Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was, historically, a student activist movement in the United States that was one of the main iconic representations of the country's New Left. The organization developed and expanded rapidly in the mid-1960s before dissolving at its last convention in 1969.
SDS was the organizational high point for student radicalism in the United States and has been an important influence on student organizing in the decades since its collapse. Participatory democracy, direct action, radicalism, student power, shoestring budgets, and its organizational structure are all present in varying degrees in current national student activist groups. Though various organizations have been formed in subsequent years as proposed national networks for left-wing student organizing, none has approached the scale of SDS, and most have lasted a few years at best.
SDS developed from the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the youth branch of a socialist educational organization known as the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). LID descended from the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, started in 1905. Early in 1960, SLID decided to change its name into SDS. The phrase “industrial democracy” sounded too narrow and too labor oriented, making it more difficult to recruit students. Moreover, because the LID's leadership did not correspond to the expectations and the mood on the campuses, the SLID felt the need to dissociate itself from its parent organization. SDS held its first meeting in 1960 at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Alan Haber was elected president. Its political manifesto, known as the Port Huron Statement, was adopted at the organization's first convention in 1962, based on an earlier draft by staff member Tom Hayden.
The Port Huron Statement criticized the political system of the United States for failing to achieve international peace and critiqued Cold War foreign policy, the threat of nuclear war, and the arms race. In domestic matters, it criticized racial discrimination, economic inequality, big businesses, trade unions and political parties. In addition to its deep critique and analysis of the American system, the manifesto also suggested a series of reforms: it proclaimed a need to reshape into two genuine political parties to attain greater democracy, for stronger power for individuals through citizen's lobbies, for more substantial involvement by workers in business management, and for an enlarged public sector with increased government welfare, including a "program against poverty." The manifesto provided ideas of what and how to work for and to improve, and also advocated nonviolent civil disobedience as the means by which student youth could bring forth a "participatory democracy." Kirkpatrick Sale described the manifesto as "nothing less than an ideology, however raw and imperfect and however much would have resisted this word."
The manifesto also presented SDS's break with the left-wing policies of the postwar years. Firstly, it was written with the same overall vision all along the document and reflected their view that all problems in every area were linked to each other and their willingness not to lead single-issue struggles but a broad struggle on all fronts at the same time. Then, it expressed SDS's willingness to work with groups whatever may be their political inclination and announced their rejection of anti-communism, a definitely new radical view contrasting with much of the American left which had always developed a policy of anti-communism. Without being Marxist or pro-communism, they denounced anti-communism as being a social problem and an obstruction to democracy. They also criticized the United States for their exaggerated paranoia and exclusive condemnation of the Soviet Union and blamed this for being a reason of failing to achieve disarmament and to assure peace.
The Port Huron Convention opened with a symbol of this break with the policy of the past years: the delegate of the Communist Progressive Youth Organizing Committee asked for attending the conference as an observer. The people from YPSL objected while most of the SDSers insisted on letting him sit. He eventually sat. Later in the meeting, Michael Harrington, a LID member, got worked up over the manifesto because he found the stand they took toward the Soviet Union and authoritarian regimes in general was insufficiently critical, and because, according to him, they deliberately wrote sections to have liberals fly off the handle. But surprisingly, a liberal, Roger Hagan defended SDS and its policy. After lively debates between the two, the draft finally remained more or less unchanged. Some two weeks later, a meeting between the LID and SDS was held where the LID expressed its discontent about the manifesto. As a result, Haber and Hayden, at this time respectively the National secretary and the new President of the organization, were summoned to a hearing on the 6 July 1962. There, Hayden clashed with Michael Harrington (as he later would with Irving Howe) over the perceived potential for totalitarianism among other things. Harrington denounced the seating of the PYOC member, SDS’s tolerance for communism and their lack of clarity in their condemnation of communist totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and he reproached SDS to provide a minor critique of the Soviet Union and to mostly blame the United States for the cold war. Hayden then asked him to read more carefully the manifesto and especially the values section. Hayden later wrote:
"While the draft Port Huron Statement included a strong denunciation of the Soviet Union, it wasn't enough for LID leaders like Michael Harrington. They wanted absolute clarity, for example, that the United States was blameless for the nuclear arms race...In truth, they seemed threatened by the independence of the new wave of student activism..."
The hearing ended up with the SDS members' leaving because both sides were too angry and disappointed to go on with the meeting.
In the academic year 1962–1963, the President was Tom Hayden, the Vice President was Paul Booth and the National Secretary was Jim Monsonis. There were nine chapters with, at most, about 1000 members. The national office (NO) in New York City consisted of a few desks, some broken chairs, a couple of file cabinets and a few typewriters. As a student group with a strong belief in decentralization and a distrust for most organization, the SDS did not have a strong central bureaucracy. The three stalwarts at the office, Don McKelvey, Steve Max, and the National Secretary, Jim Monsonis, worked long hours for little pay to service the local chapters, and to help establish new ones. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, little could be accomplished. Most activity was oriented toward civil rights issues and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) played a key role in inspiring SDS.
