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Letting the People Decide

Vivian Rothstein

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Recently I was invited to speak at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement.  Never heard of it?

In 1962, at a United Auto Workers conference center in Port Huron, Michigan, about 60 student activists collectively hammered out what they named an “Agenda for a Generation” with the strong belief that this document could help create the world they hoped for.  “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love,” it optimistically declared.

Most were in their 20s, several veterans of civil rights sit-ins or campaigns to end the nuclear arms race.  Participatory Democracy was the overall framework – a political vision in which people have power over the decisions that affect their lives.  In all-night sessions they argued about wording and emphasis and produced a document that addressed the major challenges of unrepresentative politics, a profit-driven economy and inequality at home and abroad.

Those were heady times, as Tom Hayden, the primary drafter of the document, reflected at the conference; a moment “when something is in the air and people seek to organize – when people take hold of something and take action . . . a golden moment.”

Chuck McDew, founding chair of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the primarily black student organization behind much of the Southern civil rights organizing, and a participant at Port Huron, remarked on a panel that the new manifesto had an “American-ness about it that could communicate with ordinary people.”  Many say it marked the birth of a “New Left,” based in American values and hopes for a better world.

What followed, as they say, is history.  Massive student movements against the draft and military recruitment on campuses, the growth of the Southern and then Northern civil rights and anti-poverty movements, women’s liberation and gay rights movements, to name a few of the outbursts of grassroots activism.  All based on the Port Huron principle of finally letting the people decide.

The originators of the Port Huron Statement are now in their 60s and 70s and look with pride at the document they produced and the movements that document helped spawn.  Those 1960s veterans, like myself, represented about a third of those at the conference, the rest being academics who’ve studied the period and current student activists looking for wisdom from the past.  While the conference ended with an inspiring panel of young leaders sharing the contemporary challenges of organizing, several panelists seemed less than excited about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement and, in particular, its cumbersome group decision-making process.  They seemed to forget that the desire to be heard and acknowledged is the energy that fuels social change movements.  Wasn’t that the key message of the Port Huron Statement?

As the conference wound up, I was struck by the continuing relevance of the values and principles that a small group of students in the 1960s put to paper.  Check it out; it’s worth a read. As the last line of the document so eloquently explains, “if we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

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