The Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], an important force in organizing campus protests during the turbulent 1960s, is returning Swarthmore College after a hiatus of more than forty years.
Swarthmore SDS held its first meeting on Sept. 9, but banned media coverage. Organizers said later that about 30 people attended.
In the group’s heyday, when it also had an active Swarthmore chapter, SDS focused on opposition to the military draft and the Vietnam War. Steering committee member, Stephan Hoyer ’08, said that while the new group is still deciding on its focus, he would like to see it actively oppose the war in Iraq.
“There hasn’t been much of an anti-war group at Swarthmore for years now,” said Hoyer, “and I hope SDS can help to fill that gap.”
In the 1960s, SDS staged massive rallies—some 25,000-people strong—and pioneered resistance practices like teach-ins.
Swarthmore College was a leading school within the original SDS movement. At the College, the SDS chapter was called the Swarthmore Progressive Action Coalition [SPAC]. The SPAC group of the 60s has no relationship to the modern-day Swarthmore organization of the same name. Swarthmore SDS organizers were not aware of the connection between SPAC and SDS. Naima Brown ‘08, another member of the steering committee of SDS, said that she “[has not] yet done the research to find out who they were or what they did”
According to the October, 1964 edition of Students for a Democratic Society Bulletin, SPAC sponsored two weekly hour-long discussion groups, supplied food and clothing to local communities, and published a progressive newsletter in conjunction with a Haverford SDS chapter.
Swarthmore was heavily involved in the group’s national organization. Vernon Grizzard ’66 was vice-president of national SDS. Paul Booth ’64 was a member of the National Council and led a SDS splinter-group, the Peace Research and Education Project [PREP].
In 1969, however, SDS collapsed. Growing problems involving gender and race drove a wedge through the group’s leadership and the ninth national convention of the SDS was its last.
Until 2006. Last year, students at a select few high schools and colleges re-created the organization. Some 175 students attended the first national convention of the New SDS at the University of Chicago last spring. Nearly a third of the conference was devoted to meetings between groups including the Womyn’s Caucus, the Class Oppressed Caucus and People of Color Caucus. Hoyer is confident the New SDS is “learning from the past.”
Nationally, New SDS has already been taking action against the war in Iraq. In March, 2007, 83 SDS chapters held rallies opposing the war and dozens of its members have been arrested for sit-ins at military recruiting stations.
Both Hoyer and Brown emphasized that Swarthmore SDS would tackle many issues relating to social injustice and oppression, while declining to divulge any details. “I’m really excited about how enthusiastic people were [at the meeting] about anti-oppression work on campus and in the Philly area,” said Brown.
But she added, “I don’t know what directions the group will take…you’ll know what we are doing when we do it.” Swarthmore SDS is tight-lipped, a trait it inherited from the national organization. For example, it prohibited reporters from attending both of its national conventions.
In addition to holding its first meeting, Swarthmore SDS had a table at the campus activity fair, where Hoyer said he collected some 60 email addresses from interested students. The group was given a place at the recently held SPAC banquet, held at the Lang Center for Social Action.
The group also has the encouragement of SPAC alumni. Last year, Paul Booth, now Executive Assistant to the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told the Swarthmore Bulletin that “today’s Swarthmore students are smarter than we were, more politically savvy. It’s exciting to watch them.”
Despite not yet having clear goals, the Steering Committee is upbeat. Said Hoyer: “We feel SDS will be good for Swarthmore.”