'The radical inside the system': Tom Hayden, protester-turned-politician, dies at 76

Tom Hayden, a 1960s radical who was in the vanguard of the movement to stop the Vietnam War and became one of the nation’s best-known champions of liberal causes, has died in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness. He was 76.

Hayden vaulted into national politics in 1962 as lead author of a student manifesto that became the ideological foundation for demonstrations against the war.

President Nixon’s Justice Department prosecuted Hayden in the raucous “Chicago 7” trial following the violent clashes with police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Hayden later married actress Jane Fonda, and the celebrity couple traveled the nation denouncing the war before forming a California political organization that backed scores of liberal candidates and ballot measures in the 1970s and ’80s, most notably Proposition 65, the anti-toxics measure that requires signs in gas stations, bars and grocery stores that warn of cancer-causing chemicals. 

Hayden lost campaigns for U.S. Senate, governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles. But he was elected to the California Assembly in 1982. He served a total of 18 years in the Assembly and state Senate.

During his tenure in the Legislature, representing the liberal Westside, Hayden relished being a thorn in the side of the powerful, including fellow Democrats he saw as too pliant to donors.

“He was the radical inside the system,” said Duane Peterson, a top Hayden advisor in Sacramento.

A longtime target of government surveillance, Hayden took pride in his history of dissent. A photo from the late 1970s shows him pondering, with apparent satisfaction, his 22,000-page FBI file, stacked about 5 feet high.

After the deadly 1967 riots in Newark, N.J., where Hayden had spent several years organizing poor black residents to take on slumlords, city inspectors and others, local FBI agents urged supervisors in Washington to intensify monitoring of Hayden.

“In view of the fact that Hayden is an effective speaker who appeals to intellectual groups and has also worked with and supported the Negro people in their program in Newark, it is recommended that he be placed on the Rabble Rouser Index,” they wrote.

Hayden’s charisma, drive and intellectual heft made him a potent force. “Tom had the gift of articulating the larger meaning of smaller events,” said Todd Gitlin, a writer who succeeded Hayden as president of Students for a Democratic Society, a flagship organizer of 1960s protests. “He was very crisp and clear and unlikely to be at a loss for words as a public voice.”

Hayden, who enjoyed media attention and was skilled at attracting it, worked closely with militant radicals but was equally at ease with the likes of governors and presidents. “He’s always been someone who would much prefer to work and get things done than stand on the sidelines and protest,” Fonda once said. 

Born Dec. 11, 1939, Hayden grew up in middle-class Royal Oak, Mich., a Detroit suburb. His father, John Hayden, was an accountant at Chrysler; his mother, Genevieve Garity, was a film librarian at local schools.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hayden was editor in chief of the campus newspaper and was captivated by the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South.In 1960, he hitchhiked to California to cover the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where John F. Kennedy was nominated for president.

Soon after, Hayden made his first journey south for civil rights work, driving to rural Tennessee with fellow students in a station wagon packed with clothing and food for black sharecroppers who’d been evicted from their homes after registering to vote. Hayden returned to the South in 1961. He and a friend were beaten and arrested at a civil rights march in McComb, Miss., in a rural area where few blacks dared to vote.

On his 22nd birthday, Hayden was arrested again in Albany, Ga. He’d been in a “Freedom Ride” group of black and white students who, on a train from Atlanta, ignored an order to leave the “white” car, then got thrown in jail for blocking the sidewalk upon arrival in Albany.

“To those who did not pass through the Southern civil rights experience, willfully going to jail may seem like a career-threatening act of despair,” Hayden wrote in his 1988 memoir, “Reunion.” “It was not. It was both a necessary moral act and a rite of passage into serious commitment.” 

In 1962, Hayden joined dozens of other students at a Students for a Democratic Society convention in Port Huron, Mich. As primary author of the group’s Port Huron Statement, he gave voice to a youth disaffection that foreshadowed the explosive power of the antiwar and civil rights protests of the years ahead.

