This article is part of The Port Huron Statement at 50, a forum on the document that sparked a generation of activism. From the Boston Review
As the 1960s dawned, appeals, manifestos, and statements poured from the pens and typewriters of a new generation burning with the need to trumpet a new morning. These writings have in common a wild impatience, a brassiness required to speak out and act up, a fierce vision of human dignity, the daring to address the nation and world with the language of human rights, and the willingness to tear away blindfolds. The Port Huron Statement was neither the first nor the last such declaration, but echoing from and through David Walker’s Appeal, Walt Whitman and Seneca Falls, Ginsberg and Fannie Lou Hamer, it became, in many respects, a keystone of this pamphleteering era.
When four black, adolescent college students sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, their defiance ignited similar actions across the South. Their confrontational acts, flouting immoral laws through non-violent direct action, served as a catalyst for similar group rebelliousness in city after city, and spread campus to campus. Just five weeks later, students at Atlanta’s six historically Black colleges (Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman Colleges, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center) wrote “An Appeal for Human Rights” to explain their planned sit-in campaign:
We do not intend to wait placidly for those which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us at a time. Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all of the rights, privileges, and joys of life. . . . Every normal human being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions placed upon him because of race or color. [Emphasis added.]
The statement ran as a paid advertisement in three Atlanta daily newspapers. The Atlanta sit-ins began six days later.
Just weeks later, on April 16–18, Ella Jo Baker, whom I consider the mother of the Port Huron Statement, convened the Southwide Student Leadership Conference for Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to which 200 participants flocked. In preparation, Miss Baker, who was then working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), prepared a 10-page, handwritten report based on interviews with the first wave of sit-in participants that paid special attention to what we today might call their “horizontal” (non-hierarchical) leadership structure:
This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.
Those directly involved in the protests exchanged stories, brainstormed, and discussed strategy in the presence of Martin Luther King (then 31 years old), Howard Zinn, and Miss Baker. Southern black students were given the time and space to meet separately and to develop their leadership. By the end of the weekend, the participants established the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as an independent, new organization. Baker soon published her remarks to the gathering within weeks in the Southern Patriot.
In that spring of 1960, white students at the University of Michigan, at the instigation of Al Haber, announced a conference called “Human Rights in the North.” The event spawned picket lines across northern campuses, in solidarity with their Southern peers. After a year of organizing in Ann Arbor and a retreat in the winter of 1961, several University of Michigan students saw the need for a moral and strategic framework.
In 1962, SNCC dispatched two experienced staff organizers, Chuck McDew and Tim Jenkins, to a labor union camp in Michigan called Port Huron, where a group of white students were meeting to write a vision statement for their new organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). McDew and Jenkins had already witnessed the murders and beatings of sharecroppers who joined SNCC to organize the black vote in rural Mississippi and Alabama. They came to recruit Northern white students to give SNCC fieldworkers and rural sharecroppers some measure of cover, protection, and national visibility.
The Statement was a clarion call for people to take control of key social institutions and of their own lives.
The pair arrived in Port Huron to find white male students in coats and ties, as well as a handful of female students in dresses, debating and re-writing a draft document by Tom Hayden from dusk until dawn. The participants broke into small groups to discuss the draft section by section and ultimately formed a writing committee that would address the “bones & widgets”—the various drafts and re-writes that required smoothing out and integration. The Northern students favored redistribution of wealth, rejected anti-communist and anti-Cold War rhetoric, and promoted democratic control over public policy. McDew and Jenkins departed two days later without any Port Huron volunteers, although their efforts would later bear fruit during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.
The key phrase from the Port Huron Statement, participatory democracy, still resonates, as demonstrated by the global uprisings of 2011. The concept was being used by Michigan Professor Arnold Kaufman to distinguish engaged and direct democracy, on the one hand, from the episodic two-party voting system Americans call democracy, on the other. To the Port Huron participants, it was democracy by activism, an everyday, decentralized affair and a clarion call for people to take control of key social institutions and of their own lives. Some 45 students began with a dozen-page draft and crafted it into a sweeping statement, announcing that
We offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining and determining influence over his circumstances of life.
SDS would be a diverse, multi-issue organization united by participatory democracy and direct action. It would target racism, poverty, corporate domination, and the arms race. It viewed existing democracy, which excluded African Americans and did not include economic rights, as a failure, and saw both political parties and labor unions as bureaucratic, Cold War–obsessed, and consumed by their own power.
More manifestos soon followed, announcing the new left and the domestic liberation movements, sounding in various rhythmic chords and trills the intoxicating notes of freedom. They included:
• In August 1962, Reis Tijerina drafted the first plan of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, an activist group that sought land rights for New Mexican Chicanos. A letter calling for La Alianza de Pueblos y Pobladores (Alliance of Towns and Settlers) followed in October. La Alianza, as it became known, was officially incorporated on February 2, 1963, the 115th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It sought “to organize and acquaint the heirs of all Spanish land-grants covered by the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty” of their rights, to honor the heritage of the Native New Mexicans, and to command Anglo respect. In June 1963, La Alianza sent letters to the governments of the United States and Mexico reminding them of their obligations under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
• In 1963, James Boggs, a Chrysler auto-plant worker from Marian Junction, Alabama, published The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. This short volume includes chapters on “The Rise and Fall of the Union,” “The Classless Society,” “Peace and War,” “The Decline of the United States Empire,” and “Rebels with a Cause.” Boggs wrote: “The struggle for black political power is a revolutionary struggle because, unlike the struggle for white power, it is the climax of a ceaseless struggle on the part of Negroes for human rights.”
• The Black Panther Party published its Ten Point Program in October 1966. Like SNCC and SDS before it, the Program appeals to international human rights: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace . . . and a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony . . . for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.”
• In 1969, The Redstockings Manifesto was published by radical feminist activists, followed by “The Politics of Housework” (1970) and the launching of the journal Feminist Revolution. Known for their street theatre, Redstockings dramatized the right to abortion and demanded that men give up male supremacy.
• In 1967, Valerie Solanas self-published the Scum Manifesto, which began in 1960 as a list of grievances. The Manifesto sliced open patriarchy with parody, anger, and uncompromising language. The opening declaration, for example, begins: “‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civil-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”
• The Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization in East Harlem, New York drafted a 10-Point Health Program at the end of the decade, calling for an end to discrimination, poverty, and lack of fundamental rights.
The Port Huron Statement was thus one of many manifestos from the era to frame the moment: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” The Statement endures, however, not only because it nailed our country’s systemic racism and global military domination, but also because it lit up the ideal of participatory democracy. The Statement’s authors didn’t simply call for participatory democracy; by carefully articulating their reasons and sharing them publicly, they showed what participatory democracy is. Their lasting legacy is the engaged form of democratic politics through direct action, reason, and open discourse that continues to reveal the ever-surprising power of the people.