SDS: Students For Democratic Society

Students for Democratic Society (SDS) was part of the New Left, the student political movement that protested the Vietnam War in the United States.

Related Terms:

RED DIAPER BABIES--The children of people who had been active members of progressive, sometimes even radical, social movements during the 1930s (Webster's Dictionary, 9th ed.)

NEW LEFT--A political movement originating in the United States in the 1960s that actively advocated (as by demonstrations and education efforts) radical changes in prevailing social, political, and educational practices (Webster's Dictionary, 9th ed.).

LEAGUE FOR INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY--A socialist organization whose youth branch developed into Students for a Democratic Society (Webster's Dictionary, 9th ed.).

FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT (FSM)--Student movement at the University of California, Berkeley, formed in 1964 to protest limitations on political activities on campus (Webster's Dictionary, 9th ed.).

COUNTERCULTURE--Various alternatives to mainstream values and behaviors that became popular in the 1960s, including experimentation with psychedelic drugs, communal living, a return to the land, Asian religions, and experimental art (Webster's Dictionary, 9th ed.).

WEATHER UNDERGROUND (WEATHERMEN)--Hardline, terroristic faction that split off from SDS in 1969 and went underground.

CHICAGO SEVEN""Seven young men who were arrested and tried as leaders of the antiwar protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.


Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a radical youth group established in the United States in 1959, developed out of the youth branch of an older socialist educational organization, the League for Industrial Democracy. The newly formed SDS held its first organizational meeting in 1960 at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Robert Alan Haber was elected president.

The political manifesto for SDS, the Port Huron Statement, was written for the most part by Tom Hayden, a twenty-two-year-old former editor of the student newspaper at the University of Michigan. The document, adopted in 1962 by the sixty or so founding members of SDS, criticized the American political system for failing to achieve international peace or to effectively address a myriad of social ills, including racism, materialism, militarism, poverty, and exploitation. The Port Huron Statement called for a fully "participatory democracy," which would empower citizens to share in the social decisions that directly affected their lives and well-being. It was the founders' fervent, if somewhat naïve, belief that a nonviolent youth movement could transform U.S. society into a model political system in which the people, rather than just the social elite, would control social policy.

At first SDS focused its efforts on helping to promote the civil rights movement and on efforts to improve conditions in urban ghettoes. In April of 1965, SDS organized a national march on Washington, D.C., and from that point on the movement grew increasingly militant, especially in its opposition to the Vietnam War, employing such tactics as rowdy (though not violent) demonstrations and occupation of administration buildings on college campuses. After 1965, SDS became known primarily for its leading role in the youth movement against the Vietnam War.

SDS was part of a more general youth movement aimed at correcting social injustice in the United States. The civil rights movement that led to the formation of SDS also precipitated another politicized youth movement, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), led by a junior philosophy major named Mario Savio. Savio urged his generation to fight against the educational-corporate machine, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick to heart that . . . you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

The Free Speech Movement arose as a reaction against the heavy-handed attempts by Berkeley officials, under pressure by prominent local conservatives, to prevent students from collecting donations and recruiting other students for work in the civil rights movement in the segregated South. Official overreaction to mild student resistance led to massive sit-ins and occupation of the university administration building. The arrest of over five hundred demonstrators led to several weeks of even more massive demonstrations and a strike by nearly 70 percent of the Berkeley student body.

The "countercultural" youth movement that SDS and the Free Speech Movement were such a prominent part of was driven by a radical minority of liberal-arts majors and graduate students attending some of the country's most elite educational institutions. This campus political awakening, dubbed the "New Left," developed around a core of "red-diaper babies," the children of parents who were themselves politically active and who had participated in progressive, and even radical, social movements in the 1930s. It was, after all, the youth branch of a socialist organization that had evolved into SDS, and most of SDS's early recruits were red-diaper babies.

The somewhat vague idealism and altruism of the early SDS is captured in the ringing declarations of the Port Huron Statement: "We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege or circumstances, with power rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity." The Port Huron Statement also decried "the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry. . . . [and] the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb," which drove the younger generation "as individuals to take responsibility for encounter and resolution."

