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!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • 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.