Of all the student activist organizations that flourished in the United States during the mid-to-late 1960s, none had such a lasting impact on pop culture and contemporary politics as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Despite fewer than 100 activists attending their first convention meeting at Port Huron, Michigan in 1962, by 1968 the controversial SDS could muster over 50,000 active members . Widely considered one of the largest and most influential student activist groups in American history, the SDS championed a wide swath of left-wing causes ranging from global Cold War foreign policy to local labor laws. However, the group was best known for organizing resistance against the Vietnam War and military draft policies that began as nonviolent civil disobedience, but grew increasingly aggressive and militant as the war intensified.
While there were no shortage of anti-war groups protesting the war, SDS gained fame and notoriety by their calls for direct and specific action against the “military-industrial complex.” Some of their most effective tactics included:
1) Mass student strikes that significantly increased participation from non-members and the larger non-politically active student body.
2) Sit-ins and ransacking of college administration and military recruiting centers to disrupt draft recruitment.
3) Encouraging newly drafted soldiers to actively resist orders.
4) Blocking recruiters representing both the military and civilian defense contractors from campus.
5) Organizing major rallies in Washington and against specific administration officials when they traveled around the country.
Foundation and Early Activism
The SDS was founded from humble roots in 1960 by a handful of socialist-leaning students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These founding members, none of whom held a senior role in the organization by the start of Vietnam, were disillusioned former activists from the Depression Era Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) who hoped to found a larger, more inclusive “left wing” movement in America. The first attempt at codifying the organization’s aims produced the famous Port Huron Statement, which would guide the SDS’s actions until the Vietnam War heated up.
The Port Huron Statement denounced the political system of the United States for failing to achieve international peace and critiqued Cold War foreign policy and national security bureaucracy. Specifically the international arms race and growing threat of nuclear war. Domestically, it listed strong grievances against racial discrimination, economic inequality, big businesses, trade unions political parties, and the power elite. More importantly, besides critique and analysis of American society, the manifesto also posed a series of tangible reforms to strive for:
1) It proclaimed a need to create two genuine political parties to attain greater democracy.
2) Advocated more power for individuals through citizen’s lobbies against iron triangle corruptions.
3) More substantial involvement by workers in business management.
4) Enlarging the public sector through increased government welfare, including a “program against poverty.”
Finally, the manifesto went a step further and furnished tactics and ideas to overcome societal, business and government resistance. Specifically, the SDS advocated nonviolent civil disobedience as the primary tool by which student youth could bring forth a “participatory democracy.”
Until early 1965, the SDS was deeply involved in advocated for the civil rights movement and these various socio-economic causes in the middle of the Cold War era. They organized hundreds of protests and demonstrations in these early years, but few drew in large crowds and even less media scrutiny.
That all changed on October 1, 1962. At the time, the University of California at Berkeley was the epicenter of the “free speech movement.” When a young activist was arrested for setting up an informational card table about the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—a violation of the university’s ban on political solicitation—the SDS worked closely with a similar organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to take immediate action.
Within moments, around three thousand students surrounded the police car before the activist could be taken away. This early standoff, or “sit-in,” drew major media attention and blockaded the police car for 32 hours. The ensuing demonstrations, meetings and strikes spawned over the next few days temporarily shut the university down. Local police responded by arresting hundreds of students, but the name “SDS” slipped into popular culture for the first time.
Vietnam and Climax
When US ground troops entered the Vietnam War in 1965, the SDS quickly shifted their primary focus from economic and civil rights causes to stopping the war and attacking defense contractors profiting from it. While the early SDS movement stressed decentralization and distrusted bureaucracy, which severely limited the National Office’s effectiveness, the local student offices were incredibly passionate about the anti-war movement. Campus chapters around the country began independently organizing local demonstrations against the war, which culminated in a major peace march in Washington DC on April 17th. At the time, that was the largest anti-war protest ever and included an estimated 25,000 activists. In short order, this uncoordinated grassroots protesting drew massive media attention to the mostly ceremonial national organization.
The newly empowered SDS National Office was soon flooded with donations and endorsements from many other peace groups and celebrities. The media began covering the organization as the primary standard bearer of the New Left.