By the end of the academic year, there were over 200 delegates at the annual convention at Pine Hill, New York, from 32 different colleges and universities. It was then decided to give more power to the chapters, who would then send delegates to the National Council (NC), which would meet quarterly to handle the on-going activities. Also, in the spirit of participatory democracy, a consensus was reached to elect new officers each year. Lee Webb of Boston University was chosen as National Secretary, and Todd Gitlin of Harvard University was made president. Some continuity was preserved by retaining Paul Booth as Vice President. The search began for something to challenge the idealistic, budding activists.
It was at this time that the Black Power Movement was first gaining some momentum (although Stokely Carmichael would make the movement more mainstream in 1966). The movement made it impolitic for white activists, such as those in SDS, to presume to lead protests for black civil rights. Instead, SDS would try to organize white unemployed youths through a newly established program they called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). This "into the ghetto" move was a practical failure, but the fact that it existed at all drew many young idealists to SDS.
At the summer convention in 1964 there was a split between those who were campus-oriented, and the ERAP supporters. Most of the old guard were ERAP supporters, but the campus activists were growing. Paul Potter was elected president, and by the end of summer there were ten ERAP programs in place, with about 125 student volunteers. C. Clark Kissinger of Shimer College in Illinois was elected as National Secretary, and he put the NO on a much more business-like basis. He and his assistant, Helen Garvey mailed out the literature list, the newsletters and the news of chapter's activities to a growing membership list. Kissinger also worked to smooth the relationship with the LID.
A small faction of SDS that was interested in change through conventional electoral politics established a program called the Political Education Project (PEP). Its Director was Jim Williams of the University of Louisville, and Steve Max served as its Associate Director. This was never very large, and it was opposed by the mainstream SDSers, who were mostly opposed to such traditional, old-fashioned activity, and were looking for something new that "worked". The Johnson landslide victory in November played its part, as well, and PEP soon withered away. A Peace Research and Education Project (PREP) headed by Paul Booth, Swarthmore, met a similar fate. Meanwhile, the local chapters got into all sorts of projects, from University reform, community-university relations, and now, in a small way, the issue of the draft and Vietnam War.
Then, on October 1, the University of California, Berkeley exploded into the dramatic and prolonged agony that was the free speech movement. Led by a charismatic Friends of SNCC student activist named Mario Savio, upwards of three thousand students surrounded a police car in which a student, arrested for setting up a card table in defiance of a ban by the University, was being taken away. The sit-down prevented the police car from moving for 32 hours. The demonstrations, meetings and strikes that resulted all but shut the university down. Hundreds of students were arrested, the pundits analyzed, and the establishment foundered with incomprehension. Future SDS members all over the country watched and learned.
In February 1965, United States President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the war in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam in Operation Flaming Dart and introducing ground troops directly involved in fighting the Viet Cong in the South. The draft became a very real factor in the lives of students in America. Campus chapters of SDS all over the country started to lead small, localized demonstrations against the war and the NO became the focal group that organized the March against the war in Washington on April 17. Endorsements came from nearly all of the other peace groups and leading personalities, there was significant increase in income and by the end of March there were 52 chapters. The media began to cover the organization and the New Left. However, the call for the march and the openness of the organization in allowing other groups, even communist front groups, or communists themselves, to join in caused great strains with the LID and some other old left organizations.
The first teach-in against the war was held in the University of Michigan. Soon hundreds more, all over the country, were held. The demonstration in Washington, DC attracted about 25,000 anti-war protesters and SDS became the leading student group against the war on most U.S. campuses.
Representing its move into the heartland, the 1965 summer convention was held at Kewadin, a small camp in Northern Michigan. Moreover, its National Office, which was previously located in Manhattan, was moved to Chicago at about the same time. The rapid growth of the membership rate during the preceding year brought with it a new breed with a new style:
The convention elected an Akron, Ohio student, Carl Oglesby, President and Jeff Shero, Vice President. The convention voted to remove the anti-communist exclusion clauses from the SDS constitution, declined to provide for any national program, and increased the reliance on local initiatives at the chapters. As a result, the National Office's leadership fell into ineffectual chaos.
Nationally, the SDS continued to use the draft as an important issue for students, and over the rest of the academic year began to attack university complicity in it, as the universities had begun to supply student's class rankings, used to determine who was to be drafted. The University of Chicago's administration building was taken over in a three day sit-in in May. Rank protests and sit-ins spread to many other universities.
