In Memoriam: Man of the People
As both an activist and elected official, Tom Hayden remained a fierce advocate for social justice
By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki
Tom Hayden, a leading voice of America’s civil rights and anti-war movements who went from standing trial with the Chicago Seven to representing Westside neighborhoods in the California Legislature for 18 years, died Sunday in Santa Monica. He was 76.
Hayden cofounded Students for a Democratic Society while editing the University of Michigan’s campus news-paper, organized Freedom Rides in the segregated South and was the primary author of the Port Huron Statement, a landmark 1962 manifesto in support of participatory democracy and civil disobedience.
He became a national figure following the televised violence between police and protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1969, President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department indicted Hayden — one of J. Edgar Hoover’s primary targets and the subject of 22,000 pages of FBI surveillance — and other convention protest organizers on charges of conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot. The Chicago Seven’s convictions on the latter charge were later reversed on appeal.
“Tom Hayden was a passionate and progressive champion of peace and social justice. A man of integrity, courage and steel nerves, Tom always spoke truth to power,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was called to testify at the Chicago Seven trial, in a statement emailed to The Argonaut. “He had a vision of making America different and better than the America in which he was born. Tom, who deeply identified with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a non-racist society and was committed to the African-American freedom struggle.”
Hayden married actress Jane Fonda in 1973. Following polarizing stints of public activism against the Vietnam War, the couple moved into a modest home in Santa Monica and began to influence local causes.
The Hayden-led, Fonda-funded Campaign for Economic Democracy helped pass a local rent control ordinance in 1979 that reshaped Santa Monica’s political and economic landscape.
Judy Abdo, a rent control activist who went on to serve as mayor of Santa Monica, recalled attending intimate political gatherings at the couple’s home on Wadsworth Avenue in Ocean Park.
Hayden “had the ability to mentor people to become leaders,” Abdo said. “That was one of his best gifts. He was an issue organizer. While he wasn’t the out-front person, he was a key part of the strategy of how to win that election.”
Fonda and Hayden divorced in 1990, and he married actress Barbara Williams in 1993.
After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1976, Hayden won election to the California Assembly in 1982. He remained in Sacramento as a member of the Assembly and later the state Senate until 2000, but lost a longshot campaign for governor in 1994 and a 1997 bid to unseat L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represented Santa Monica in the Assembly while Hayden was in the Senate and eventually took over his Senate seat, said Hayden lent her political guidance.
“He was always the one with a conscience — that fierce Irish rebel heart — and he could always articulate the absolute right thing to do. I think his greatest legacy was how he was able to articulate the importance of social justice and how it makes people’s lives better,” Kuehl said.
In 2006, Hayden spoke to The Argonaut about walking the line between activist and elected official.
“It’s dangerous for activists to move too close to the center, because they can lose their heritage to people who never fought in the first place. But if the activists never engage in mainstream politics, then it is the mainstream Machiavellians that write the history for them,” he said at the time.
Hayden often clashed with both Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento, but made progress on environmental causes. In 1986 he backed Proposition 65, which required businesses to post public warnings about the presence of cancer-causing chemicals. He staunchly supported preserving the Ballona Wetlands and was instrumental in passing a 2000 parks bond that eventually funded the state’s purchase of the 600-acre ecological reserve, the Ballona Institute’s Marcia Hanscom said.
“Tom Hayden was a giant who never stopped pushing for peace and justice and inspired a generation of change agents to bring new voices and overlooked perspectives to the decision-making process,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who first met Hayden while teaching at Occidental College.
“His work took him abroad to conflict zones and brought him home to the streets of Los Angeles — where he sought to save lives by helping negotiate a gang truce in Venice, and joined me in the fight to protect workers from exploitation with the city’s landmark anti-sweatshop ordinance,” Garcetti said.
Stan Mohammed, co-founder of the gang intervention organization the Helper Foundation, said he invited Hayden to join the organization’s board of directors when it was called Venice 2000.
“He was a very passionate man about social justice and helping the population that we serve. He also served on an ad hoc committee to develop a definition for gang intervention services,” Mohammed said.
Hayden worked in collaboration with then L.A. City Councilman Tony Cardenas to create a model for gang intervention policies that became the basis for federal legislation by former Rep. Diane Watson (D- Los Angeles).
As prolific an author as he was an activist, Hayden wrote more than 20 nonfiction books and published countless articles on topics ranging from history of gang violence in Los Angeles to memoirs about the peace and civil rights movements.
Despite suffering a debilitating stroke last year, Hayden continued to wield an outsized political influence — prompting both applause and outcry among the left with an April essay for The Nation titled “I Used to Support Bernie, but Then I Changed My Mind.”
Ralph Fertig, a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s who recently retired from the USC School of Social Work and the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said Hayden was on the cutting edge of democratic initiatives for nearly six decades.
“Through his organizing Students for a Democratic Society, co-authorship of the Port Huron Statement, and countless contributions to literature of the left, his courage of confrontation, and his popular and electoral campaigns for local and state offices, Hayden framed strategies in the anti-war and civil rights movements. His example will deeply and long inspire future generations,” Fertig said.
Despite leaning far to the left, Hayden earned the respect of both his allies and opponents in Sacramento, Kuehl said.
“On the day that he was termed out of the legislature, nearly every senator stood to compliment him on his work as an advocate for his constituents. It took almost six hours,” she said. “His voice is going to last in our conscience for a long time.”