The Times -- Are They A-Changin'?

Students for a Democratic Society, the movement that galvanized campuses in the '60s before dissolving in bitter infighting, is trying for a comeback.

January 25, 2006

Students for a Democratic Society, the movement that galvanized campuses in the '60s before dissolving in bitter infighting, is trying for a comeback.

The revived SDS combines new student chapters with some veterans from the glory days of the movement. Organizers boast that in the week since plans were announced, they have received a flood of new members -- about one every hour. But signs of SDS activity on campuses are hard to come by, and some experts on activism doubt that the group will ever again be a force.

A group of current students and one-time SDS leaders issued a call last week to revive the group nationally. According to organizers, the call followed the realization that a few SDS chapters had been formed around the country, and that the time might be ripe to unite them and add new chapters.

"It's really quite amazing, how many memberships are coming in," said Alan Haber, the first president of the SDS (in 1960) and one of those involved with the revival. "I think what we did in the '60s gives students a framework in a struggle with a long continuity."

Some of the campuses where students are organizing SDS chapters -- places like the University of Michigan or the New School --- have long histories of radical activism. Others -- like the University of Missouri at Columbia and Salve Regina University -- don't have those reputations. The SDS says that it has at least 16 student chapters (some covering more than one campus in an area), although the organizer of at least one chapter (Dartmouth College) cited on the SDS Web site said that his group had already disbanded.

Elle Thomas, a junior at Regis University, said she was inspired in the last few weeks to help organize a Denver area chapter. While most students were on break, 15 students from various colleges set up a group and are planning outreach to fellow students. Thomas, who is 35, said she thought the new SDS chapters would be influenced by having older students as members, and would not to assume that all students are traditional college age or have the perspectives of 18 to 22 year olds.

The mission statement adopted by the organizers in Denver calls for the SDS there to work for "a society built by true consensus, free from oppression, violence, and unequal distribution of power and resources."

Dave Overfelt, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said that he created the group there on Monday, after learning of the plan for a national revival. He has 10-15 people on board. "I studied social movement stuff and wanted to bring that back," he said.

Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is one of the alumni of the earlier movement who is helping today, and he is also a historian of student activism. "One always hesitates to be optimistic, but I've never -- in many movements and over many years -- seen something happen this fast," he said.

Buhle said that the SDS has "a certain kind of appeal" that no group has replicated -- because of the combination of intellectual framework and protest success. Buhle said that the new SDS probably needs its own Port Huron Statement, the document that outlined the SDS philosophy, "and it needs to come from young people today."

Much of the protest movement in the earlier generation came from students who did not want to go to Vietnam, and today's college students do not face a draft. Buhle acknowledged the difference, but he said that the war in Iraq may create a mass movement because of the historic extent to which "U.S. foreign policy is overreaching itself."

Some experts on student activism -- even those sympathetic to the goals of the original SDS -- doubt the revival will go anywhere. Christine Kelly, a professor of political science at William Paterson University, in New Jersey, and author of Chimes of Freedom: Student Protest and the American University, said "nostalgia of the '60s can be dangerous."

Kelly said, for example, that people recalling the era tend to imagine constant mass protests, when much of the political work of the decade was done by small groups, ignored by many. And however relevant the history of that period, Kelly said that students today are better off building their own movements. She said that she agrees that the "time is ripe" for a broad student movement -- just not the SDS.

Since the '60s, she said, "student activism has tended to be single issue," and part of the appeal of the SDS is the idea of a broader group. She said that she is encouraged by groups that are attracting growing numbers of people concerned about college costs, and noted that some of these groups link the government's inability to support colleges to its willingness to go to war in Iraq. Groups like Tent State University and Books Not Bombs are likely to be more successful than the SDS, she said.

While stressing that she has great respect for the SDS founders and those involved on campus today, Kelly said that ultimately it was "silly" to revive the group. "What worked in '65 and '68 isn't going to work today," she said. "Young people today will need to decide what their own visions are."

Buhle said that despite his excitement over the interest he's seen in the last week, he realizes that a revival is not assured. "I think it's going up like a rocket," he said. "But I know something can go up like a rocket and fall down like a stick."


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