The Return of the Students for a Democratic Society

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One of the largest and most vocal campus protest groups of the 1960s — the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS — is forming again after a long hiatus. Small chapters are opening up at universities across the country, and this summer members will join together for the first SDS convention in more than three decades. Some of the original members of the group are also getting involved again.

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And now, the times they are a changing again. The Students for a Democratic Society, that's the student radical group that was so prominent back in the '60s, it's back again. New SDS chapters are forming across the country, although, as NPR's Elaine Korry reports, the new group is a shadow of it's former self.

ELAINE KORRY, reporting:

April 1968, New York City. Several hundred SDS activists at Columbia University ransacked the president's office. They staged a sit-in to protest U.S. military action. News cameras record the event at Columbia's Fairweather Hall.

Unidentified Man: The police have walked over the demonstrators on the left stairway of Fairweather, and dragged them off the stairs. Some of them are students again, and some of them are faculty members. The police have broken down the front door on the left side of Fairweather. They broke through the glass. They're breaking down the barricades now.

KORRY: In its heyday, SDS was active on some 200 campuses. It reigned for a decade, the embodiment of the college anti-war movement.

But by 1969, SDS had split into rival factions, and was mostly defunct until just a few months ago. That's when Pat Korte called for a revival. A senior at Stonington High School in Connecticut, Korte had worked with the ACLU and the World Can't Wait, an anti-Bush administration group. But he felt something was missing.

Mr. PAT KORTE (Member, SDS): I felt a need for student-run organization, a radical student organization, capable of bringing about social and political change in America through participatory Democracy; an organization that's actually shaped and run by the students.

KORRY: Korte discovered a few SDS chapters still scattered across the country, and he contacted them. On Martin Luther King's birthday, they announced that this summer, SDS will hold a national convention; it's first in 35 years. In the past two weeks, says Korte, new chapters have formed.

Mr. KORTE: We've had chapters spring up in New York , in Michigan, in California, in North Carolina, in Texas, all over the country.

KORRY: Suddenly, there are activists of all ages involved in SDS. Thomas Good, a social worker in New York, is a longtime organizer. He helped link up the new chapters and form a national network online. He says an old issue, opposition to war, is again driving students to organize.

Mr. THOMAS GOOD (Organizer for SDS): So, what they have done is all come together. And they've looked up many of us old-timers, who understand how important student power is, and who also want to play a role in assisting them in any way we can while trying to stay out of the way.

KORRY: Another veteran is back on the scene. Alan Haber became the first president of SDS in 1960. Now 69 years old, a carpenter and peace activist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Haber has been helping new SDS chapters get off the ground.

Mr. ALAN HABER (President, SDS, 1960): It seems like young people are waking up again. With that, I'm very pleased.

KORRY: Haber just hopes young people identify with the early vision of SDS, as a grassroots effort to bring about social change.

Mr. HABER: Before, you know, sectarian organizations began to see it as their recruiting ground, and then the authenticity began to breakdown.

KORRY: The new SDS remains in its infancy, and it's unclear whether it can truly take hold again. But Haber says new technologies and forms communication could help it takeoff.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And there's more coming just ahead. Stay with us on Day to Day from NPR News.

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