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

(page 2 of 2)

When SDS began to target military research on campuses, around 1967, what we denounced was “complicity.” You could begin to be free only by acting as if you were already free, and this entailed, as much as possible — and only you knew what was possible — getting out from under all the institutional deadweight that tried to convince you that nothing very much was possible. The movement was, as civil rights activists already called themselves, a freedom movement.

Later, in the 1980s, interviewing people with whom I had worked in those days for my book, “The Sixties,” I was struck by how many brought up the subject of Nazi evil, known then as the Holocaust by even those who foreswore any religious connotation. They brought it up themselves, and in the main they responded vigorously when I asked them whether the slaughter of the Jews had weighed on them, whether they felt it to be a force in their lives. They had felt it to be a force in their lives, and they had set themselves not to see such abominations repeated. True enough, sometimes they were too quick to draw pseudo-precise analogues between Nazi evil and Mississippi, or the Vietnam War, especially as the decade grew more murderous. To me that was a venal sin. The important thing was to understand, as the Port Huron Statement declared, that history was in the process of being made — always.

A high proportion of the radical Jews were secular. (Radical politics was not exactly the reason that T. S. Eliot warned in 1934 that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” but he would not have objected to the extrapolation.) To us, Jewish values were the point of being Jewish, and (sorry, neoconservatives everywhere) those were the values of the left. That is, whatever you believed (or not), whether you were bar (or, less likely then, bat) mitzvahed or not, what mattered in Judaism was not dietary laws but what you, in common with others, did in the name of justice.

Much of the Port Huron Statement reads today as obvious, even as most of the desirable economic and social reforms it proposed are still unachieved. What the document had to say about the Cold War is today, of course, obsolete. But what remains luminous, relevant and ongoing (reincarnated now in the Occupy movement) is the insistence that values matter and that head and heart can line up, if imperfectly. SDS’s brainstorm was to place its declaration of values up front, as in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The movement would be guided by the crazy, fruitful, dangerous, American, Jewish idea that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely, and that anyone could take action, starting right now and right here, to help make it so.

Now, as then, the politics — like the religion — that ignores this imperative is unworthy. “If not now, when?” as Rabbi Hillel asked. And as another, Rabbi Tarfon, said, “It is not given you to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Todd Gitlin chairs the doctoral program in communications at Columbia University and is the author of the just released e-book “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street” (HarperCollins).


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!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • 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.