Students for a Democratic Society

views updated May 23 2018

Students for a Democratic Society

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in 1960 by members of the student branch of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), an Old Left (1930s-era socialist) organization. Inspired by civil rights activities taking place in the South, many members hoped to develop SDS as a Northern counterpart to the African American civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

From its headquarters, first in New York City, and later in Chicago, Illinois , SDS sponsored chapters on college campuses around the country. As the numbers of chapters grew, the loose structure of the organization made communication and coordination between the national office and individual chapters difficult. SDS campus groups often acted on a local level without direction from headquarters.

The Port Huron Statement

Political activist and SDS cofounder Tom Hayden (1939–) drafted The Port Huron Statement for the SDS national convention in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan . The statement described SDS philosophy and also served as a general guide for the New Left (1960s and 1970s movement focusing on college campus mass protests and other radical actions). It began, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” The statement criticized modern American values and called for students to demand a truly “participatory democracy,” and to fight against social injustice and greed. The statement addressed a range of issues, primarily centered on civil rights for African Americans, economic equality, and efforts to stop the buildup of nuclear weapons.

Early activism

In 1963, SDS launched the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). ERAP's goal was to unite and organize the urban (city) poor to protest the social and economic policies that led to inferior living conditions for the minorities and other economically disadvantaged groups in society. ERAP scored limited victories in Cleveland, Ohio , and Newark, New Jersey , but it was dropped as a national project in 1965.

Vietnam War protest

In the early days of the SDS, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954– 75) had been limited. The antiwar movement that became central to the student organization emerged around 1965, when SDS sponsored the first large-scale demonstrations against the war on college campuses. SDS strongly opposed the military draft (government policies requiring certain Americans to serve in the military upon demand). SDS members encouraged young men who faced being drafted not to serve. On April 17, 1965, SDS organized the first of several mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. Fifteen thousand demonstrators joined them. In November, SDS cosponsored another demonstration that drew thirty thousand antiwar protesters.

As the war intensified, so did the SDS opposition to it. SDS organized attacks on Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) military training programs at colleges, the occupation of campus buildings, and student strikes . At Columbia University in 1968 and Harvard University in 1969, SDS chapters led disruptive protests against university ties with the military.

SDS grew rapidly; membership figures rose from approximately four thousand members in 1965 to more than fifty thousand by 1969. As its ranks increased, SDS philosophy changed as well. Many new SDS members favored aggressive action over intellectual debate and traditional protests. SDS members grew impatient with the slowness of governmental response to their impassioned protests. New factions entering SDS, such as a group called the Weathermen, were more inclined to use violence to make their point. In 1968, the Weathermen/SDS organized violent protests and rioting at the Democratic Party 's national convention in Chicago. That year, what was left of SDS split into two groups, and then effectively dissolved as an organization.

Students for a Democratic Society

views updated May 23 2018


STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY. SDS was the main organizational expression of the campus-based radical movement known as the New Left in the 1960s. An almost moribund organization of about three hundred students at the start of the decade, it grew to the point where probably well over fifty thousand people took part in the activities of local SDS chapters in 1968–1969.

SDS originated as the student department of the League for Industrial Democracy, a mildly social-democratic educational service. In the 1950s, under the name Student League for Industrial Democracy, the campus affiliate consisted of a dwindling number of campus discussion groups. When sit-ins at segregated lunch counters revived student political activism in the South in 1960, SDS began to orient toward the new movement. Gradually, a core of articulate student leaders emerged who were interested in such issues as civil rights and nuclear disarmament and in the relations between them. Under the leadership of Tom Hayden and Al Haber of the University of Michigan, SDS in 1962 issued the "Port Huron Statement," a sixty-four page document that proclaimed independence from traditional radical and liberal formulas. The statement became a manifesto for student activists of the New Left.

SDS's own membership grew slowly until the escalation of American military intervention in Vietnam in 1965. SDS sponsored a march on Washington in April 1965, the first national demonstration against the war, which drew upward of twenty thousand mostly young people. From then on, SDS grew rapidly, although it ceased playing a leading role in the antiwar movement. The organization became progressively more radical in the late 1960s, cutting its ties to the League for Industrial Democracy in 1965. At the same time, SDS members began turning their attention to large problems within American society. Several women who held the first national SDS "women's meeting" in 1965 later became key figures in the feminist movement of the 1970s. Civil rights leaders began turning toward "black power," which influenced SDS members.

