The early days of SDS
For the past several months, I have been bringing down boxes and boxes of stuff from my attic and trying to organize the pamphlets, handbills, and newspapers. This is because the library of the local university has expressed a desire to get my collection and I feel they can put it to better use.
I have been looking at the contents of the large box holding my early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) material. This past week marks the fortieth anniversary of what I consider to be the most important SDS national council meeting.
This national council meeting took place between Christmas and New Years Day in 1964. The announcement for the meeting said it would be in a union hall in midtown Manhattan. But in actual fact, most of the sessions were in the auditorium of McBurney YMCA at 23rd St, and 7th Avenue.
On the third day of the meeting, the agenda brought them to a resolution introduced by Jim Brook. Jim was very concerned about the escalation of the war in Viet Nam as a result of the (non) incident four months earlier in the Gulf of Tonkin. His resolution proposed that SDS organize a protest march in Washington at Easter, 1965. Up to this time, no one had proposed a national action. Jim’s resolution proposed that the only point of the march be opposition to the war in Viet Nam. This upset third camp people who wanted to include a denunciation of the Viet Cong, a plaque on both your houses position that was later advocated by people such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington.
But the main opposition to the resolution came from people who were organizing a poor people’s movement via groups such as the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). They felt that SDS had limited time and resources and what SDS had should be plowed into poor peoples organizing, which they regarded as having the highest priority. The debate became so intense that it lasted for two and a half days. The next point on the agenda was never reached. But in the end Jim’s resolution passed by a narrow margin. SDS printed posters and handbills that were widely distributed.
Among the people who supported the resolution was Steve Max. Steve was SDS national campus traveler at the time. He had helped a lot of campus chapters get organized and had a strong base of support among the campus activists. SDS had less than 4000 members nationally.
When Easter came, 32,000 people showed up for the march. This was in the era before large marches, so it drew a great deal of attention and a lot of television coverage. After the march, SDS expanded enormously. New chapters appeared everywhere. The national office was in contact with two chapters in Kansas, but a person who went to Kansas found eight chapters, six of which had never notified the national office of their existence. The Easter March made SDS a national force on campuses.
Both Jim Brook and Steve Max had come into SDS via the FDR Four Freedoms Club. In turn, the FDR Four Freedoms Club grew out of a study group that met in my apartment every Wednesday for over a year in the late fifties. The study group had focused on the question of how radical groups had developed in America. We looked at the abolitionist, populist, and labor movements. For example, we spent several sessions on the conflicting strategies of William Lloyd Garrison and James Gillespie Birney in the abolitionist movement.
After the study group had been functioning for more than a year, we participated in the late fifties in the march for integrated schools that was organized by Bayard Rustin. At the march, Steve and Jim met a number of young people who were interested in our study group, and the study group expanded rapidly. Soon it became much too large to fit into my small apartment. But some of our new members came from families that had much larger apartments.
About this time, Black students in the South began sit ins at the lunch counters of Woolworth stores demanding to be served. We were in contact with the Black preachers in New York. They asked us to organize protests at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our membership grew to about 80.
Soon after this, we were contacted by Tom Hayden and Al Haber. They had gotten the leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) and changed the name to Students for a Democratic Society. (SDS). At the time, national SDS had about 120 members. We had about 80. Steve felt that we should join forces with them and convinced the rest of us. At least a quarter of our members were red diaper babies. Even though their parents had left the CP, they were still leftists.
At the time, there was an existing chapter of SDS in New York with about 15 members, mostly graduate students. They were under the leadership of JoAnne Landy and her then husband Sy Landy. They called us Stalinoid and protested vehemently. They resigned from SDS to emphasize their protest. But the synergy of the merged organizations worked beautifully and SDS grew rapidly from 200 to a few thousand members. Very many of the former FDR Four Freedom people transferred to universities all over America, and many began SDS chapters in the universities they transferred to.
I was probably the oldest person in SDS.
More on SDS
Nowadays, some people view the 1962 convention near Port Huron as the founding convention of SDS. At the time, nobody saw it that way. It was seen as the final breaking of the linkage to the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). A linkage which had been tenuous for more than a year.
