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The Student Movement: Not Just a Voice For Change, But a SHOUT Heard Across America

Alan Haber still lives in Ann Harbor, and continues the struggle for peace in our world
The sixties were a turbulent time in America. It was a time of action by people no longer willing to accept the status quo. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were issues that some Americans could no longer ignore. Young people were discovering their voice, and it was a loud one. Students were coming together to work towards social change. Organizations like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were the driving force behind the Civil Rights movement. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) followed on its heels. The organization was born from a group of politically active students who believed that change in society must come from participation within the community, and not just from the government. They were inspired by the work of SNCC and their lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina. Members of SDS realized they should be working towards the same changes in the north.

Alan Haber was the organization's founder and first president. Haber saw the need for youth from all over the country to meet and join forces. Even though the young people were from different places, they shared a common experience and a common vision: to change the way democracy was working in our country. They saw the university as an isolating institution and believed their education was more than just what was being taught in the classroom. The world was their teacher. SDS had its first meeting in Ann Harbor, Michigan in 1960. John Johnson, who opened an SDS chapter in Northridge, California remembers, "The same people were moving in and out of different efforts. SDS connected us all and we became an organized network." Chapters opened on campuses across America and the student movement began to roll.

In 1962, key members of SDS met in Port Huron, Michigan to draft of statement of who they were and what they represented. They worked on a document that expressed their discontent with the current policies and structures of the country. Tom Hayden, now a California Senator, wrote out a draft and called it the Port Huron Statement. The document expressed concerns over the social ills they saw around the country. They wanted to take action against poverty, welfare, labor unions and other pertinent social issues. They weren't looking for a top-down solution from the government, but a grassroots style revolution from the very people who were being oppressed. SDS was demanding a "participatory democracy" where all citizens had the right to personal fulfillment. They claimed, "If we appear to seek the unattainable…then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable."

In the sixties, the apartment above this restaurant was the main stage for SDS organizing.  Pizza or peace?
Traveling across the country, SDS members would show up in towns and on campuses recruiting new members. They became the driving force for the student movement of the 60's. Recognizing that the universities were a part of the greater institution, they sought to create change within the educational institutions. They used the strategies of SNCC, organizing sit-ins and rallies. But their concerns went beyond the university to the greater community. Often using poverty as a platform, they brought together both blacks and whites on common issues and sought change within those communities. They also helped support the Civil Rights movement in the south and wherever they could take action, they would. But as the Civil Rights movement was being realized, the Vietnam War was taking a more prominent role on the SDS agenda.

By 1965, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had escalated. President Johnson had approved direct use of U.S. ground forces with plans for 150,000 troops by the end of the year. He ordered heavy bombing over North Vietnam. The U.S. government claimed they were fending off communism. If South Vietnam were overtaken, it would be the first of many small countries to fall to communism. And just like a line of dominoes, there would be many more to follow. The war was escalating, more young men were being drafted, and the student movement couldn't help but take notice.

M is for the University of Michigan, the birthplace of teach-ins across America
More and more college-aged men were being drafted. Members of SDS were watching their friends going off to war and returning home in pine boxes. Young men, not in college, and usually poor and black, were the first to go. Most SDS members were exempt from the draft because they were in college. They noticed this inequality on top of the moral question of a mandatory draft. They saw a draft for a war they did not believe in and demanded an end to it. But how were they to do this? Not only were they, as young people, the prime target of the draft, they couldn't even vote for change because they were too young. So what do you do when you don't agree with the establishment, but you can't participate in the politics that are running your life?

From sit-ins to teach-ins, hundreds and thousands of already organized students began to take action. Because the SDS was so strong, they were able to assemble efforts towards the anti-war movement. One of the strongest forms of dissent was education. They knew the public was not sufficiently informed about the government's escalation of the war, and took strides to act out against the increase as well as to educate the public.


The US Trek Goes to Canada!

Concerned faculty and students at the University of Michigan planned a strike on classes as a protest to the war. But they realized if they used the time when classes were over, they could educate the student body about what was really happening in Vietnam. They decided that instead of a walkout they would have a "teach-in." Students spent entire weekends, from Friday night until Sunday night, attending lectures, workshops and films. They discussed the moral questions of the use of napalm, tear gas, and torture. Three thousand students attended the first teach-in and soon other college campuses were holding their own. As not only a tool to educate, but also one to inspire and mobilize other students into action, teach-ins became a driving force behind the exploding anti-war movement.

As SDS continued to mobilize, students across the country became involved in nonviolent protests, vigils and sit-ins to express their discontent with American involvement in the war. SDS member Johnson recalled the first anti-war arrest in Los Angeles. The National Guard airbase was shipping out napalm. The local SDS chapter organized a sit-in blocking the gate. "I remember being carried away by soldiers. We were dripping with red paint that had been thrown on us. Being arrested wasn't too bad," he declared, "We were spirited!" It was attitudes like this that kept the movement going. Unfortunately, the war kept on going too.

The steps of the university library make a perfect stage for rallies and protests
Over the next three years, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam continued to grow. Members of SDS became disillusioned about stopping the war and turned their attention towards resisting the draft and organizing more people. "Hell no, we won't go" became the popular cry of draft resisters. Haber laughed as he remembered that it was illegal to be without your draft card. Protesters would request multiple cards from the draft board and then blatantly burn one of their cards. When the police would try to arrest them for not having a draft card on them, they would pull an extra from their back pockets. There was no law against actually burning your card. It sounds funny, but the anti-war movement was really becoming more serious as the war dragged on. It was becoming apparent that their nonviolent tactics were not producing the results the students wanted. The war was not ending, and thousands of young men continued to go off to war and be killed. The mood of the movement was turning.

The protesters and the establishment against which they fought were becoming increasingly more violent. Across campuses, nonviolent protests were exploding into riots as police stepped up their own violence against students. The young people of the movement were discouraged, disillusioned and desperate, but they still had dreams of ending the war. Protesters became split over how to best accomplish this, and a vocal faction became more and more radical as the war dragged on. This group believed that violent confrontations might accomplish what the nonviolent strategies had not. As the sixties came to a close, conflicts arose between SDS members who still believed in nonviolent action and those who saw need for a more violent approach. A faction of the group called the Weathermen broke off to pursue a more militant strategy and by 1970, SDS had disbanded.

Was PEACE too much to ask for?
Even though there was no longer an official SDS organization, the movement had created a generation of people who believed in social change, and most of them kept on working towards their social goals. Johnson explained, "That was kind of our own profession we chose. That was what we ended up doing, learning and studying. I still consider myself a radical." Although the student movement of the 60's didn't end the war, they didn't just sit by and watch it happen either. They proved that young people have a mind, a voice and that they are prepared to use it. When their children ask them, "What did you do about the war?" they will certainly have an answer.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca – Bayonets and pencils just don’t mix
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 1
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 2
Stephanie – A personal account: Cambodia’s civil war
Jennifer – When the going gets rough, the tough go underground
Nick – Bucking the draft
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq