governing civil rights and civil liberties, and launched a movement for equality that continues today. I wish every person could have this experience of making a difference, of their “power of conviction” and community with others who share values and commitment to act. For us, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was a rallying cry, not a cold historic memory of a time long gone or a cynical comment on failure of government. We were “the people”; we knew some of us were left out by injustices; and we set about to right those wrongs.
After five decades, I still find the primary message of the Port Huron Statement alive, needed, and echoed by other movements of our time both in the United States and throughout the world. It seems we slid backwards in economic rules and values rather than progressed, but in civil rights and liberties, great progress was made. However, regarding nuclear disarmament, I think the deterrence protagonists were more correct than we thought at the time, although the nuclear threat endures and triggers unjust wars in the name of avoiding nuclear proliferation. The women’s movement broadened our 1960’s movement and shook up our relationships and community in major ways, but for us women, it extended the movement and empowered us.
The biggest change I would make in the Port Huron Statement is to add the environment as a primary focus. The 1960’s created sweeping changes in how we view and protect the environment and other species. Today those gains are all vulnerable to powerful challenges. We realize that protecting parks, wilderness, species, and environmental impact analysis is insufficient. We must change how we live in order to live sustainably and preserve the planet’s atmosphere to enable not only wildlife and native plants, but our own grandchildren to live. We understand now what our elders knew: we must work to keep the gains made long ago.
For me personally, “the movement” even created the basis for my living. I worked for many years as an equal opportunity officer implementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But also, our intense focus on being “agents of change” clouded the need to balance our lives, to be supportive partners and friends and attentive parents. Buddhist practice later gave me and others the understanding that balance is important and that while we work for change, we can dance, listen to the birds, include quiet in our daily lives, and rejoice.