The summer convention of 1966 was moved even farther west, this time to Clear Lake, Iowa. The "prairie people" continued to increase their influence. Nick Egleson was chosen as President, and Carl Davidson was elected Vice President. Greg Calvert, recently a History Instructor at Iowa State University, was chosen as National Secretary. It was at this convention that members of Progressive Labor Party (PL) began to make their presence known for the first time. PL was a Maoist group that had turned to SDS as fertile ground for recruiting new members. SDSers of that time were nearly all anti-communist, but they also refused to be drawn into actions that smacked of red-baiting, which they viewed as mostly irrelevant and old hat. PL soon began to organize a Worker Student Alliance.
The 1966 convention also marked an even greater turn towards organization around campus issues by local chapters, with the NO cast in a strictly supporting role. Campus issues ranged from bad food, powerless student "governments," various in loco parentis manifestations, on-campus recruiting for the military and, again, ranking for the draft. Campuses around the country were in a state of unprecedented ferment and activism. Despite the absence of a politically effective campus SDS chapter, Berkeley again became a center of particularly dramatic radical upheaval over the university's repressive anti-free-speech actions, and an effective student strike with very wide support occurred. Even Harvard endured an upheaval engendered by a visit there of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The Winter and Spring of 1967 saw an escalation of the militancy of the protests at many campuses. SDSers and self-styled radicals were even elected into the student government at a few places. Demonstrations against Dow Chemical Company and other campus recruiters were widespread, and ranking and the draft issues grew in scale. The FBI (mainly through its secret COINTELPRO) and other law enforcement agencies were often exposed as having spies and informers in the chapters. Harassment by the authorities was also on the rise. The NO became distinctly more effective in this period, and the three officers actually visited most of the chapters. As well, New Left Notes became a potent vehicle for promoting some coherence and solidarity among the chapters. The Anti-War movement really began to take hold among university students.
The 1967 convention took an egalitarian turn by eliminating the Presidential and Vice-Presidential offices and replacing them with a National Secretary (20 year old Mike Spiegel), an Education Secretary (Texan Bob Pardun), and an Inter‑organizational Secretary (former VP Carl Davidson). A clear direction for a national program was not set but they did manage to pass strong resolutions on the draft, resistance within the Army itself, and they made a call for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Furthermore, a women's liberation resolution on the issue of male chauvinism was passed by conference attendees, for the first time.
That Fall saw a great escalation of the anti-war actions of the New Left. The school year started with a large demonstration against university complicity in the war in allowing Dow recruiters on campus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on October 17. Peaceful at first, the demonstrations turned to a sit-in that was violently dispersed by the Madison police and riot squad, resulting in many injuries and arrests. A mass rally and a student strike then closed the university for several days. A coordinated series of demonstrations against the draft led by members of the Resistance, the War Resisters League, and SDS added fuel to the fire of resistance. After conventional civil rights tactics of peaceful pickets seemed to have failed, the Oakland, California Stop the Draft Week ended in mass hit and run skirmishes with the police. The huge (100,000 people) October 21 March on the Pentagon saw hundreds arrested and injured. Night-time raids on draft offices began to spread.
In the spring of 1968, National SDS activists led an effort on the campuses called "Ten Days of Resistance" and local chapters cooperated with the Student Mobilization Committee in rallies, marches, sit-ins and teach-ins, which culminated in a one-day strike on April 26. About a million students stayed away from classes that day, the largest student strike in the history of the United States. It was largely ignored by the New York City-based national media, which were intensely focused on the student shutdown of Columbia University in New York, led by an inter-racial alliance of Columbia SDS chapter activists and Student Afro Society activists. As a result of the mass media publicity given to Columbia SDS activists such as Columbia SDS chairperson Mark Rudd during the Columbia Student Revolt, the organization was put on the map politically and "SDS" became a household name in the United States for a few years. Membership in SDS chapters around the United States increased dramatically during the 1968-69 academic year.
SDS members from Austin, Texas participated in a mass demonstration in San Antonio, Texas in April 1969 at the "Kings River Parade". San Antonio SNCC members called the demonstration to protest the killing of Bobby Joe Phillips by San Antonio Police Officers.
In the summer of 1969, the ninth SDS national convention was held at the Chicago Coliseum with some 2000 people attending. Many factions of the movement were actually present, and set up their literature tables all around the edges of the cavernous hall. The Young Socialist Alliance, Wobblies, Spartacists, Marxists and Maoists of various sorts, all together with various law-enforcement spies and informers contributed to the air of impending expectations.
Each of the delegates were given the convention issue of New Left Notes, which contained a manifesto, "You don't need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows." This manifesto had been first presented at the Spring, 1969, SDS National Council Meeting in Austin, Texas. The document had been written by an eleven-member committee that included Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn and John Jacobs, and represented the position of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) wing of SDS, most of which subsequently turned into the Weather Underground Organization. The New Left Notes issue distributed at the convention was full of the language of the Old Left of the thirties; and was thus impenetrable and irrelevant to the majority of SDSers.
