Political activist Tom Hayden was founder of ’60s SDS

Royal Oak native donated his papers relating to his political career to UM Library’s Joseph A. Labadie Collection

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News
As a California state senator, Tom Hayden and a delegation of Salvadorans who resided in the U.S. held a news conference on Nov. 25, 1998, in San Salvador, El Salvador. Hayden was asked to help stop the deportation of Salvadorans who entered the U.S. illegally.

Tom Hayden, the politician, author, anti-war and environmental activist, and native Michiganian who died Sunday, lived much of his 76 years in the very vortex of the storm that became known as the ’60s.

As he wrote in his 1988 memoir, “Reunion”: “Rarely, if ever, in American history has a generation begun with higher ideals and experienced greater trauma than those who lived fully the short time from 1960 to 1968.”

As a University of Michigan student, Hayden helped draft those ideals and, some would argue, advance the trauma in the form of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, in 1962.

”I think he really put U of M on the map as far as making it one of those activist universities,” said Julie Herrada, curator of the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library, where Hayden’s papers are collected. “He started SDS, and that was really the beginning of the New Left movement.”

Hayden lived those ideals when he was arrested in 1968 in Chicago while demonstrating outside the Democratic National Convention, earning a slot as one of the infamous “Chicago Seven.”

Born on Dec. 11, 1939, and growing up in Royal Oak as the son of a Chrysler accountant and a housewife, Hayden seemingly lived a placid, Catholic boyhood, cruising Woodward and playing baseball. But in 1957, he put his diploma at Dondero High School in jeopardy after a stunt editorial he wrote for the school paper, crafting the first letter of every sentence to spell “Go to hell.”

Hayden described his family dynamic to The Detroit News in 2015.

“It was a family where the father was a Republican and the mom was a Democrat,” he said.

“I think both (parents) shared the idea that the government was always telling the truth, that’s the main thing. My father had a really hard time when I acted against the government because it was not just defiance, it was challenging his assumption — he was an ex-Marine, an accountant at Chrysler — that the government was telling the truth. We had a falling out for a long time. Eventually he joined the ranks of middle Americans who discovered that the government was lying. That helped us reconcile quite easily after a number of years.”

In 1961, after receiving his degree in sociology at the University of Michigan, Hayden traveled to the volatile South along with other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to accompany the Freedom Riders as they sought to register blacks to vote.

He suffered a beating in McComb, Mississippi, while accompanying a march. It was while he was briefly jailed in Georgia after a march that Hayden composed the first draft of what became the Port Huron Statement.

The students that formed the nucleus of SDS gathered at a United Auto Workers facility in Port Huron, lent to the group by UAW executive and civil rights activist Millie Jeffrey. It was there that the Port Huron Statement was edited and honed, calling for a more just society and railing against racism, environmental abuse and what they felt was imperialist war-mongering.

Its opening line was aimed directly at the nation’s campuses: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

“He was the conscience of a generation, and the Port Huron Statement is still relevant, and should be required reading for the nation’s youth,” said Cary Loren, co-owner of The Book Beat bookstore in Oak Park.

Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda join worshipers in 1987 at Warsaw’s St. Stanislaw Kostka Church in flashing V-for-victory signs, a symbol of support for Solidarity, during a pro-Solidarity Mass for the homeland of Poland.

After the tumult of the Chicago Seven trial (their convictions were later reversed), Hayden and his second wife, actress Jane Fonda (with whom he had a son, Troy Gerity), traveled to Hanoi frequently, something he later regretted, writing that he feared he had “romanticized” the Vietnamese.

Hayden and Fonda appeared often in Michigan in the ’70s, speaking at campus anti-war rallies.

Up to his last months, Hayden enjoyed returning to his old Ann Arbor haunts, and especially enjoyed visiting the Michigan Daily, although he was self-deprecating about some of the editorials he wrote as a youthful firebrand.

Hayden still had many local friendships, some forged years ago in the time of his most intense political activism. Photographer and activist Leni Sinclair still has her SDS card, signed by Hayden.

Peter Werbe, another longtime political activist, host of WRIF’s “Nightcall,” and SDS member, first met Hayden in 1962, when he was at Michigan State and Hayden was active with SDS.

“Tom was one of many in a generation who devoted their lives to peace and social justice, but he had an especially keen eye for what had to be accomplished immediately and an extraordinary ability for figuring out what had to be done next,” Werbe said. “That is one of the many qualities he had that made him a unique figure.”

Of that 1962 meeting, Werbe said: “He had recently returned from the South where he had been beaten by racists. The meeting with him changed my life.”

In 2014, Hayden donated his papers, including correspondence, FBI surveillance files and papers relating to his political career, to the University of Michigan Library’s Joseph A. Labadie Collection. His FBI files alone comprise over 20,000 pages.

When he visited Ann Arbor, he would often make a side trip to Detroit.

“If I have a fit of nostalgia or I’m with a family member, I’ll take them to Royal Oak and show them my old house,” Hayden told The News in 2015. “I’m always pleased that Dondero (now Royal Oak Middle School) is still standing and the house is still standing.”

Sadly, he had to cancel a planned trip to Ann Arbor in September because of his failing health, said Herrada of UM’s Library.

Although he was the son of a Big 3 employee, Hayden was to his core an environmental activist, and thus cast a somewhat jaundiced eye on Detroit’s much-ballyhooed comeback when speaking to The Detroit News in 2015. He worried that the city would once again be built around the automobile.

“I wish them well,” Hayden said. “Nonetheless, the city has lost more population than any city except New Orleans after Katrina. If I wasn’t cynical, I’d say it’s a great opportunity for recovery the right way. Here you have a town built around the automobile, now we’re at a point of seeing gas guzzlers as the new dinosaurs. So people at the Kresge Foundation are proposing a rebuilding of Detroit along sustainable principles of energy efficiency and new, clean energy jobs. I’m hopeful that it’s rebuilt for the 22nd century, and it isn’t just an attempt to recycle the past.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News and author of “Fever: The Fast Life and Mysterious Death of Little Willie John, and the Birth of Soul.”