After 40 Year Hiatus, SDS Returns to Swat

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

sds_button.jpgSDS Button Logo

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.”


  1. 0
    Dustin Trabert ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    It’s unclear to me just how courageous it is to protest something that most recent polls show is supported by only a third of the American public and an even smaller proportion of the international community. The right of Americans to protest is pretty well-established, and there weren’t Cossacks ready to storm down Capitol Hill. Media coverage or not, it seems to me that the only people who will be emotionally reached by such a demonstration are those who already accept the argument they put forth; rallies persuade next to nobody.

  2. 0
    Danny says:

    There was an antiwar demonstration in Washington D.C. this past weekend (9/29/07), and I noticed a banner from Swarthmore SDS. Would any of the participants in that event care to describe what happened? I was in awe of the courage the students displayed, and wish for others to know what they did, as it was not, predictably, covered by “the media”.

  3. 0
    LK says:

    this is clearly a representation lacking a pivotal understanding of the organization.

    That does seem like a fair point–I definitely don’t get a sense of what sort of organization SDS is.

    But then, I think the reporter is trying to show us that he had a hard time reaching an understanding because he wasn’t allowed to attend the meeting/the organizers were evasive in their responses. If radical political groups want to be represented more fully, they have to represent themselves more clearly and openly to begin with.

  4. 0
    Andrew says:

    While the pejorative form of the article may be hard to isolate, it might be partially evidenced by the fact that almost all of the statements from members of SDS are prefaced by conditionals: “Hoyer suggests this, though Booth disagrees,” “SDS says they’re learning from the past, but they haven’t called anyone from the old organization [that’s a pretty obtuse interpretation of learning from the past]” “old SDS worked on Vietnam issues, new SDS on anti-oppression [tagged with “the broad category of…” to disindicate this as a concrete enough idea]” etc.

    Pinning the material characteristics of its diminutive tone is a lot to ask, since tone is generally not presented in such a tangible way. But from conversations I’ve had, those who do not know anything about SDS have gotten the indication from this article that it is a scatter-brained and ambiguous organization. Not only is this pretty antithetical to the actual case, it also is the sort of perspective that only one who has no experience with campus or grassroots organizing might have. As such it crystallizes the disengaged prejudices around radical politics (its alienation, its confusion, etc.). Whatever the claims to the contrary, this is clearly a representation lacking a pivotal understanding of the oganization.

  5. 0
    Charlatan says:

    Unfortunately, DES, some students at Swarthmore are wedded more to their ideologies than to the obvious. I wish you the best of luck trying to have a rational discussion with these types.

  6. 0
    DES says:

    Wow–I re-read this article several times, and I have no idea where you came up with the idea it was pejorative. “Self-protective” I understand, but “air-headed”, “non-directional” and “degrading”–it sounds like you’re reading something between the lines that those of us not on campus cannot see. If you have anything to add that is not in turn spiteful and degrading to the journalists, then it seems the Gazette has given you the opportunity to do so. Enlighten us, please.

  7. 0
    MK says:

    This article is relatively uninformative as well as pejorative. While the history of the group is interesting, the discussion of the new SDS is unfit for publishing. It seems that the author of the article was unable to get any quotes that were substantially rabble-rousing from his interviews. So, in response, he spitefully takes advantage of the understandably self-protective quotes provided by those representing new SDS, making them look air-headed and non-directional. Why does journalism at Swarthmore have to be about degrading the reputation of fellow students?

  8. 0
    Miles Skorpen ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    Andrew: I’d be happy to discuss the article.

    I also have a recording of my interview with Naima Brown and Stephan Hoyer looked over all of his quotes. If you have a substantive criticism, email me (or post it here).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *