Political experts and veteran activists will meet for a two-day conference today and tomorrow in Corwin Pavilion to discuss the legacy of the Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement.
The conference will feature a panel and speeches with leading academics and activists involved in the 1960s political manifesto. The discussion will also include keynote addresses from the Port Huron Statement’s principal drafter Tom Hayden and Dissent magazine co-editor Michael Kazin.
Sociology professor Dick Flacks said the statement was the first defined plan of action for student protests and inspired many of the era’s similar events.
“It was a statement adopted by a newly formed organization at the time called Students for a Democratic Society,” Flacks said. “It was intended as a manifesto for the student movement that was emerging at the time. It set the framework of idea of protest and raised the issues of civil rights, nature of university in society and students as a force for change, which were never clearly laid out in a defined manifesto.”
According to sociology professor Howard Winant, the statement first brought the phrase “participatory democracy” into public discourse.
“The main thing about the participatory democracy is the extension of democracy that it seeks, [which] implies the extension to the groups that have been largely excluded from the democratic involvement in the running of their own society, despite the rhetoric to the contrary that existed in the United States and elsewhere,” Winant said. “It would not just be the wealthy, the white people and men. It seeks to break with the idea of democracy for the elites and sort of the top-down concept of democracy in favor of something much more genuinely inclusive.”
Winant said the statement’s drafters borrowed from the era’s racial equality movement.
“I don’t think you can really understand the Port Huron Statement without a strong recognition of the role of the Civil Rights Movement and the black movements in general,” Winant said. “Tom Hayden and other people who participated in the Port Huron Conference were inspired in large part by the radical self-activity of black students and black protesters in the South. Hayden was seriously involved in the black freedom movement.”
Universities also played a significant role in fostering critical discussion around the issues presented in the declaration, Winant said.
“Students just discussing the arrangement of power and the power structure is what gives universities their political direction and orientation,” Winant said. “University is somewhat like a political oasis or a political proving ground whereas other institutions aren’t quite so much like that. University is probably the last public institution to fall under the pressure of the political right in the United States.”
However, Flacks said public universities’ increasing reliance on student financial contributions threaten their position as strongholds of free thought.
“All this privatization effort means that the university is, in effect, putting itself under the control of the centers of wealth,” Flacks said. “We’re losing the concept of the university as having a knowledge-creating function and as serving the community and everyone. The university is selling its services to the powerful. The conferences will try to address this problem by looking at the lessons from the Port Huron Statement and the social movement it generated.”
Associated Students President Harrison Weber, who will also deliver an address as part of the series, said the conference provides a conceptual foundation for current student protests concerning budget cuts.
“The thing I take away from the Port Huron Statement is that there is tremendous power in universities, particularly students of universities, to discuss larger issues that affect the world outside of the university bubble,” Weber said. “One of the more salient examples of this in our context would be the continuing divestment in public higher education on the part of the state.”
Flacks said students can learn important lessons from the Port Huron Statement and ’60s student movement’s successes and failures.
“On the one hand, it is strange to think the statement is relevant today,” Flacks said. “But if you want to contribute to social change, seeing what students of your age did is important and inspirational. Learning from the experience is crucial, asking, ‘What were the shortcomings of the statement?’ Knowing more about history helps us understand more about ourselves.”