Fifty Years Since the '60s

Marking Anniversary of Manifesto That Birthed Movement

Starting a Movement: It’s been 50 years since activists from Students for a Democratic Society created the Port Huron Statement, which included many of the tenets of the movement that followed.
courtesy of todd gitlin
Starting a Movement: It’s been 50 years since activists from Students for a Democratic Society created the Port Huron Statement, which included many of the tenets of the movement that followed.

By Todd Gitlin

Published May 14, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In 1960, Jews numbered roughly 3% of Americans. Of the six presidents that Students for a Democratic Society elected in its brief life of electing personages so designated, only two were Jewish. No precise figures exist for the whole membership, or, for that matter, other radical groups of the ensuing years, or, more particularly, the 59 individuals who gathered at a United Auto Workers camp in Port Huron, Mich., half a century ago, in June 1962, to issue the most influential manifesto that ever came from the student left. But by rough guess, something like one-third or one-half of those at Port Huron were Jews. To try any greater precision would put us into the realm of a joke that might start out, “How many Jews were there at Port Huron?” before heading for the punch line, “I don’t know about Jews, but quite a few were Jewish.”

Still, when I was president of SDS in 1963 and counted heads around the table at a national meeting, for sociological reasons of my own, I was struck by the fact that only a small minority — I no longer remember how many — were New Yorkers or Jews, let alone both. I took this as a positive sign that the organization wasn’t ghettoized, that it could lay claim representatively to its grand ambition: to represent a whole American generation. “Diversity,” we’d say today.

But it was no accident that two of the three whites murdered by white racists during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were New York Jews, for statistically it would have been remarkable if at least one out of three civil rights workers traveling together in a car had not been a Jew.

The manifesto that emerged from the gathering on Lake Huron did not mention the word “Jew” or “Jewish,” or “Nazi” or “Hitler,” but contains a line stating that “the horrors of the twentieth century, symbolized in the gas-ovens and concentration camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness.” And it ends, “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

In other words, the document was haunted — in tone, sometimes through the words themselves and also between the lines — by past and future apocalypses; in other words, by Hitler past and by the fear of extinction future. The two were entwined to make up a Möbius strip of dread.

In identifying what was ultimately at stake, the Port Huron Statement was sometimes explicit: “Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living.” Overall, in 1,000 ways, the movement’s moral imagination was dogged not only by a sense of what could happen, but also by knowledge of what had already happened.

Among ourselves, we talked about refusing to be “good Germans.” The moral imperatives that vivified the New Left rested on two intertwined understandings: that genocide was now conceivable and that resistance was the only honorable course. It was important to win — this was the strategic face of the movement — but it was also important not to be “complicit.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.