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” the manifesto began.

Inspired by sociologist C. Wright Mills and French author Albert Camus, among others, Hayden and his fellow students bemoaned poverty, racial bigotry, the Democratic Party’s tolerance of Southern segregationists, the threat of nuclear war and an apathetic citizenry. They called for mobilizing students and like-minded Americans through “participatory democracy.”

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable,” the statement concluded.

Before long, the Vietnam War, the draft and violence in the civil rights struggle darkened the nation’s mood and opened sharp racial and generational divides. In Newark, Hayden collected eyewitness complaints as police and National Guard troops waged street battles for six days in the impoverished neighborhoods where he lived and worked. Twenty-six people were killed.

More and more, Hayden focused on opposition to the war — “this slaughter of a distant people,” he called it.

“From the very beginning, Tom played a visionary role in developing strategy for the antiwar movement,” said Bill Zimmerman, a Santa Monica media consultant who was close to Hayden.

Gradually, Hayden’s activism became focused primarily against the war. In 1965 he traveled with an antiwar group to Hanoi, the capital of communist North Vietnam. The 10-day trip offended many in the U.S., and the State Department temporarily withdrew Hayden’s passport.

He returned to Hanoi in 1967 with another antiwar delegation during a period of heavy U.S. bombing. Hayden, wearing a helmet, was forced at one point into a ditch and worried a U.S. bomb would kill him.

The trip ended with a detour to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where an emissary of the Viet Cong, the communist force fighting the U.S., had offered to release three American prisoners of war to Hayden. Initially uneasy, he agreed to the plan. He met the POWs on an airport tarmac, and they boarded a Czechoslovakian plane bound for Beirut. Hayden accompanied the servicemen to the U.S. Embassy.

Nearly two decades later, one of the POWs, Jimmy Jackson, would travel to Sacramento to support Hayden when Republicans were trying to oust him from the Legislature for what they alleged was his treason during the war.

The climax of Hayden’s antiwar work came in 1968, when he and fellow radical Rennie Davis served as co-directors of protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The nation was torn by social upheaval as the August convention approached. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April had sparked urban riots. Two months later, a gunman killed New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on the night he won California’s Democratic presidential primary.

As protests were spreading across college campuses nationwide, Hayden joined the student occupation of buildings at Columbia University in Manhattan. Police stormed the campus with tear gas. FBI brass in Washington berated local agents in a May 1968 cable for failing to track Hayden at the Columbia revolt. “The investigation of Hayden, as one of the key leaders of the new left movement, is of prime importance to the Bureau,” they wrote.

In Chicago, Hayden and Davis tried for months to get protest permits from Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration, to no avail. “I told a New York audience that they should come to Chicago prepared to shed their blood,” Hayden recalled in his memoir.

At the convention, thousands of Chicago police and National Guard troops overwhelmed crowds in the street, blasting them with tear gas. Police in blue helmets clubbed front-line protesters, Hayden among them.

“The whole world is watching,” demonstrators chanted as police charged forward. The violence, televised live, contributed to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Nixon in November. A government report later called it “a police riot.”

In March 1969, the Justice Department had Hayden and seven others indicted for conspiracy to incite a riot at the convention. The group included Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and counterculture icons Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, leaders of the Youth International Party, best known as the Yippies.

Frequent courtroom outbursts marred the trial and the judge, Julius J. Hoffman, was openly scornful of the accused and their lawyers. The dramatic high point came when marshals carried out his threat to have Seale gagged and chained to a chair. Seale’s case ended in a mistrial, leaving the “Chicago 7” as the remaining defendants.

Hayden was convicted of traveling across state lines to incite a riot and sentenced to five years in prison. The conviction was overturned on appeal, largely because  the judge had sided openly with prosecutors. The government declined to retry Hayden.

After the trial, he moved to a commune in Berkeley but fellow residents kicked him out. They decided “I was an oppressive male chauvinist,” Hayden wrote in his memoir. Angry and humiliated, “I drove away in my beat-up Volkswagen convertible to Los Angeles, the notorious New Left leader and national security threat alone in a world of hurt.” 

