Movements for change begin mysteriously at the margins but if they take hold, they can have a big impact on society.
“Things happen. You have to count on it,” said Tom Hayden at a recent lecture sponsored by the Southwest Branch of the ACLU of Michigan.
The veteran activist first witnessed the process of social change while a student at the University of Michigan in 1960. As editor of the Michigan Daily he was covering John F. Kennedy’s visit to campus and discovered that a small group of students got to the presidential candidate about 11 p.m. and handed him a plan for an international peace program.
That group included local activist David MacLeod, who Hayden recognized at the lecture.
At the time Kennedy didn’t know fully what he was signing on to and his advisers were stunned by his spontaneous policymaking. The program turned out to be the Peace Corps.
“It was unexplainable how David got the [plan] into JFK’s hands,” said Hayden who pointed out that “chaotic processes” often accompany movements for change.
A year later Hayden would co-found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which promoted the 18-year-old right to vote. This idea had first surfaced during World War II but it was the Vietnam War that brought home the point that the nation that felt its young were responsible enough to fight a war should be responsible enough to vote.
“We were relatively marginal but that didn’t matter because we found a cause,” said Hayden. “It was driven into me at the time that all things are possible.”
Although the idea for the Peace Corps literally happened overnight, change usually takes at least a decade, said Hayden, and not all movements achieve their goals. Women’s suffrage took 100 years; ending slavery took 500 years.
The Electoral College seems to be an obvious issue for change, especially since the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the electoral vote. However, there seems to be no political will to eliminate it.
“The Electoral College was one of the dynamic compromises of the Constitution,” said Hayden, adding that the “imperfect document” also follows the movement for change model.
Prior to the Revolution of 1776 the Continental Congress grappled with whether or not to declare its independence from England, a prospect too radical for most colonists. However, taxation without representation eventually tipped a majority of the public toward separation.
In 1787 the framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated independence as a key theme for the new republic but they could not end slavery or extend suffrage beyond white, male property owners. Such radical ideas would have split the movement for nationhood.
“Each generation claims the promise, ideals and aspirations of the founders and they become a movement,” said Hayden. “This is how social change works and it’s an important concept for professors to discuss and teach.”
Hayden wasn’t sure what America’s next great social movement would be but he predicted that it will come out of the “Obama generation.”
Obama came from the margins, too, Hayden noted. No one saw him coming anymore than they did Kennedy. And like Kennedy, Obama may end up articulating a new vision for the country based on the next generation’s desire for change.
“They have a self-confidence that their moment has come,” said Hayden of today’s young. They don’t want to settle for the way things are or for the way they were achieved in the 60s.”
Hayden’s own 34-year-old son has had to convince his father of this break from the past.
“You have to go to Obama’s rallies to see this or you’ll miss it, too,” said Hayden. “There is an unexpected social movement that has not occurred since 1968.”
Hayden’s eight-year-old son, who is African-American, is also swept up in the “turbulence” of change. Interestingly, he isn’t moved by race in this presidential election as much as he is by the environment. He aspires to be a marine biologist to do something about it.
The former state legislator and sociologist by profession illustrated that social change occurs once activists achieve 25 to 30 percent support from mainstream public opinion. When they reach 40 percent, the idea becomes a “norm.” Politicians then pass a law to institute the change, although it is far more compromised from its radical origins.
Nevertheless, the existing order co-opts the movement for change, said Hayden, because grassroots activists usually disperse once they achieve their goal, much like the Iraq War peace movement has.
The existing order also seeks to erase the memory of the movement or to claim it as its own through commemorations on postage stamps or the naming of parks, buildings, boulevards and holidays.
“This was the same government that jailed radical reformers [like Martin Luther King, Jr.,]” said Hayden.
The activist, writer and politician is a leading voice for withdrawal from Iraq and last year published Ending the War in Iraq. He spoke about that prospect somberly.
“Ending the Vietnam War took 12 years of my life,” said Hayden. “So far, the Iraq War has been going on for five years — 15 if you count Gulf War I.”
Hayden said that even with a Democratic win, the plan is to leave tens of thousands of troop advisers in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Study Group also advocated withdrawing all but 20,000 troops in order to stabilize the country.
“If we can’t win with 150,000 troops, how can 30,000 finish the job?” he asked.
Hayden also pointed out that this war has been designed with the Vietnam War in mind. For example, there is no draft and the number of dead soldiers is minimal in comparison. There is also a great effort to subdue the protests, which accounts for the media’s sketchy coverage of the peace movement.
“Fighting tolerant warmakers is harder than fighting those who beat you up,” said Hayden, who was thrashed and jailed during the 60s protests. The Internet generates much more information to a broader audience but it creates much less face-to-face interaction and fervor.
Hayden urged peace activists to help end the war in Iraq with the following suggestions:
* Spend time with those who disagree with you and make alliances.
* Work with anti-war people in the armed forces and let them know their rights.
* Show up at community colleges and conduct debates on military recruitment.
* Consult http://www.nationalpriorities.org/costofwar_home to find out and report how the cost of war is diverting funds from your community.
* Make alliances with those hurt by war’s budget (i.e., senior citizens, veterans who need medical care, educators).
Hayden also said that any movement for change can happen by focusing on one’s own experience. Working for energy efficiency on college campuses is a good example of what students can do.
“Start with things that are achievable and reach out to the undecided population,” he advised. “Look for friends on the faculty but focus on your student friends.”
Because activism often competes with students’ time for study and a job, Hayden recommended that students combine their activist interests with service learning opportunities, work-study projects and research papers.
Hayden’s Web site provides information about his other causes, which include erasing sweatshops, saving the environment and reforming politics through greater citizen participation.
This article appeared in Common Dreams on June 2, 2008.