What Happened to Tom Hayden, The Famous Anti-War Activist?

His later career in politics was quieter than his crusading efforts as an organizer

From Jay Godwin — Public Domain

“Let us make sure that if our blood flows, it flows all over the city!” Tom Hayden said during the 1968 antiwar protests at the Democratic National Convention.

I recently watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 by Aaron Sorkin, and one historical figure enthralled me the most — Tom Hayden. I read about him in my history textbooks but didn’t know much about him, so decided to do research into his life.

Hayden led a protest that led to police beating down protestors before the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He penned the Port Huron Statement while in prison for being a Freedom Rider. Later, married actress Jane Fonda, as the two of them made several visits to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, which famously led to Fonda being called “Hanoi Jane.”

“At a moment in history — June 1962…Mr. Hayden emerged as one of the most articulate spokesmen of youthful angst,” wrote Elaine Woo at the Washington Post.

According to Woo, Hayden’s Port Huron Statement made hundreds of thousands of idealistic and restless young people anti-authoritarians. At only 22, he wrote the Port Huron Statement while he led the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). At the group’s first convention in Port Huron, Michigan, for a United Auto Workers Retreat, Hayden brought forth the concept of “participatory democracy,” which critiqued the Democratic Party for not supporting the civil rights movement more and critiqued college administrators’ propensity to police the personal lives of students.

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable,” Hayden ended in the Port Huron Statement.

According to Marco Margaritoff in All That’s Interesting, the Port Huron Statement would have 60,000 copies distributed for 25 cents apiece. Hayden delivered one copy of the Port Huron Statement personally to John F. Kennedy.

More quietly, however, Hayden spent the latter half of his life as a State Senator in California and being active in politics more quietly. This is the story of Tom Hayden’s rise to activism, his anti-war efforts, his crusade in the Chicago Seven, and his later life as a politician.

Early life

Tom Hayden was born Thomas Emmett Hayden on December 11, 1939, in Royal Oak, Michigan. He had a troubled childhood that included his parents getting divorced when he was 10, as his father was a violent drunk.

As for Hayden’s own beliefs, he had a “combination of iconoclasm and deep social conscience,” in the words of Woo, the latter of which arose from Hayden’s Catholic faith as a child. When Tom Hayden was a child, he was a part of a church led by Charles Coughlin, the famous Catholic “radio priest” widely known for being an advocate for the unemployed, but also anti-Semitic. Hayden eventually left that church, being dismayed by the beliefs of Coughlin. When Hayden left the Catholic Church as a teenager, he wrote, using the first letter of each paragraph, as editor of his high school newspaper:

“Go to hell.”

Once Hayden went to the University of Michigan in 1957, Hayden became the editor of the newspaper again. There, Hayden started embracing radical politics, according to Robert D. McFadden at the New York Times. He started seeing anti-Communist witch hunts, of which he took part in protests against. He started seeing lunch counter sit-ins by Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the summer of 1960, Hayden met Martin Luther King and joined sit-in protests. According to Margaritoff, King told Hayden:

“Ultimately, you have to take a stand with your life.”

There, he formed the Students for a Democratic Society at Ann Arbor, Michigan. He earned a Bachelor’s in Sociology and did graduate work there as well. In 1961, he married Sandra Cason, another civil rights worker, but the two of them would divorce two years later.

Anti-war activism

In 1965, Hayden made his first trip to Vietnam. He accompanied Herbert Aptheker, a Community Party official in America. The State Department allowed the visit to appease the American peace movement. Hayden and two other men, including Aptheker and a professor at Yale, established contacts in Hanoi and toured villages. From his experiences there, Hayden wrote The Other Side about his experience and later convinced Hanoi to release several American prisoners to show solidarity with the American peace movement.

“We refuse to be anti-Communist. We insist the term has lost all the specific content it once had,” Hayden said.

Actress Jane Fonda also made several trips to North Vietnam, which led to a major PR crisis for Fonda. She was called “Hanoi Jane” after she was photographed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, which led to Fonda getting blacklisted in Hollywood for a time. The two would later get married due to their shared anti-war sentiments. Fonda would later fund much of Hayden’s political efforts and his career.

The Chicago Seven Trial

After the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention that led to police violence against demonstrators, Hayden was one of seven men tried as the “Chicago Seven,” largely charged with criminal conspiracy and incitement to riot. During the trial, Hayden stood in stark contrast with the rest of the seven tried, as well as Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale.

While the other defendants were openly rebellious and antagonistic of Judge Hoffman, Hayden thought it important to observe courtroom decorum. However, he wasn’t as acquiescing to Judge Hoffman at The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes. The trial quickly became a political theater and a media circus. On one occasion, Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom after dialogue with Judge Hoffman. Seale would receive a mistrial and be tried separately, but Judge Hoffman sentenced Hayden and the rest of the Chicago Seven of crossing state lines to incite a riot. They were fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison.

None of the defendants would serve time since a Court of Appeals overturned their convictions due to Judge Hoffman’s procedural errors and hostility towards the defendants.

Hayden’s career as a politician

Photo from Thomas Good in Next Left Notes — Tom Hayden in 2007, Wikipedia Commons

“You don’t navigate challenges and remain unchanged. Not that you don’t sometimes yearn to be young again, but you’ll never see the world the way you did when you were truly young.” — Tom Hayden

After his radical activism in the 60s, Hayden, in the 70s, sought to join the political system he railed against. He made an electoral challenge in the Democratic Primary to California Senator John V. Tunney and lost. He finished a close second behind Tunney. During the campaign, Hayden said that the radicalism of the 1960s was becoming the common sense of the 70s, signaling a departure in how he wanted to change the world.

Hayden and Fonda started the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), helping begin a relationship with Governor Jerry Brown in California. According to Fonda, CED started after Hayden spoke to Cesar Chavez. Chavez told Hayden to build a movement out of his Senate campaign structure, which later led to multiple progressive candidates elected in California.

He would serve in the California State Assembly from 1982 to 1992, and would serve on the California State Senate from 1992 to 2000. During his time in office, according to Jane Onyanga Omara at USA Today, Hayden authored Hayden’s Law, which protected shelter animals from premature euthanasia.

Hayden and Fonda would have a son named Troy Garity, and later divorce. Hayden would later marry Barbara Williams.

On October 23, 2016, Tom Hayden died of complications from a stroke.


In remembering Tom Hayden on Election Day, a legendary and often polarizing figure in American history who has been brought back into conversation by Sorkin’s film, I can’t help but wonder: why do we remember much more of Hayden’s earlier life than his later life?

Of course, the 60s were when Hayden made his legacy and the most impact on radical politics and the left. He seemed to be in the right place at the right time for several of the major historical events of the 1960s, including the Freedom Riders and the later 1968 DNC protests.

Hayden died only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election, after he endorsed Hillary Clinton, so it’s only fitting that we think about Hayden again today, as Joe Biden squares off against Donald Trump in an unprecedented year.

Regardless of the challenges of different time periods, Tom Hayden never stopped advocating and never stopped fighting for justice. Even if his later career in politics was quieter than his crusading efforts as an organizer, Hayden never stopped making an impact, despite whatever setbacks he might have had as an organizer or a politician.

He didn’t get to see a Trump presidency, but I wonder what Tom Hayden would say today.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: ryanfan17@gmail.com. Support me: ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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