Hayden’s first marriage, to fellow student activist Sandra Cason, ended in divorce. He crossed paths with Fonda in 1971, when both were speaking at an antiwar event in Michigan. The following year, Hayden saw Fonda again at an antiwar event in Los Angeles. He had just written a book on Vietnam and was traveling the country doing a multimedia “teach-in” on Indochina.

Fonda invited him to her Laurel Canyon house to share his slide show. “I wanted a man in my life I could love, but it had to be someone who could inspire me, teach me, lead me, not be afraid of me. Who better than Tom Hayden?” she wrote in her 2005 autobiography, “My Life So Far.” The couple married in 1973.

By then, Fonda’s 1972 trip to Hanoi had made her a political lightning rod. She’d been photographed sitting in a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun battery, an incident her detractors considered traitorous and for which she later apologized.

Hayden and Fonda joined forces on an antiwar project, the Indochina Peace Campaign, which lobbied against military funding. Often hounded by protesters, they also went on a national speaking tour with singer Holly Near and former POW George Smith.

Looking back on the war in his memoir, Hayden voiced a few regrets. Time proved him “overly romantic about the Vietnamese revolution,” he wrote. Hayden also admitted “a numbed sensitivity to any anguish or confusion I was causing to U.S. soldiers or to their families — the very people I was trying to save from death and deception.” 

As the war came to an end, Hayden embraced mainstream politics in California with a campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. John Tunney. He lost the June 1976 Democratic primary to Tunney, who was ousted in November by Republican S.I. Hayakawa. Some Democrats blamed the defeat on Hayden.

But the campaign laid ground for Hayden and Fonda to start the Campaign for Economic Democracy, later known as Campaign California. The group fought for such causes as Santa Monica rent control, public spending on solar power and divestment from apartheid South Africa.

Much of the group’s money came from Fonda, whose movie career was booming and whose workout video business would spawn a fortune in the ’80s. It helped elect scores of liberals to local offices statewide and campaigned for Proposition 65, the anti-toxics measure that requires signs in gas stations, bars and grocery stores that warn of cancer-causing chemicals.

Hayden represented Santa Monica, Malibu and part of the Westside in Sacramento. His legislative achievements were modest — research into the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange on U.S. servicemen in Vietnam; repair money for the Santa Monica and Malibu piers; tighter rules to prevent the collapse of construction cranes, to name a few.

Hayden paid a personal price for his work as a radical.

His father, a Republican, refused to speak with him for 13 years. They reconciled before his father’s death, a few days before Hayden won election to the Assembly in 1982.

In Sacramento, Hayden was isolated even among Democrats, who were put off by his disdain for the capital’s favor-trading culture. He feuded with Willie Brown, then Assembly speaker, who ultimately stripped Hayden of a committee chairmanship and moved his Capitol office to smaller quarters.

Hayden’s 1992 elevation to the state Senate came after a nasty and costly campaign, funded largely by his Fonda divorce settlement. After his quixotic run for governor in 1994, Hayden tried to unseat L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan in 1997. Riordan trounced him, 61% to 34%.

Hayden’s Senate tenure ended in 2000, when term limits barred him from seeking another term. He ran once more for elected office, a seat on the L.A. City Council. He finished first in the primary, but lost the June 2001 runoff to former prosecutor Jack Weiss by 369 votes.

A prolific author, Hayden wrote books on Cuba, Ireland, Vietnam, street gangs, spirituality and environmental protection, the Iraq war and the Newark riots. His next book, “Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement,” is scheduled to be published in March 2017 by Yale University Press.

Hayden is survived by his wife, Barbara Williams, an actress and singer; their adopted son, Liam; Troy Garity, his son with Fonda; and his sister, Mary Hayden Frey. He is also survived by stepdaughter Vanessa Vadim and her two children.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

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