Late last night, Tom Hayden—the civil rights and antiwar activist who later became a politician—died in Santa Monica, California after battling a prolonged illness. He was 76. Hayden's name conjures different memories for different people. For some of us (and I'm admittedly guilty of this), he is best known as one half of a power couple he formed with Jane Fonda during the actress’ period of firebrand activism in the late 1960s through the early 1970s. In Hayden, Fonda had found a companion for her burgeoning antiwar beliefs.
Hayden himself would jettison his activist career into a political one in 1982, serving a combined 18 years in the California Assembly and state senate. Though time would soften and temper the fervent strains of radicalism he showed in the sixties, the philosophy guiding his work remained constant—namely, a profound concern for those belonging to minority groups whom he saw slighted by history. Look to the beginnings of his activism in food justice.
Hayden was a fourth-generation Irish-American born and raised in Detroit in 1939 by two parents he would later refer to as fully-assimilated—one an accountant, another a librarian. His adolescent ambition was to become a journalist, specifically a foreign correspondent, an endgame he pursued temporarily as the Editor-in-Chief of campus newspaper Michigan Daily. In these years, though, he would find his journalistic pursuits fusing with what he saw as more noble activist leanings: After meeting Dr. Martin Luther King in the summer of 1960 in California, he began to join sit-ins and voter registration drives, ultimately joining 35 other students in Ann Arbor to form the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Shortly after graduating in 1961, Hayden turned down a promising staff job at the Detroit News, fell in love with Southern civil rights activist Sandra Cason (his first wife), and drove South to dedicate his time to activism—particularly geared towards doing what he could, as a white American, to expand the rights of black Americans in the South. His first act in the civil rights movement consisted of driving from Ann Arbor to Fayette County, Tennessee, and bringing a carload of food—milk, eggs, and bread—to black sharecroppers who’d been evicted from their homes.
Fayette County was roughly 70% black in 1960, and it didn't enforce the formal barriers to restricting voting for black Americans in the form of literacy tests or poll taxes; it did so through more subtle, sly means. Upon going to vote in the primaries, black residents of Fayette County faced staunch resistance from members of the the County's White Citizens Council, a group of rightwing white citizens. By 1960, when about a thousand African-Americans had been registered to vote in Fayette County, the WCC responded by distributing a list of those black voters along with their wealthier white allies, preventing them from buying food. This had an especially deleterious effect on the county's black sharecroppers who depended on the goodwill of local businesses for their own livelihoods. To add insult to injury, these black sharecroppers were evicted from their lands in the fall of 1960 by their white landowners who were either part of or sympathetic to the concerns of the WCC.
Hayden, in traveling to Fayette County that next year, would stumble upon this displaced class of black sharecroppers now living tepidly in Tent City, makeshift lodging that would temporarily house them. Refracted in the plight of these black Southern sharecroppers, he would later remember, was Hayden's own family history, one he would recount in his 2001 book Irish on the Inside. In it, Hayden would write of his profound alienation as a fourth generation Irish-American from the hardships of his ancestors—a suffering that had been abstracted by his decidedly apolitical parents who spoke rarely of their Irish ancestry and why his ancestors had come to the United States in the first place. In this moment, he felt the inchoate alienation of his childhood, as an Irish man detached from his ancestors' woes, blossom into strident radicalism.
"So effective was the assimilation process that my parents couldn’t comprehend why I would risk a career to prevent hunger, eviction and prejudice. I was Irish on the inside, though I couldn’t name it at the time," he would remember. “Was it only coincidental that I responded to a crisis reminiscent of my evicted, starving Irish ancestors?"