The original name of SDS was Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). Formed before World War I, it eventually represented the right wing of the socialist movement. By 1947 or1948, Doug Kelley, at Michigan State University was using the name SDS locally. At a national level, the official name was not changed, I think, until 1959.
I think it important to document the confluence of forces that shaped SDS in the period prior to Port Huron. Probably the place to start is the article, YSA How It Began, by Guy Williams (probably a pseudonym for Tim Wohlforth)
Guy has a section on Steve Max who was a vice president of YSA as well as a member of the editorial board of their newspaper, the Young Socialist. Guy says that on May 18, 1958, Steve resigned.
A week or so earlier, Steve had attended a study group at my apartment in Manhattan. The people in the study group had very little in common other than all had come to New York from Michigan and all had been in or near the Communist Party in Michigan, and all were out of it.
The purpose of the study group was to do a detailed study of the various social movements in American history. How did they function within the framework of American culture and legal forms? Individuals were to research a topic and lead one or more discussions on the topic. Among topics planned were the American revolution, the struggle for universal adult male suffrage, We wanted to give especial attention to the abolitionist movement, in particular, to the competing visions of James Gillespie Birney and William Lloyd Garrison. Also we planned a heavy emphasis on the Civil War, reconstruction and its defeat. Other topics were women’s suffrage, Populist Party, labor unions, the Socialist Party of Debs, etc. There was even a session on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
No readings were assigned, but every body was expected to find something on the topic of the evening. We looked for the forms that radicalism assumed on American soil.
We started out with about 20 people that Steve had brought from YSA when he left that organization. But attrition set in and we were down to a steady seven or eight people. Included was Marty Wilner, who we later learned had been assigned by the FBI to monitor our group. I had never imagined that the FBI would assign an informant to a small study group that had no ties to any organization whatsoever.
This was the period when A Philip Randolph, Jackie Robinson, and Harry Belafonte were organizing the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington D.C. on October 25, 1958. Steve Max and Jim Brook worked enthusiastically to promote the march, and in the process, made many contacts among leaders of the African American community. The march was successful. It drew about 10,000 students.
In Washington, Jim and Steve met three girls from New York who were looking for an organization. The girls had also met Rachelle Horowitz, a leader of YPSL. (This is the Rachelle Horowitz who later married Thomas Donahue, who was national secretary treasurer of the AF of L CIO from 1979 to 1995). The three girls could not decide which way to go. They proposed an informal debate between representatives of the study group and YPSL. The debate was Steve and myself vs., Rachelle, with only the three girls as audience. They chose our study group.
The girls brought their friends, who in turn brought friends. Soon it became clear that my apartment was much too small. But among the newcomers were some wealthy kids whose living room could easily hold 80 people. The people wanted a more formal organization and chose the name Tom Paine Club. They also wanted more formal speakers and began inviting guest speakers. Especially popular were speakers from the magazine Monthly Review.
In February 1960, some Black students sat in at the lunch counters of the Woolworth store in Greensboro North Carolina asking for service. The Black ministers wanted demonstrations at every Woolworth store in New York. They asked the Tom Paine Club to coordinate picketing at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But one of the members protested that she had joined what was billed as a discussion group. She had not joined an action group. Steve hastily called a meeting where a new organization called the FDR Four Freedoms Club was formed. This group coordinated the picketing at the three Woolworth stores. The picketing was impressive. As a result, when Martin Luther King came to speak at the armory in New York, the Black ministers who were organizing the rally asked the FDR Four Freedoms Club to furnish half of the ushers for seating and for the collection.
Shortly afterwards, Tom Hayden and Al Haber got in touch with Steve Max. They wanted the FDR Four Freedoms Club to affiliate to SDS. A number of months earlier, they had gotten the leadership of SLID. They immediately changed the name to SDS. After discussion, the FDR-Four Freedoms Club decided to affiliate to SDS. At the time, national SDS only had 120 members, and the FDR Four Freedoms Club had 80. But the affiliation produced a minor crisis. The existing New York chapter of SDS had about 15 members. Under the leadership of Joanne Landy, and her then husband, Sy Landy they vigorously opposed the merger and when their opposition failed, all 15 resigned from SDS. As a result, the FDR Four Freedoms contingent was almost as large as the original SDS contingent. The Landys called the FDR Four Freedoms Club people Stalinoid. At least a quarter of the people, and possibly much more, came from families that had earlier been in the Communist Party. But as far as I know, by 1960, Jim Hawley was the only supporter of the CP in the Four Freedoms Club. Because he was working constructively, no one felt like challenging his membership. But in 1962, the national LID leadership made him the central issue at the Port Huron meeting. The refusal to expel Jim became the central issue in the break with LID.
