Thinking about Tom Hayden

Activist Tom Hayden speaks at Clark University in 2011
Activist Tom Hayden speaks at Clark during a Difficult Dialogues symposium on Engagement and Citizenry in 2011 as Prof. Robert "Bob" Ross looks on at left. Prof. SunHee Kim Gertz is seated at right.

Editor’s note: Robert J.S. “Bob” Ross, research professor of sociology, wrote this reflection about activist and legislator Tom Hayden, 76, who died Sunday in California. Ross was close to Hayden, as a student activist and throughout his academic career. Hayden, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, was a civil rights worker and student protester in the 1960s and 70s. According to his New York Times obituary, Hayden founded Students for a Democratic Society while attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the early 60s and was one of the defendants in the Chicago Seven trial following street riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — both events Ross writes about here. Hayden was elected to the California Legislature in 1982, serving until 2000. Hayden joined Ross at Clark in 2011 for a Difficult Dialogues symposium on “Engagement and Cititzenry.”


Always at the edge of the possible and the visionary. Ever able to formulate our best hopes and fears into language that elevated and instructed. Baseball fan. Wanting to recast the radical tradition into American idiom and take it out of the hands of sectarians. Tom Hayden was willing to be, as our friend Jack Newfield put it, in a prophetic minority, but always looking for the route to majoritarian progress.

It was Tom who found the phrase participatory democracy in our friend Prof. Arnie Kaufman’s work, and made it an anthem. If Carl Oglesby was the person who took the English language and in his eloquence fueled the anti-war movement, it was Tom and others of our cohort who strategized that movement and led it to a kind of victory in the 1970s.

When Tom came back to Ann Arbor after the summer of 1961, impressed with Berkeley’s SLATE political party, he and fellow Michigan students Ken McEldowney and Andy Hawley initiated the VOICE political party. Then, Sharon Jeffrey and I led VOICE into Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and won seats on the student government. VOICE became SDS’s largest chapter with the broadest campus support. It was Tom who had the vision of student political parties as a democratic vehicle for progressive agitation.

When Tom was drafting the Port Huron Statement, Al Haber and I were nominally on the drafting committee with him. He would send us ideas and pieces and reports of what he was reading. We were pretty much the cheering section. When we worked on it at Port Huron’s AFL-CIO camp, it was Tom who devised the means of having a democratic discussion of a very large document:  the division of it into debatable bones for which a later drafting committee would finalize the mandated flesh.

In retrospect, amidst all the serious, and as the Vietnam War wore on, increasingly grim, there were some moments of hilarity. On the night of the big anti-war demonstrations during the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Tom was concerned the Chicago Police Department would try to kill him. As the rally in Grant Park ended and demonstrators began the technically forbidden march through downtown, Tom and I got in to the car of a journalist and with his press pass as a passport, got through the police lines and out of the park. Back on the South Side at my apartment, Tom used theatrical glue to put on a false beard and coupled that with the hat I used for fishing to try to disguise himself. We returned to Michigan Avenue in our magic carpet press car to take up the march. As I recall it in my mind’s eye, in his disguise, he looked just like Tom Hayden in a silly get-up.

Thinking about our current situation, I’m reminded that when Tom ran for Senate in California he created an organization called the Campaign for Economic Democracy and used that idea to signify egalitarian policies that would still be relevant. And, in his last few years, his newsletter kept referring to The Long War — a term he used for the whole disastrous Middle Eastern theatre.

At the beginning of our era and until the end of his life, Tom had a prophetic voice. That voice, needed now so very much, will be sorely missed.