Movements for change begin mysteriously at the margins but if they take hold, they can have a big impact on society.
“Things happen. You have to count on it,” said Tom Hayden at a recent lecture sponsored by the Southwest Branch of the ACLU of Michigan.
The veteran activist first witnessed the process of social change while a student at the University of Michigan in 1960. As editor of the Michigan Daily he was covering John F. Kennedy’s visit to campus and discovered that a small group of students got to the presidential candidate about 11 p.m. and handed him a plan for an international peace program.
That group included local activist David MacLeod, who Hayden recognized at the lecture.
At the time Kennedy didn’t know fully what he was signing on to and his advisers were stunned by his spontaneous policymaking. The program turned out to be the Peace Corps.
“It was unexplainable how David got the [plan] into JFK’s hands,” said Hayden who pointed out that “chaotic processes” often accompany movements for change.
A year later Hayden would co-found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which promoted the 18-year-old right to vote. This idea had first surfaced during World War II but it was the Vietnam War that brought home the point that the nation that felt its young were responsible enough to fight a war should be responsible enough to vote.
“We were relatively marginal but that didn’t matter because we found a cause,” said Hayden. “It was driven into me at the time that all things are possible.”
Although the idea for the Peace Corps literally happened overnight, change usually takes at least a decade, said Hayden, and not all movements achieve their goals. Women’s suffrage took 100 years; ending slavery took 500 years.
The Electoral College seems to be an obvious issue for change, especially since the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the electoral vote. However, there seems to be no political will to eliminate it.
“The Electoral College was one of the dynamic compromises of the Constitution,” said Hayden, adding that the “imperfect document” also follows the movement for change model.
Prior to the Revolution of 1776 the Continental Congress grappled with whether or not to declare its independence from England, a prospect too radical for most colonists. However, taxation without representation eventually tipped a majority of the public toward separation.
In 1787 the framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated independence as a key theme for the new republic but they could not end slavery or extend suffrage beyond white, male property owners. Such radical ideas would have split the movement for nationhood.
“Each generation claims the promise, ideals and aspirations of the founders and they become a movement,” said Hayden. “This is how social change works and it’s an important concept for professors to discuss and teach.”
Hayden wasn’t sure what America’s next great social movement would be but he predicted that it will come out of the “Obama generation.”
Obama came from the margins, too, Hayden noted. No one saw him coming anymore than they did Kennedy. And like Kennedy, Obama may end up articulating a new vision for the country based on the next generation’s desire for change.