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Remembering Tom Hayden

Jack Lessenberry

There was a great fascination with Tom Hayden when I was in high school in the Detroit suburbs in the mid-1960s. Mostly on the part of the teachers, that is.

They regarded him as a boy gone wrong who had grown up in what was then sleepy, suburban Royal Oak and then become a radical enemy of America. Some of them knew his mother, who was a film librarian for the public schools.

They felt sorry for her, and didn’t ask about her son. After all, they told us, he had started SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, which they thought was worse than Communism. Why? It was against the Vietnam War.

Hayden himself had gone to North Vietnam to give aid and comfort to the enemy, long before it was cool to do so. To the extent we students thought about it at all, it was that it was pretty amazing that somebody from around here had become infamous. As time went on and we got closer to graduation, being against the Vietnam War didn’t seem so bad.

What we hadn’t known is that Hayden had been a hero of the civil rights movement. He had been beaten and thrown in jail in both Mississippi and Georgia in 1961, and could easily have been killed. Long afterwards, he wrote in his memoir, Reunion, that

“To those who did not pass through the Southern civil rights experience, willfully going to jail may seem like a career-threatening act of despair. It was not. It was both a necessary moral act and a rite of passage.”

Millie Jeffrey, a pioneer in the labor movement, gave me that book years later. Her daughter Sharon and Hayden were close friends, and Millie had arranged for them to use a retreat where he wrote the Port Huron Statement, SDS’s manifesto. Its opening words could have been uttered by millions of far less radical students:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

I only met Hayden a few times, once in Ann Arbor with Jane Fonda, when he was still married to her in the 1980s. Everyone was dazzled by Fonda, of course, and I could see he didn’t mind. He was more interested in getting things done. The longest conversation I ever had with him was in a suburban living room not far from where he’d grown up.

This was during the worst period of the Iraq war, and we were talking about reports that some U.S. military recruiters had killed themselves. I asked if it wasn’t discouraging to have to fight against one more unjust war after all those years of Vietnam.

Well, he said, in so many words, what else can you do? He was almost the same age as Bob Dylan, who earlier this month won the Nobel Prize.

Had it been Hayden who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I wouldn’t have been surprised. When I saw the news this morning, the words from a Dylan song popped into my head. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Tom Hayden never did, and when it was an ill wind, he did all he could to stop it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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