A couple of years earlier, when we first joined SDS, Steve became national traveller for SDS. Former members of the FDR-Four Freedoms club were transferring to universities all over the northeast and mid west. Steve would visit their campus and help to set up a local SDS chapter. Membership grew at an impressive rate. One estimate was that by the time of the April march against the Viet Nam war, membership had risen to 4000.
The April, 1965, march was planned at the National Council meeting in Manhattan held between Christmas and December 30, 1964. Because I had to work, I was not able to attend all of the sessions. Jim Brook presented the motion to organize the march on , I think, December 28. It immediately encountered enormous opposition from people close to Tom Hayden. Jim Brook had solid support from most people of the FDR-Four Freedoms tradition. The debate raged on Dec 28th, 29th, and 30th. The opposition felt such a march would take resources away from other SDS projects. I was not able to be present for the vote, but I have been told by people I regard as reliable that the majority of people from the FDR-Four Freedoms group voted yes on the march. A majority of people from Tom Hayden?s group voted against the march.. The march was approved by a very narrow margin.
SDS and the ERAP
M.Junaid Alam wrote:
It is precisely the task of our times to work side by side with those millions of Americans victimized by modern capitalism – workers, women, veterans, people of color, and immigrants and join them in carving out the path that will lead all of us toward a more secure and humane future.
This reminds me a great deal of 1963. Most of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) people had reached a similar conclusion. So SDS decided on an ERAP strategy ERAP was the acronym for Economic Research and Action Project. They decided to send in teams of 8 to 16 people to move into chosen poor neighborhoods in about a dozen cities. Their guru was Saul Alinsky, but they had a slightly more redicalized version.. In most places, they succeeded in setting up small organizations that won very limited projects such as getting red lights installed on corners where children frequently crossed the streets, but they. never succeeded in expanding the groups. Later, more moderate groups such as ACORN took over the field. In the meantime, SDS organized the first massive anti war march, which brought in a new flood of members and a new leadership for SDS. The new members were not interested in ERAP and it was forgotten.
The definition of the task given above might be correct, but the problem is HOW? In many cities these people who are victimized are atomized and invisible.
The New American Movement
In drawing up a handbill to advertise a speech by Dorothy Healey, I also left out the final “e” in her name. She was very irritated and told me it was a sign of disrespect.
By that time she had left the CP and had led anywhere’s from 50 to 150 people into the New American Movement (NAM).
I had first heard of NAM in 1970 (I think) when I was visiting Steve Max in New York. At a NAM meeting in his apartment, I found many of the people I had known in early New York SDS. When I returned to Boulder, Colorado, I found a large NAM chapter that had been formed by the merger of three local radical groupings. NAM’s politics differed from. but were as close to EuroCommunist as could be found in America. Ideological differences in Boulder soon arose. Wave after wave of people gravitated to Maoism. I placed a special emphasis on avoiding bitterness and the splits took place peacefully.
The military recruiting offices were open Wednesday evenings and we had anti-military demos there.
NAM was possibly the largest left organization in the Rocky Mountain region. In addition to chapters in Montana, we had chapters in Laramie, Wyoming, and in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and for a whle in Pueblo, Colorado.
Our politics were in many ways similar to the left wing of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). Eventually, a movement for merger developed. I opposed it from the left. People like Irving Howe in DSOC opposed it from the right. But majorities in both organizations voted for the merger to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I dropped out of DSA over differences with Leo Casey a quarter of a century ago.
Speaking of NAM’s anti-military campaigns, one of our members, Mary Sell, very cleverly maneuvered the ecology people and the Sierra Club types in the city council into supporting one of them