A Eulogy for Tom Hayden, 1939-2016

The Port Huron Statement was written as the Black Freedom Movement rose up. Tom Hayden had the vision to help write that document in 1962, which became a spark, an igniter of the new left, the white left, the radical student and youth movements. “We are,” he wrote, “people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort … looking uneasily at the world we inherit.”

I’m still looking, more uneasily than ever, at the world we — our children and grandchildren — inherit.

Tom bridged multiple worlds in a long, fruitful life: SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and a stint with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the deep South; community organizing in Newark with ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project of SDS), agitating anti-war activism at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Conspiracy 8 trial, later navigating as a Democratic Party progressive. He became a writer/teacher with Irish independence in his genes.

He wrote powerfully about Los Angeles and Chicago youth gangs, forced migration, Vietnam, climate change, and Cuba. And he continued steadily to oppose US imperialist wars. His anti-war website, the Peace and Justice Resource Center, maintained until just a few months before his death a trove of fierce opposition to American conquests, as well as remaining a source of reliable data. He estranged friends and comrades, myself included, when he traveled to support Israel, as an apparent quid pro quo for running for statewide office in the California Democratic Party.

Tom and I spent time together in Heidelberg, Germany, some 16 years ago, invited by young German historians who were researching and writing about the inter-relationships between US and German radicals during the ’60s and ’70s. We were asked to comment on their new scholarship based on recently available government surveillance files. We experienced it as a bittersweet moment, becoming ourselves ancient history yet determined to remain radically, lovingly relevant.

Twice during that conference, I accompanied Tom in the evenings to meetings he had scheduled with American Democrats living abroad, and with US citizens working at Ramstein US Air Force base, talking about the perils of US military power. He encouraged them to analyze the historic moment, to press forward nuclear disarmament, to work for peace. He was seen as a terrifically smart man with a foot in the movement and a foot in the Democratic Party, and they could listen.

I invited Tom to speak at conference about youth gangs I organized in Chicago a few years later. Tom and I walked out along Lake Michigan and had what we used to call, an “off the record” conversation (i.e., totally confidential, not to be repeated). I asked him whether he had, or knew who had, broken into that FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Those FBI files were published, exposing their secret counterintelligence (“COINTELPRO”) program of assassination and criminalization aimed at the Black Freedom movement, and disruption and harassment against the anti-war movement. Tom said, “No, I thought you did it!” I said no, I didn’t, but I wished I had.

Tom’s big strategic brain and his excellent writing are also his legacy: his persistence, his love of Barbara, Liam, and Troy, his impatience, and his quiet humor. Happily, his recognition of the critical importance of participatory democracy and connecting the issues have now been seized upon and reframed by a new generation of radical activists.

Tom Hayden, presente!