Letter to the Editor: Professor comments on Tom Hayden’s Death

Commentary by

Professor Joe Kraus, Ph.D., English Department

Before he was married to Jane Fonda, before he was one of the California state legislators who helped push the state into the deep-blue of the Democrats, before he was one of the Chicago Seven and one of the most famous activists of the 1960s, Hayden was the editor of my college newspaper, The Michigan Daily.

I got to meet Hayden only once. He came back to campus to film a Today Show feature on the new generation of college activists, and he shook hands with all of us who were current editors. The interviewer pointed to a panel of students – one a progressive who’d recently been arrested for demonstrating against military research on campus, another the editor of a fledgling conservative campus newspaper, and the third the Daily’s editor-in-chief – and asked Hayden which of the three he most identified with.

I assumed he’d go with the anti-war demonstrator, but instead he said (and I paraphrase) “I think I’d be like Neal here, reporting the news and trying to make sense of everything that’s going on.”

I can’t say Hayden was my hero, not even then, but he had a glamour to him that was part of what had drawn me to the Daily and to the University of Michigan itself. He’d written “The Port Huron Statement,” more or less the Declaration of Independence of the 1960s student movement. Legend had it he was sitting underneath a piano at Canterbury House, the Episcopal Student Center, which meant he’d handwritten it. I decided he must have typed it at the Daily offices, and I even identified the typewriter I was sure he used. When we switched to computer terminals a couple years later, I “liberated” it. I wrote most of my first book on it, and I still have it.

When Hayden told that interviewer all those years later that he still thought of himself as a college journalist at heart, it validated my own decision to, in effect, spend my college career writing and editing for the newspaper. He told us that what we did mattered, that we couldn’t know how our questioning, our reporting, our shouting on the editorial pages and even our exuberant mistakes might ripple in ways that could change history.

Hayden wasn’t perfect. I think history has shown he was right about every major issue he fought over: civil rights, peace in Vietnam, the environment and economic justice. But I think history may also fault him for a lack of sympathy for, as Richard Nixon called them, the “Silent Majority,” who were frightened by the pace of change.
Hayden was right, but he was aggressively right, understandably impatient to correct injustice and condescending to people who wouldn’t capitulate to his view. He was righteously angry, and if that anger took his conservative opposition by surprise, the children of that opposition have embraced anger as their hallmark. Put simply, I think at least some of what we hear on talk radio, read in the comments sections of online news stories and see in our current Presidential campaign has roots in the aggression that Hayden and many others I admired helped unleash.
My point isn’t to judge Hayden, though, and I suspect I’d have made most of the mistakes he did if I’d had the opportunity and even half his charisma. Instead it’s to remember him as the college student he once was, the kid who asked question after question, weighed it against what he was learning in his literature and philosophy classes, and then led much of the change the 1960s brought to America.

When, just graduated from college, he and his friends started to protest the Vietnam War in 1963, he told us, they were a handful of demonstrators surrounded by supporters of the war. Three years later, they were the majority surrounding a handful of pro-war holdouts.

That was change, change for the better, and it started in a college newspaper office.

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