Tom Hayden: Lessons from The Sixties

Tom Hayden in 2010
Tom Hayden in 2010

Former 1960s radical and longtime California lawmaker Tom Hayden has died in Santa Monica after a long illness. Hayden was 76.

Hayden has a long history in Southern California politics; he served in both the California Assembly and the state Senate. But he is probably best remembered for his part in the 1960s civil rights movement; founding of the Students for a Democratic Society; and  for the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention  in Chicago. 

Hayden talked about the sixties with KCET's Val Zavala in 2005 for the series Life & Times. Here is a transcript of that interview:

Val: He came of age in the sixties, but Tom Hayden didn't just watch them go by. He lived them. He joined the Freedom Riders, the anti-war movement, and even spent some time in jail. Then he spent eighteen years as a California lawmaker promoting civil rights and working for progressive causes. Now at age sixty-four, Hayden is retired and teaching at Occidental College. That's where I met him to talk about a new book called "The Sixties Chronicles". The coffee table book captures the sixties with more than a thousand images and nine hundred essays. Tom Hayden wrote the preface. Tom Hayden, thank you for spending some time with us.

Tom Hayden: Nice to be here.

Val: You've written the preface for a book called "The Sixties Chronicles" which, as you say, is your neighborhood, and you describe them as "having risen from mysterious forces at the margins of society and in essence re-channeling the mainstream." That's quite a statement. A mysterious force? What do you mean?

Tom Hayden: Well, I mean mysterious in a couple of ways. I say this because I teach the history of progressive social movements and there seems to be a pattern. On the one hand, they're mysterious in the sense that they're unpredictable. They happened without announcement. No professor, no pundit, no analyst has ever predicted such a movement before it began.

Secondly, it's mysterious when you look into, well, why did four African-American students decide on the tactic of sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960?


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Val: So you mentioned that it does have implications for today. What are some of the lessons or thoughts about the sixties? How did they influence us?

Tom Hayden: Well, you saw in the recent presidential election. People couldn't get away from it. John Kerry with shrapnel in his body being accused of being weak on national defense. Vietnam at the center of the debate even though it was thirty years ago. Many of the issues on the table are issues that were put there by social movements in the thirties, you know, like collective bargaining, social security, etc., or the sixties, regulation of corporate power, environmentalism and so on.

I once thought the sixties were over and now, in my old age, I've begun to think that these things never end, that we're in the struggle over the meaning and the memory of the sixties, and it determines the political agenda.

Val: Now a phrase that you use in your preface is "might have been". Things, events, progress that might have been, had it not been for a series of assassinations and some of the more dramatic moments of the sixties.

Tom Hayden: That's a phrase of the journalist, Jack Newfield. He said it after the murder of Robert Kennedy that, instead of has-beens, we were doomed to become might have beens. In the sixties, which is quite a kaleidoscope of events, it's often forgotten how many assassinations there were at key moments equivalent to the killing of Lincoln at the height of the Civil War, the two Kennedys, King, Malcolm X and so on.

If it were not for the assassinations, it's my conclusion that Dr. King would have rallied the Peace Movement, the Poor Peoples' Campaign and the Civil Rights Movement into a very broad force, that it may well have elected Robert Kennedy in 1968 or that, going back, if John Kennedy had lived, the evidence is that he would not have escalated the war in Vietnam.

So our lives, my life, your life, the history of America, would have been changed in a different way were it not for the assassinations. A lot of theorists of social movements or writers about society just don't include assassinations as having political effect. They think of them as freak accidents. But I think the assassinations prevented the sixties from coming to a progressive majority.

Val: Now you're teaching about the sixties now, but for you it's not a theoretical experience. You lived it in a variety of ways.

Tom Hayden: Well, I'm an adviser on social studies for some ninth graders and I teach here at Occidental College and I try to be present. I mean, when I give a test, I notice that, when the students list achievements of the sixties, usually the first is the eighteen year old vote. That's simply because it's the one thing they have a personal connection to that happened as a result of the sixties. They voted this November. Or maybe affirmative action if they're a woman or an Asian. They feel a personal impact of the sixties on them.

For the most part, though, it's history so ancient that it's just unbelievable. I try to relate it to the present, to the global justice movements of today and to the anti-Iraq movement of today to help students understand that there is this process. But if you look at American society, it's very interesting. Most things that we treasure as Americans were fought for by people who are not really well remembered anymore and were considered very radical and ahead of their time.

Val: What's your most poignant memory of the sixties? I know you spent time in jail, you were part of the Peace Corps movement.

Tom Hayden: Well, there are highs and lows. The high that, you know, any young person will tell you is finding yourself in a situation where you're tested, where you're beaten up, where you're thrown in jail and where you're completely discredited and termed disreputable. That's an experience I actually think everyone should have because it puts you in touch with most people on earth who are hurting. Then the low would be the murders. The murders just were Shakespearean.

Val: So politically, do you think that we're headed toward a greater divide and perhaps another sixties decade in the future or do you think we're managing to synthesize and come together?

Tom Hayden: I think we're in a divide. It will either become greater or it will be resolved by having a greater democracy. I don't know. But certainly if the war in Iraq deepens, certainly if the income gap and wealth gap grows, certainly if the environment starts to deteriorate further, certainly if the world turns its back on our ventures, the great divide will be unfortunately the future. On the other hand, it's always possible, because these periods come and go with great velocity, that we'll move more in a direction of a greater democracy, corporate accountability and so on. Who knows, but certainly the past is never done with us and it repeats.

I think what's going on globally today is very much like what happened in the sixties. Instead o

f civil rights in the south, we have sweatshops in the south of the planet and in our own cities. We have an idealistic generation of activists who are trying to do something about peace and justice. We have some in the administration who want to create a kind of fortress America, a kind of an empire. We live in danger of a repeat of the final part of the sixties when the divide really deepened very, very dangerously. But who knows? I was more depressed then and we're still here (laughter). You just don't know. The tradeoff will be a more stable America, but only if it's based on greater justice and democracy. We will see.

Val: Well, Tom Hayden, thank you so much and thank you for bringing us a beautiful book. Appreciate your time.

Tom Hayden: You're welcome. Thank you.

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