With their vastly improved profile and resources, SDS membership swelled. By the summer of 1965, the SDS boasted more than 50 chapters in universities all over the country. However, the organization’s openness by allowing other groups, even communists, to join caused great strains with the older leftist groups.
The first official “teach-in” protest organized by the SDS National Office against the Vietnam War was held at the University of Michigan. Within a year, hundreds of these events were held both on and off campus in every region of the country.
In a desire to expand the group’s reach out of traditional liberal power centers in East Coast cities, the 1965 convention was held at Kewadin, in Northern Michigan. The National Office also moved from Manhattan to Chicago at the same time.
This defining convention elected a young student from Ohio named Carl Oglesby, instead of a more traditional “professional” activist. Most dramatically, the convention also removed the anti-communist exclusion clauses from the SDS constitution. The League for Industrial Democracy, SDS’s sponsoring organization, was disappointed with this change and the two organizations severed all ties by mutual agreement on October 4, 1965.
This video of Carl Oglesby years later gives you an idea of him as a man.
On November 27, 1965 the SDS put together their most successful anti-war demonstration yet in Washington, D.C. The new SDS president, Carl Oglesby, gave an incendiary speech that would define the movement for years to come, where he insisted that the United States government had abandoned democratic principles and adopted imperialism. The speech received significant “mainstream” press coverage and greatly increased the SDS’s national prominence.
The massive influx of new members and chapters, combined with ousting the previous “old guard” leadership, created a crisis which dogged SDS until its final breakup in 1969: a consensus was never reached how the organization should achieve its anti-war goals. A last ditch attempt by the old guard to hold a “rethinking conference” and form some coherent new direction for the SDS failed. The heated but ultimately fruitless conference, held on the University of Illinois campus over Christmas vacation in 1965, only drew 360 activists, most of them new members.
Nonetheless, the SDS continued to take advantage of anger at the draft as a crucial recruiting tool among college students. Over the rest of the academic year, they shifted to attacking the perceived complicity of universities in supporting the draft. At the time, many schools were using students’ class rankings to determine draft eligibility. In response, a local SDS chapter at the University of Chicago took over the main administration building in a three-day sit-in during May of 1965. This practice quickly became a favorite tactic and sit-ins spread to scores of other universities.
The 1966 summer convention moved even farther west to Clear Lake, Iowa. In addition to choosing new leadership, members of the Progressive Labor Party (PL) became actively involved in the SDS’s National Office. This Maoist group had mined the SDS for new members sympathetic to their long-running goal of organizing the industrial working class for years. Most SDS members at the time were anti-communist, but they also viewed the communist/socialist divide as mostly irrelevant and a low priority. The PL soon began to organize a Worker Student Alliance, which by 1968 would revolutionize the SDS, by forming a well-groomed and disciplined faction which adhered to the Progressive Labor Party line.
The 1966 convention also put an emphasize on organizing around local campus issues at the chapter level, with the National Office cast in a strictly supporting role. But first and foremost among these local concerns were on-campus recruiting by the military and school rankings for the draft. Chapters around the nation entered a new era of unprecedented dissent and activism, but Berkeley again became a focal point of protesting that drew the attention of the mass media. Primarily over the university’s perceived repressive anti-free-speech actions. Even the conservative Harvard University endured major protests and sit-ins when US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited that year.
Around this time, many SDS activists adopted more anarchistic leanings, which added a new element of militancy and willingness to fight back against police action. Which only enhanced the group’s reputation with many young students. In 1967, SDS members were even elected into the student government offices on many campuses. Soon, demonstrations against campus military recruiters and “teach in” occupations of administration offices on campus became routine.
Of course, the SDS’s success also drew significant attention from the authorities. While most local police departments adopted a “catch and release” policy towards detaining the activists, Federal authorities appeared to classify the organization as a national security threat. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, through its controversial COINTELPRO domestic surveillance program, began infiltrating informants into SDS chapters, and denouncing supposed spies was soon a common order of business in many chapter meetings.
Nonetheless, the National Office grew distinctly more politically savvy and organized during this period. For a brief period, they were particularly effective at channeling the energy of the local chapters into the anti-war movement. By the summer of 1967, the SDS’s anti-war call had spread so wide among university students that the National Office could organize protests at campuses without a local chapter.
