Michigan dubs birthplace of 1960's radical movement official historical site

Tom Hayden, who drafted the famous document, went on to a career in politics before retiring from the California Legislature in 2000.

Tom Hayden, who drafted the famous document, went on to a career in politics before retiring from the California Legislature in 2000.

A Michigan union camp where 1960s radical students signed their manifesto will be recognized as an official historical site, in a development critics say lends unwarranted legitimacy to a movement that was linked to violence and anti-Americanism.

The "Port Huron Statement," a 25,700-word document written by one-time University of Michigan student and future California lawmaker Tom Hayden, was signed at a United Auto Workers camp near Port Huron in 1962. But even though the mission statement for the left-wing group Students for a Democratic Society blasted the U.S. and helped spawn a sometimes violent student movement, state officials say it is part of history.  

“Part of the job of the Michigan Historical Commission is not to provide monuments, but ways to tell stories about our state that are of significance and the marker at Port Huron falls under that,” Sandra Clarke, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Historical Commission, told "People seem to understand that’s the case and are okay with it.”

"It is bewildering that the state of Michigan would waste taxpayer dollars celebrating a failed, totalitarian-oriented ideology."

- Ashley Pratte, Young America’s Foundation

The Port Huron Statement called for total disarmament by the U.S., an end to racism and major reform of the Democratic Party. Hayden, who went on to marry actress Jane Fonda, was the president of Students for a Democratic Society.

"The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak," one passage in the statement read. "In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests."

SDS began as a peaceful movement, and gained massive influence on campuses across the nation as opposition to the Vietnam war grew. By the latter part of the decade, the group had become increasingly strident and was monitored by the FBI. In 1968, SDS activists led "Ten Days of Resistance," with an estimated 1 million students taking part at local campus chapters. But a year later, it splintered into several groups, including the violent Weather Underground and various other factions implicated in attacks on police and civilians.

The decision by the Michigan Historical Commission, a subdivision of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, was first reported by EAG news.

Selected Text from the Historical Marker for the site of the Port Huron Statement

From June 11 to 15, 1962, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) delegates met near this spot to debate and approve what would become The Port Huron Statement. At the time, this was a United Automobile Workers retreat called FDR Camp. After a December 1961 meeting, held at the University of Michigan, SDS decided to build a student movement with a manifesto that provided a “truly democratic alternative to the present.” Using an original draft by Tom Hayden, about sixty students, working in groups, reviewed and debated each section. The statement was the catalyst for the student movement that changed America in the 1960s. Some 60,000 copies had been printed by 1966.




"It is bewildering that the state of Michigan would waste taxpayer dollars celebrating a failed, totalitarian-oriented ideology,” Ashley Pratte, spokeswoman for Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group of students and young professionals that drafted its own statement in 1960 in Sharon, Conn., told “The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a radical group that was eager to salute their Eastern bloc comrades as no threat to freedom. [But] what we know now reinforces how radical and ill-informed SDS was. Not to mention that their domestic policy gave us a blueprint that led to modern day Detroit."

Former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers has long been rumored to have attended the signing, but Historical Commission said the left-leaning lightning rod, who went on to a career in academia despite having been linked to bombings and an attack on a New York judge, was not.

“There is no association between this marker and Bill Ayers,” Clarke said.

Ayers has commented on the Port Huron Statement in the past. In an article written during the 2012 Occupy Wall Street movement, he drew parallels between it and the SDS members who drafted the statement.

"Revolution is still possible, but barbarism is possible as well. In this time of peril and possibility, rising expectations and new beginnings, when hope and history once again rhyme, it’s absolutely urgent that we embrace the spirit embodied in the final words of The Port Huron Statement: ‘If we appear to seek the unattainable … we do so to avoid the unimaginable.’ Occupy the future," Ayers wrote in an article for a publication titled In These Times. 

The commission of the marker at Port Huron is one of seven approved by the commission this year. Other sites chosen include barracks near Fort Mackinac, The Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, and The Gauss Ice House in Marshall.

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych