Many on all sides of the political spectrum were stunned and saddened Sunday night to learn of the death of Tom Hayden. The texts and emails and Facebook posts that passed Sunday night between friends, or just acquaintances of Tom’s, were filled with shock and sorrow.
Hayden had been struggling with heart problems and a stroke, then reportedly became ill during the Democratic National Convention in July, according to his wife, Barbara Williams. He died on Sunday, October 23. He was 76.
Still, in typical Hayden fashion he managed to record at least one more long and chatty interview with an NPR reporter at the convention, talking about his hopes for the country’s political future, and how he hoped to contribute to that future.
Even those who disagreed with Hayden expressed admiration for his passion, his shimmering intelligence, and his commitment to causes he believed to be important.
It would be difficult to count all the ways he has mattered in the realm of social justice.
Due to his early days of activism, however, he was sometimes a polarizing figure.
Hayden began as an early 60’s radical and freedom rider who became nationally known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and for his involvement in the civil rights movement.
He was one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1962, he was the principal author of the Port Huron Statement, the influential organizing document of the SDS.
In 1968, he helped plan anti-war demonstrations to take place outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When after weeks of trying without success to get permits to gather legally, Hayden and the other organizers went ahead with the demonstrations anyway. The resulting clashes with Chicago police were violent, deadly—and televised. Hayden and seven others were arrested and slapped with the newly minted federal charges of conspiracy to incite to riot.
The subsequent so-called Trial of the Chicago Seven, veered between theater and farce. (Defendant number eight, Bobby Seale, was tried separately.) Hayden was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but the conviction was later overturned on appeal, because the highly colorful Judge Julius Hoffman had so opening sided with prosecutors.
By the late 1970’s, the FBI had a 22,000-page FBI on Tom Hayden.
He was famously—and sometimes infamously—married to actress Jane Fonda from 1973 to 1990. It was a second marriage for both Hayden and Fonda. Now that the Vietnam War had ended, anti-establishment Hayden decided to try his hand at conventional politics. Fonda financed the beginning of his political career, which started with an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.
Then, in 1982, Hayden was elected to the California Assembly. Once he got his political feet under him, a newly-middle class Hayden served a total of 18 years in the state capitol—first ten years in the Assembly, then another eight in the state Senate.
After his divorce from Fonda, Hayden married Canadian actress Barbara Williams shortly after being voted into the California State Senate in 1992.
When he was termed out of the senate, Hayden’s political career ran aground. He ran unsuccessfully for California governor, for LA mayor, and finally for Los Angeles City Council, where he lost in a runoff by 369 votes to former prosecutor Jack Weiss.
Following the City Council loss, Hayden left politics, and went back to writing and organizing, championing a list of social justice causes, with the help of a new generation of young activists, including a group of former gang members whom he successfully mentored and championed.
Hayden began as a journalist during his student activist years, and remained a prolific writer, and author throughout his life. He was a member of the editorial board and a columnist for The Nation magazine, and was published with some regularity in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Harvard International Review, the Huffington Post and more
He also authored and/or edited more than twenty books, including “Inspiring Participatory Democracy: Student Movements from Port Huron to Today,” and his last book, “Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement,” which is scheduled to be published in March 2017 by Yale University Press.
“Tom Hayden changed America,” wrote Nicolas Lemann of The Atlantic. During his time in Sacramento, he was described as “the conscience of the Senate” by the Sacramento Bee’s political analyst. The Nation magazine named Hayden one of the 50 greatest progressives of the 20th century.
At WitnessLA we considered Tom a treasured friend. We sometimes disagreed with him, and he with us. But we were far better for having known him. We will miss his wildly intelligent and impassioned voice more than we can express.
If you’d like to hear more from Tom Hayden personally, here’s the NPR interview with Tom at the Democratic convention in July that we mentioned above. It’s weirdly poignant, given the timing. His energy, and his enthusiasm and optimism for affecting political change is still there in full force, despite his failing health.
Then if you’d like to read more about Tom Hayden, the Los Angeles Times obit by Michael Finnegan on Hayden is a good one.
Here’s a clip:
Looking back on the war in his memoir, Hayden voiced a few regrets. Time proved him “overly romantic about the Vietnamese revolution,” he wrote. Hayden also admitted “a numbed sensitivity to any anguish or confusion I was causing to U.S. soldiers or to their families — the very people I was trying to save from death and deception.”
As the war came to an end, Hayden embraced mainstream politics in California with a campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. John Tunney. He lost the June 1976 Democratic primary to Tunney, who was ousted in November by Republican S.I. Hayakawa. Some Democrats blamed the defeat on Hayden.
But the campaign laid ground for Hayden and Fonda to start the Campaign for Economic Democracy, later known as Campaign California. The group fought for such causes as Santa Monica rent control, public spending on solar power and divestment from apartheid South Africa.
Much of the group’s money came from Fonda, whose movie career was booming and whose workout video business would spawn a fortune in the ’80s. It helped elect scores of liberals to local offices statewide and campaigned for Proposition 65, the anti-toxics measure that requires signs in gas stations, bars and grocery stores that warn of cancer-causing chemicals.
Hayden represented Santa Monica, Malibu and part of the Westside in Sacramento. His legislative achievements were modest — research into the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange on U.S. servicemen in Vietnam; repair money for the Santa Monica and Malibu piers; tighter rules to prevent the collapse of construction cranes, to name a few.
Hayden paid a personal price for his work as a radical.
His father, a Republican, refused to speak with him for 13 years. They reconciled before his father’s death, a few days before Hayden won election to the Assembly in 1982.
PHOTO by Jay Godwin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.