The campus activism heralded by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and SDS's Port Huron Statement soon spread to colleges and universities all over the United States. Even students who never joined SDS heeded the call to action embodied in the Port Huron Statement and other SDS manifestos. SDS also used a small grant from the United AutoWorkers union to initiate a campaign for grassroots political awakening in working-class neighborhoods. In Hayden's and Savio's rhetoric, thousands of students found the vision of a just society that motivated their resistance to what they saw as the impersonality, insensitivity, and rigidity of America's educational institutions and of the society those institutions served.

Student protesters targeted many perceived injustices, focusing at first on loosening up the university culture itself. They demonstrated against racial discrimination in sororities and fraternities, dress codes, course requirements, and the grading system. They especially protested against university research that benefited the military-industrial complex.

When in January of 1966 President Lyndon Johnson's administration announced it would abolish automatic student deferments from the draft, student anger over the escalation of the war in Vietnam became more personal and intense. SDS, as a leader of the New Left student movement, seized on antiwar sentiment to kindle a mass student movement. By the end of 1966, over three hundred new SDS chapters had been formed on campuses across the country.

The most popular of SDS's rallying cries, "Make Love--Not War!" became the motto for the antiwar movement. SDS organized draft-card burnings and disruptions of ROTC classes. Campus recruiters for the military were hounded and harassed by large groups of student protesters. A massive SDS-orchestrated demonstration in New York's Central Park, the Spring Mobilization to end the War in Vietnam (1969), drew half a million antiwar protesters. Chanting, "Burn cards, not people," and "Hell, no we won't go!" hundreds of young men threw their draft cards into a large bonfire.

In 1968, about forty thousand students on nearly a hundred campuses across the country demonstrated against the Vietnam War and against racism. Protest against one often morphed into protest against the other, as at Columbia University, where an antiracist demonstration developed into a huge protest against the war and against military research at the university. The administration building and other campus buildings were occupied by nearly a thousand angry students, who set up barricades and established "revolutionary communes" behind the barricades. When the police stormed the buildings and brutalized the occupying students, the moderate majority of students at Columbia joined in a boycott of classes that shut down the university.

During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Mayor Daley's police attacked five thousand antiwar demonstrators in what investigators would later term a "police riot." Unfortunately, worse violence was yet to come. The most shocking incident was the unprovoked shooting by Ohio National Guardsmen of four students at Kent State University on 4 May 1970. Also in May, Mississippi state highway patrolmen investigating a student protest fired into a women's dormitory at Jackson State College, killing two students and wounding eleven. These two incidents led to even more protests on college campuses, though by the time school resumed in the fall, the wave of protests had pretty much burned itself out.

As student activism subsided on the nation's college campuses, SDS itself began to fall victim to its own internal divisions. Within the SDS organization, highly disciplined factions of hard-line followers of the revolutionary philosophies of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara began to take over the movement. By 1969 these factions were already in evidence. The most notorious of them was the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, which went underground to employ terrorist violence, thus providing the justification the FBI and other government agencies wanted to crack down on the New Left.

Other SDS factions withdrew from the national organization to focus their efforts on the Third World or on the now radicalized Black Power movement. As the Vietnam War began to enter its closing stages, SDS lost much of its rationale for national activism, and by the mid-1970s the organization was essentially dead.

Tom Hayden, the main author of the Port Huron Statement and one of the Chicago Seven, became a progressive politician and to this day remains active in California state politics. His political career is one of the few lasting effects of the movement SDS initiate to make the United States a more just and more humane society. Ironically, one other lasting effect was the right-wing backlash of the late 1970s and 1980s, in which newly politicized social and religious conservatives made use of grassroots organizing techniques borrowed from SDS to propel Ronald Reagan into the presidency and to enact a conservative agenda that rolled back many of the liberal programs and policies of the 1960s and early 1970s.

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