A student journalist turned Student Movement leader in the early 1960s who was also a Freedom Rider in the segregated South, Tom Hayden isn’t afraid to stand up for his beliefs. A primary author of the Port Huron Statement, Hayden also played a leading role in protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and made headlines protesting the Vietnam War with then-wife Jane Fonda.
Hayden later represented the Westside in the California State Assembly from 1982 to 1992 before crossing over to the state Senate for eight years and spoke at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests a year before leaving office.
At 73, Hayden, an author of frequent articles and several books, continues his activism as director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City.
As the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination draws near, Hayden recalled his encounters with Kennedy while a student activist and pondered the leader Kennedy might have become had he lived.
— Joe Piasecki
You were leading Students for a Democratic Society during Kennedy’s presidency.
I first met John Kennedy and his brother Robert at the 1960 Democratic convention. It was my first visit to Los Angeles. I had hitchhiked here from Berkeley, where I was writing articles about the beginnings of the Student Movement … in order to fill out the picture of the Kennedys and the New Frontier. I still have the articles I wrote for the University of Michigan Daily.
I next met [John Kennedy] on Oct. 11, 1960, because I was involved with a group that was promoting the idea of the Peace Corps. We knew he was coming to Ann Arbor, and so we drafted a petition that we sent to him and to Richard Nixon. I was the lead author of this document which was very grandiose. And one of our group caught Kennedy coming down hallway of the Michigan Union, gave him the letter, and Kennedy said he’d speak to one of those issues that night. … He announced the Peace Corps that night in Ann Arbor, at about midnight in the rain. The next day he was out in California and his staff was calling back to Ann Arbor saying ‘What the hell did you get us into? Send us white papers.’ Kennedy was improvising. He was creative. He ignored his advisors who said don’t do it. We were quite thrilled.
So then I moved south with the Civil Rights Movement, a Freedom Rider living in Atlanta and we had another take on the Kennedy administration because we were trying to make them intervene to enforce laws in the south. It was grueling, and we perceived [the Kennedy administration] at first as only giving the most token response. But the more the Freedom Riders expanded and voter registration projects expanded, I think the Kennedys saw it was in their interest but they also saw they were affected by it. On the one hand, young black and white students were willing to go to jail or get beaten up or shot for the right to vote. On the other hand were diehard segregationists who were running a police state at local levels with impunity because the federal government had tolerated it. Gradually I do think their moral instincts came into play as well as their political ones.
At the time, I went up to the Justice Department and met with the top assistant to Bobby, Burke Marshall. He was shocked and intrigued by what I told him. I suppose it was kind of him to even see me, but he gave me this kind of chilling advice, which was to go back to Mississippi and encourage my friends to leave, because the federal government would not be able to save their lives. Of course that is just the opposite of what we did. They had to be pushed. Their first instinct was this is a problem for us; what will happen if some of these kids get killed? But gradually their instinct became one of anger at segregations for putting them in this situation.
Friday marks 50 years since the assassination of President Kennedy. Where were you when you heard the news?
I was going to some conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I was on an airplane, and when it landed and we were taxiing to the airport the pilot announced Kennedy has been shot, and while we were still rolling he said the president has been killed.
I’ll never forget what happened next. It really remained burned in my mind. Behind me there was a young man wearing a Goldwater button, and he got up and cheered. Everybody else was choking, unable to sort it out. We were so innocent. It was just inconceivable. This could happen. There was so much emotion about how far [Kennedy] had come, what might be expected in the future, and all that was terminated.
What do you think is the lasting legacy of Kennedy’s life and how he died?
I think he was touched by the activism he saw around him. He knew that we had high expectations of him, that we were uncompromising on behalf of ideals that he himself couldn’t help but share. I think he was evolving; he was masterwork in progress. He became more wedded to the Civil Rights Movement, morally and politically. Also in 1963 he signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. This was also a turnaround because in ’62, much to our shock, he was on the brink of atomic war over Cuba.
So I do think it’s possible that presidents can experience eye-opening events along the way and change. He was becoming and will be remembered by those who knew him as a person who started to de-escalate the nuclear arms race and promote civil rights, promote what became the anti-poverty program. All the evidence and every instinct tells me he would not have escalated the Vietnam War by sending ground troops. That is based on everything I’ve read and my instinct about him and what later Kennedys stood for, so [his assassination] made more difference in our lives than any single thing in my entire lifetime. If you couple it with the murders of his brother and Martin Luther King and several other people, it’s a trauma whose effects are extremely hard to measure, but surely this would have been a very different country [had he lived]. On the other hand, there are many people who deny that. This occasion is an opportunity to debate what it’s all about. If there’s a single practical demand I would advise it is the immediate disclosure of the hundreds of remaining CIA and FBI documents that remain under seal for no justifiable reason whatsoever — it’s 50 years later.
What does it say that Americans remain unresolved about who killed Kennedy?
I don’t think Americans are unresolved. I think there is a steady majority who believes there was a conspiracy and that the facts still are not known, that there was a cover up that was partially successful. Those questions won’t go away. For all the talk of needing closure, a lot of us have learned to keep our hearts and minds open to uncertainty.
Who do you think killed Kennedy?
I don’t know. … A lot of people make the strange argument that there’s something wrong with us because we doubt the official story. That disturbs me.