Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History
By Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm
Hill and Wang, 224 pp.
It’s a bit hard to tell whether Harvey Pekar has come to praise the Students for a Democratic Society or bury it.
In a new book, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, Pekar and longtime collaborator Gary Dumm remember the definitive student revolutionaries of the 1960s in a gripping narrative that is one-half eulogy and one-half exposé. Torn apart by internecine disputes over which of its members were true radicals and which were actually cryptofascist reactionaries, the famous movement is depicted by Pekar and Dumm as not only largely ineffectual but, often, actively counterproductive with respect to its goals. At the same time, the Utopian drive that birthed SDS is never forgotten or put aside, nor are SDS’s very real accomplishments ever ignored. Although they can see clearly why the movement never sparked the revolution its members dreamed it would, Pekar and Dumm’s nostalgic sympathies are very clearly with this bunch of idealistic kids who set out to make a better world.
The book is divided into halves. The first, “SDS Highlights,” written and illustrated by Pekar and Dumm, is a “just the facts” history of SDS punctuated here and there by sarcastic, world-weary commentary from Pekar himself. “SDS Highlights” traces the evolution of SDS from its genesis in the Port Huron Statement of 1962 through the explosion of protest movements on college campuses in the mid-1960s to the sudden disintegration of the group into two factions, the Maoist Progressive Labor Party and the infamous Weathermen, in 1969.
As Pekar and Dumm tell the story, the seeds of SDS’s self-destruction are planted very early. In keeping with the group’s views about participatory democracy, the initial founders created a weak, decentralized national organization that went so far as to prohibit elected leaders from running for re-election. Sounds nicebut the result was a group with perpetually inexperienced and at times totally incoherent leadership, often acting at cross-purposes. Despite its successes, SDS was never able to build the networks necessary to sustain the movement past the initial crises (segregation, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War) that motivated its birth.
The second half of the book is called “Local Scenes” and tells the story of individual chapters of SDS, often in the members’ words (and sometimes their own illustrations). The most poignant of these is “A Children’s Revolution,” written and drawn by James D. Cennamo, in which several 13-year-olds from Brooklyn form a kids’ version of SDS, Children’s Strike for Peace, to express their own opposition to the war. The group was even invited to march alongside SDS and others in the April Peace March in New York City in 1968. But the words that end the story could almost be an epitaph for SDS as a whole: “We were very proud that day. We wondered if we made a difference.” Next panel: “After a while our group fizzled out. The war continued and atrocities were exposed daily.”
Which brings us to the book’s final story, written by former Weatherman Bruce Rubenstein and Paul Buhle. Called “SDS Revived,” it is about the rebirth of SDS that began in 2006. The new SDS is an intergenerational political organizationits two co-founders were the first president of SDS, Al Haber, and a high school senior from Connecticut, Pat Korte, now a student at the New School in New York City. The old SDS-ers will nurture and mentor the new, and maybe help the younger crew avoid a few of their mistakes. “The Weathermen are gone,” Rubenstein proclaims, “but SDS is back, now as strong as it was in 1966, among students and others in a world that needs it more than ever.” Now, that’s probably not remotely truedespite another long war and another corrupt presidential administration, the Triangle’s universities remain secure and protest-freebut it’s certainly a nice thought.