The 1967 convention eliminated the presidential and vice-presidential offices and replaced them with a national secretary, an education secretary, and an inter‑organizational secretary. This seemingly small change emphasized a need to better organize the SDS’s growing financial resources and political clout, even if a clear role for the national program was not agreed upon. Still, the convention did manage to firm up their anti-war goals. Specifically: end the draft, foster resistance within the ranks of the military itself, and pressure Washington for the immediate withdrawal of all forces from Vietnam.
The fall of 1967 marked the New Left’s escalation from protesting the war to more direct action. The school year began with a large demonstration against the University of Wisconsin on October 17. The school’s perceived complicity in the war by allowing Dow Chemical recruiters on campus (Dow Chemical was a major supplier of Agent Orange to the US military) attracted thousands of protestors. Initially peaceful, the demonstration devolved into a sit-in that was violently dispersed by local police, resulting in many injuries and arrests. A subsequent and even larger rally, followed by a mass student strike, would close the university for several days.
Shortly thereafter, the SDS, working with the anti-war groups The Resistance and the War Resisters League, held a coordinated series of demonstrations nationwide against the draft, which attracted their largest and most enraged crowds yet. After conventional civil rights tactics of peaceful pickets and civil disobedience were met by the riot police, violence began to pick up. A Stop the Draft Week rally in Oakland, California resulted in rock-throwing street skirmishes with the police that injured dozens on both sides. A massive rally of 100,000 people on October 21 at the Pentagon ended with hundreds arrested and scores injured. Vandalism and arson against draft offices soon grew widespread.
In the spring of 1968, National SDS activists launched an effort called “Ten Days of Resistance.” Local chapters worked closely with the national Student Mobilization Committee to prepare sit-ins, or “teach-ins,” rallies, marches and a nationwide student strike on April 26. About a million students walked out of classes that day, which is still the largest student strike in US history. The strike was largely ignored by most of the New York City-based national media. Their attention was focused on the civil rights-oriented shutdown of Columbia University in New York, led by an inter-racial alliance of Columbia SDS chapter activists and Student Afro Society members. As a result of the publicity garnered by Columbia SDS activists, such as chairperson Mark Rudd during the Columbia Student Revolt, the organization achieved significant political credibility. Whether respected or derided, SDS was soon a household name in the United States. Membership in SDS chapters around the United States increased dramatically and reached its highest point during the 1968-69 academic year.
The SDS continued to expand their influence outside of the peace movement and forged strong ties with many civil rights groups. The San Francisco chapter, led by the Worker-Student Alliance and rival Joe Hill caucuses, played a significant role in the Third World Student Strike at San Francisco State College. This strike, the longest student strike in U.S. history, was as much a victory for civil rights as for the anti-war movement and directly led to the creation of ethnic studies programs on campuses around the country.
Another prominent example came when SDS members from Austin, Texas participated in a mass demonstration in San Antonio, Texas in April 1969 at the “Kings River Parade.” The demonstration to protest the killing of Bobby Joe Phillips by San Antonio Police Officers attracted major media coverage.
Infighting and Dissolution
During the summer of 1969, the SDS held their final national convention at the Chicago Coliseum, with almost 2,000 members attending. Many factions of the movement were present in large numbers, including the Young Socialist Alliance, Wobblies, Spartacists, Marxists and various Maoists groups. Among them all though, the convention soon dissolved into an intense rivalry between the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) wing, which later grew into the Weather Underground, and the Worker Student Alliance (WSA) faction.
Once it became clear that the WSA element held a majority of delegates, the convention fell into disarray. Eventually, as one smaller group after another was expelled, the SDS settled on dissolving the party. The majority of the former members created two new activist organizations: The “SDS-RYM,” compromising most of the former National Office, and the “SDS-WSA,” made up of an alliance of Maoist-leaning local chapters.
In the fall of 1969, most of the SDS-RYM chapters split up further or simply disintegrated. The last remnants of the RYM grew into the Weatherman faction, a militant underground organization that abandoned non-violence and embraced terror tactics, specially bombing campaigns. The Weathermen held one final national convention in Flint, Michigan in December, 1969. It was at this convention, popularly known as the “Flint War Council,” that the SDS-RYM was formally disbanded. The SDS-WSA survived until 1974, but with the Vietnam War winding down after the Tet Offensive, they mostly abandoned the anti-war efforts and focused their activism on civil and labor rights.