By the end of the decade, SDS at the national level was an avowedly revolutionary organization. Its influence within the student movement came largely through its insistence that the alienation felt by many young people had its roots in the same social system that carried on the Vietnam War and oppressed racial minorities in the United States. At many schools, notably at Columbia University in 1968 and Harvard University in 1969, SDS chapters led disruptive protests against university ties with the military and other issues.

The momentum of protests in the late 1960s caused many in SDS to believe that a social revolution was not far away, and this feeling, in turn, exacerbated factional divisions. SDS split into two groups at its annual convention in June 1969. One group, led by members of the Progressive Labor Party, advocated a worker-student alliance, while the other group, led in part by people who later formed the "Weather Underground," placed their main emphasis on support for Third World and black revolutionaries. The former group still existed under the name SDS in 1974, but its following was only a tiny fraction of that commanded by SDS in the late 1960s.


Heath, G. Louis. Vandals in the Bomb Factory: The History and Literature of the Students for a Democratic Society. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976.

Miller, Jim. Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Unger, Irwin. The Movement: A History of the American New Left, 1959–1972. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974.

James P.O'Brien/h. s.

See alsoAntiwar Movements ; Civil Rights Movement ; Vietnam War .

Students for a Democratic Society

views updated May 29 2018

Students for a Democratic Society

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest of the many organizations that opposed the Vietnam War (1954–75) from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. It also gave birth to the most radical and destructive of the antiwar organizations, the Weathermen.

The SDS began in the 1950s as the Student League for Industrial Democracy. The name change came in 1960, but SDS membership held little attraction for most U.S. college students until the publication of "The Port Huron Statement" in 1962. This lengthy expression of the organization's philosophy was written by Tom Hayden (1939–), who would become SDS's next president and later a major figure in the antiwar movement. The "Statement's" critique of American consumerism and racism, and its call for true participatory democracy, appealed to many students' sense of idealism. The SDS chapters began to multiply and membership rosters quickly swelled.

Early SDS activities focused on economic development projects in poverty-stricken areas and minority-voter registration. But as the Vietnam War began to escalate in the mid-1960s, SDS increasingly focused on antiwar activism. The initial demonstrations, starting in 1964, were orderly, legal, and peaceful. The failure of these activities to influence American policy, however, led to frustration and thus to more disruptive forms of protest. SDS chapters around the country became involved in unauthorized marches, student strikes, attacks on Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) programs, and occupation of campus buildings. Another form of protest included harassment of on-campus recruiters representing the military; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); and the Dow Chemical Company, manufacturer of napalm, a chemical used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.

In the summer of 1968, SDS participated in the demonstrations held in Chicago, Illinois, at the Democratic National Convention. Clashes between demonstrators and police became increasingly violent on both sides, resulting in a street battle the last night of the convention that government investigators later dubbed a "police riot." Hayden was one of seven protest leaders indicted on federal conspiracy charges. The "Chicago Seven," as they were known, were convicted but freed on appeal.

In 1969, the most radical elements within SDS took over the organization and purged all who did not share their extreme views. Under the new name "Weathermen"—taken from a song by Bob Dylan (1941–; see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4)—they embarked on a course that included bombings, arson, and calls for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

—Justin Gustainis

For More Information

Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. Destructive Generation. New York: Summit Books, 1989.

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Miller, James. "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973.

Students for a Democratic Society Port Huron Statement (June 15, 1962). (accessed March 21, 2002).

Students for a Democratic Society

views updated Jun 11 2018

Students for a Democratic Society. First organized in 1960 as the rejuvenated student arm of the venerable League for Industrial Democracy, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) burst on the national scene in 1962 with its Port Huron Statement. Comparable to Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, the statement laid out the organization's analysis of contemporary America and explained how through “participatory democracy” SDS would reform capitalism. The most important and influential of the New Left groups on college campuses in the 1960s, with as many as 400 chapters by 1968, SDS led the first mass Vietnam Antiwar Movement demonstration on 17 April 1965 in Washington, D.C. After that point, despite the fact that the organization strongly opposed the war, U.S. imperialism, and the Selective Service System, its leaders chose not to play a major role in other mass demonstrations. They and their members were deeply involved in many other antiwar activities, however, including Stop the Draft Week in October 1967 and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. SDS self‐destructed in 1969 as a result of sectarian infighting and after the nihilistic and violent Weathermen faction gave the organization—and the antiwar movement—a bad name.
[See also Draft Resistance and Evasion; Peace and Antiwar Movements; Vietnam War: Domestic Course.]


Kirkpatrick Sale , SDS: Ten Years Toward a Revolution, 1973.

Melvin Small

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