Monday, January 30, 2006

My brief stint as an SDS member

SDS is back! The Students for a Democratic Society, which began in the early 1960s as a coalition of liberal and radical students, imploded in the last years of the decade. By 1969, SDS had abandoned its goal of participatory democracy and split into two factions: the Revolutionary Youth Movement, or Weatherman, and a faction affiliated with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party.

The revived SDS appears to be pursuing the ideals of the early organization. I for one, am happy to see they're back. As in the late sixties, the United States is pursuing an undeclared and unjust war. And the influence of multinational corporations and wealthy individuals on government, the environment, and human life itself is now truly frightening. I applaud those of the millennial generation who are taking up the good struggle, as well as those older SDS members who are assisting them.

My own brief SDS membership came in the fall and winter of 1966-67, when I was a sophomore at University High School in Iowa City. Alan Soldofsky, a budding poet (now professor of English and Creative Writing at San Jose State), organized the chapter. There weren't many of us--mostly misfits like ourselves. I attended a couple of University of Iowa SDS meetings. The memorable one happened to coincide with the Military Ball. As the ROTC cadets and their dates left the Iowa Memorial Union, we serenaded them with "We Shall Overcome."

In December, 1966, I went with my mother and brother to to visit family friends in Elgin, Illinois. One day during that vacation, I took the Milwaukee Road commuter train into Union Station, Chicago. I knew the SDS headquarters were on West Madison Street. I figured the easiest way to get there was to take the L (There's a rhyme which begins, "In Chicago El is L"), so I walked up to the Lake Street L, and boarded a westbound train. I didn't know about A and B stops, so I ended up at Lake and California, on the big, bad West Side.

I walked down California to Madison and caught an eastbound bus. The neighborhood changed from black to Asian as the bus rolled along. When I got to my block, most of the faces were white, male, and middle-aged. The SDS headquarters were on the western edge of Skid Row.

It was a second-story walk-up office. I didn't meet Carl Oglesby or any other high honchos of the movement. A young woman was there, too busy to talk. I picked up a few leaflets and a copy of the Port Huron Statement and took the bus back to Union Station. Naive 15-year-old kid that I was, I had just gone through what were reputedly some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago without receiving so much as a sidelong glance.

I wore my SDS button through the spring, but the group was beginning to abandon nonviolent resistance. By the fall of 1967, when I left Iowa City for Cedar Falls, SDS wasn't talking much about participatory democracy.

But my hopes are buoyed by the group's revival--especially since these younger members are looking to the SDS of the Port Huron Statement, with its ideal of participatory democracy, as its grounding.

1 comment:

Patry Francis said...

Heartening to hear young people getting involved. Up until now it's seemed as if the only high profile protester is a middle aged mom wearing a t-shirt proclaiming the number of the dead.