Jonathan P. Baird: Tom Hayden’s exceptional life

  • Activist Tom Hayden, shown on Dec. 6, 1973. AP

  • Tom Hayden and his wife, Jane Fonda, in November 1986. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 11/20/2016 3:20:01 AM

There are few people from the 1960s generation whom I would describe as genuine generational giants. Tom Hayden is one person I would categorize that way. He died on Oct. 23.

Surveying a life is like looking at a Rorschach test. People can see what they want, including very different contradictory things. That is particularly true with Hayden, who evolved through seemingly conflicting stages.

Hayden was probably most famous for being a 1960s radical and for being Jane Fonda’s husband for a time. He challenged the system from both the outside and the inside. He struggled with the eternal activist question: how to be an effective social change-maker and rebel.

Superficially you might think this was the simple story of the transformation of a street activist to a mainstream politician. Hayden became a California assemblyman and a state senator. But Hayden never lost his sense of outrage at injustice. He kept that until the end. He showed how one passionate committed man can dramatically affect a generation and the times he lived through.

Hayden’s activism started young. In the early 1960s, he worked on voter registration in the Deep South. He was beaten and arrested at a civil rights march in McComb, Miss. He also got arrested in Albany, Ga. He was a Freedom Rider, one of a group of black and white students who set out to desegregate interstate bus travel in the Southern states. He and the other students were chased and viciously attacked by murderous white supremacist mobs.

Freedom riding in the Deep South in 1962 was not for the faint of heart. The local police were allowing beatings to go on uninterrupted. The mobs beat Freedom Riders with baseball bats and iron pipes.

From prison, Hayden drafted the Port Huron Statement of 1962, which became, in effect, the agenda for a generation. The Port Huron Statement was a founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the leading radical student organization of the 1960s.

The Port Huron Statement began with these words: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Expressing the voice of peaceful dissent, the Port Huron Statement argued for a far more participatory democracy. Looking back, it is hard not to be impressed by its idealism and sweep. Hayden attacked poverty, racism, the threat of nuclear war and the dangers of an apathetic citizenry. He also spoke against the depersonalization, loneliness and alienation of modern life.

A voice for peace

When the war in Vietnam expanded, opposition to the war soon took center stage in Hayden’s life. He became a well-known opponent of the war through teach-ins, demonstrations and writing. The FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, took notice. Later in his life there is a picture of Hayden with his 22,000 page FBI file.

Hayden spent years organizing against the Vietnam War. These efforts culminated in 1968 when President Nixon’s Justice Department prosecuted Hayden and others in the famous Chicago 7 trial. The trial came in the aftermath of violent clashes with the police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he was beaten, gassed and arrested twice.

After five years of trials and appeals, Hayden was acquitted of all charges.

In May 1971, Hayden was part of the audacious Mayday Tribe that organized a huge demonstration in Washington, D.C., against the war in Vietnam. The idea was that if the government did not stop the war, demonstrators would try to stop the government. Many thousands of people descended on Washington. Demonstrators intended to nonviolently block key bridges and traffic circles. More than 13,500 people were arrested.

I remember a book Hayden wrote in the early 1970s about the Vietnam War titled, The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them. The quote comes from Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota Nation: “The love of possessions is a disease with them. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away. If America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough; the Indians would still have been dispossessed.”

Hayden compared the Vietnam War to the war against Native Americans. Anti-war consciousness challenged our national myths of conquest.

After the Vietnam War ended, Hayden moved in different directions. He and Fonda founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy, which focused on running candidates for local office throughout California. Hayden served in the California state assembly from 1982-1992 and then in the state senate from 1992-2000.

A public servant

Although this is little known and this part of his life is sometimes derided, Hayden was an effective politician. A reporter friend of Hayden’s, Bill Boyarsky, described his legislative accomplishments.

“He got millions of dollars for his district to improve the quality of Santa Monica Bay and rebuild the Santa Monica and Malibu piers. He helped delay University of California and Cal State University tuition increases. He led efforts that extended laws against sexual harassment. Also included in a long list of legislation was his Hayden Act, which extended the time shelters keep abandoned animals alive, giving volunteers more time to find them homes.”

Hayden’s life was hardly a linear, consistent progression. Although he had strong convictions, he did evolve in unexpected ways. In looking at online commentary since he died, I was struck by how many people seemed to see Hayden as some kind of sellout because he became a politician. I find that reaction juvenile. Consistency may not be such a virtue if it leads to dead ends. Hayden reinvented himself politically, and he had tangible accomplishments to show for it. I think such creative re-invention is a strength, not a weakness.

Hayden had the ability to look self-critically and to reassess. He did not stay stuck in the 1960s. That capability often seems lacking among those who see maintaining ideological purity as more important than getting anything done.

Hayden’s biggest contribution was being a truth-teller about Vietnam. To quote Hayden: “Our national forgetting is basically pathological. Our systems – politics, media, culture – are totally out of balance because of our collective refusal to admit that the Vietnam War was wrong and that the peace movement was right.”

As a nation we have never faced that squarely. Since then, our delusions have led us to pursue other imperialist adventures.

Until the end of his life, Hayden remained concerned that the legacy of the Vietnam peace movement was being forgotten. He actually has a book coming out in January about that forgetting.

For his actions, his courage and his writing, I would judge Tom Hayden an American hero. He will be missed.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)




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