The convention quickly fell into disarray as the RYM and allied groups moved to expel PL members and the WSA Worker Student Alliance faction of SDS. The convention was about evenly divided between the Revolutionary Youth Movement forces and the PL and WSA forces.
When the Black Panther representatives attacked PL but at the same time proved itself inclined towards sexism by advocating "pussy power," the entire convention fell into something approaching chaos, or, worse, farce.
The RYM and the National Office faction, led by Bernardine Dohrn, led a breakaway meeting from which PL and WSA members were barred. This group then voted by about 500 to 100 to expel PL from SDS, and then walked out of the conference hall with that 500. By the next day there were two SDS organizations, which RYM termed "SDS-RYM" and "SDS-WSA."
In the Fall of 1969 many of the SDS-RYM chapters also split up or disintegrated. The Weatherman faction evolved into a small underground organization that first took to street confrontations and then to a bombing campaign. SDS-RYM held no more national conventions. SDS-RYM was fully defunct by 1970, while SDS-WSA continued its activity.
SDS-WSA continued to function nationwide, with a focus on (a) fighting racism; and (b) supporting workers' struggles and strikes, including the 1969 General Electric strike and 1970 Postal Workers' strikes. The Worker-Student Alliance organized a support demonstration for the post office strikers, which worried the Nixon administration a lot. This is the entry from H.R. Haldeman’s diary:
Now calling itself simply SDS, SDS-WSA continued to publish the newspaper New Left Notes. It held a convention in Boston in 1971, at which a striking General Motors worker was a featured speaker.
In 1972 SDS-WSA demonstrated at the Democratic National Convention in Miami against Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's retreating from his original stronger campaign positions against the Vietnam War. Several hundred SDS members staged a sit-in at the Doral Hotel as McGovern and his staff met upstairs with protesting members of Grassroots McGovern Volunteers and sympathizers angry over the same issues.
In Newark, New Jersey SDS-WSA demonstrated against Anthony Imperiale and his racist North Ward Citizens' Council which was opposing the construction of Kawaida Towers, a building complex sponsored by a community organization led by Black nationalist and poet Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroy Jones) (New York Times January 3, 1973, p. 84)
SDS joined with PLP and others to protest the writings of Arthur Jensen, William Shockley, and Richard Herrnstein, all of whom promoted the notion that black people were genetically inferior in intelligence to whites. In October 1973 SDS-WSA, PLP, and others organized a convention at the Loeb Student Center of New York University dedicated to opposing academic racism. SDS circulated a petition entitled "A Resolution Against Racism" that was published in the New York Times on October 28, 1973 (p.211). Out of this convention the Committee Against Racism (C.A.R.) was formed to continue the fight against racism. C.A.R. later changed its name to InCAR, or the International Committee Against Racism, when some chapters were formed in Canada.
In 1974 National SDS(-WSA) voted to dissolve as a separate organization and reform as chapters of InCAR. However, individual chapters of SDS continued in existence for some time. A chapter at Purdue University was active as late as 1976.
All references to contemporary activities of SDS in sources such as the New York Times after early 1970 are to SDS-WSA. For example, SDS confronted Indiana Senator Vance Hartke at an antiwar rally in New York City in 1971 (New York Times July 3, 1971, p. 3 and July 4, 1971, p. 3). SDS denounced liberal Democrats as having been the authors of the Vietnam War in the first place. SDS demonstrated against the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, FL in August 1972 (New York Times August 21, 1972, p.20; August 22, 1972, pp. 1,36; August 23, 1972, pp. 1, 28).
In contrast to SDS-RYM and the Weathermen, SDS-WSA strongly opposed bombing and terrorism. In 1971 SDS-WSA published a pamphlet titled Who Are The Bombers?. It warned readers against police agents sent into the anti-Vietnam War movement to foment violence to justify police attacks. It also sharply criticized the Weathermen, which had begun its campaign of bombings.
On June 26, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a unanimous opinion, in the case Healy v. James, stating that members of the SDS had been unconstitutionally deprived of their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly when a group was denied permission to form on the campus of Central Connecticut State College in New Britain, Connecticut.
A few early SDS leaders went on to careers as Democratic Party politicians, including Tom Hayden, who is still active in politics and writing. Hayden is a former member of the legislature of the state of California and is well-known as the former husband of actress Jane Fonda, a prolific author, and a former candidate for offices such as Governor of California, Mayor of Los Angeles, and United States Senator.
. How We Got Here: The '70s. David Frum. 2000. Basic Books. New York, New York. 0465041957. 8.