Tom Hayden, the preeminent 1960s radical and anti-Vietnam War activist who roused a generation of young Americans and became a symbol of militancy by leading protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, died Oct. 23 in Santa Monica. He was 76.
This was shocking news to myself and other activists who were his friends. I knew Hayden had been ill after suffering a stroke. We attended a fundraiser last year at the home of actor Jaime Foxx to support the Trayvon Martin Foundation. He looked frail then. But had I no ideal his health was that bad and failing.
Hayden wasn’t just an activist. He was one of the premier activists of his generation. Before U.S. escalation in Vietnam, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights March on Washington and the awakening of the environmental and feminist movements, Hayden emerged as one of the most articulate young activists in the nation.
He went on to assume influential roles in many of the most important student upheavals of the period before focusing his rage on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
In 1965, as a guest of the North Vietnamese, he became one of the first Americans to visit wartime Hanoi. Hayden spoke out passionately against the war and was always looking for ways to solve conflict.
With Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman and other radical leaders, Hayden went on to plot the massive antiwar demonstrations that turned Chicago’s streets into a battleground for five days in August 1968.
“Let us make sure that if our blood flows, it flows all over the city,” he told throngs of young protesters in the city’s Grant Park on the day that Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential nominee.
Confronted by Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley’s 12,000 Chicago police in addition to 6,000 Army troops and 5,000 National Guardsmen, Hayden exhorted the demonstrators to “turn this overheated military machine against itself.”
After arrests and injuries ran well into the hundreds, Hayden and seven others were charged with conspiracy to incite violence. The Chicago Eight, as they were initially known, became the Chicago Seven when Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was separated from the case. Hayden was found guilty ,but the conviction was overturned in 1972 by an appeals court, which cited improper rulings by an antagonistic trial judge.
Hayden, who by 1967 had earned a spot on the FBI’s watch list, would later spend the bulk of his public life trying to change the system from within. This included political campaigns that included his successful runs for seats in the California Assembly and State Senate.
I had the honor of meeting and becoming friends with Hayden in the early 1990s. Hayden had a passion for helping inner-city youth and wanted to help end gang violence. We hit it off right away because of our shared passions. I had no ideal of his historic legacy at the time.
Someone mentioned to me he used to be married to actress Jane Fonda. In my ignorance, I thought that was his claim to fame.
I eventually did some research on him after seeing his name in an article associated with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. I was stunned. I had no idea that Hayden was at the forefront of national activism in his younger days.
My admiration and friendship with Hayden grew even stronger when in 1998 he called me and wanted to meet with me in his State Senate office concerning Sherrice Iverson, the 7-year-old South Central child who had been raped and murdered by Jeremy Strohmeyer in a Las Vegas casino in May 1997.
I had called for new state and national legislation to protect children from sexual predators and pedophiles. Hayden responded immediately and together we wrote the first draft in his office that day of what was eventually called “Sherrice’s law.”
I spent time in Sacramento with Hayden fighting tooth and nail with him for its passage. Getting legislation passed in Sacramento isn’t an easy thing to do. We failed that year, but bounced back the following year.
Sherrice’s law, which became AB 1422 authored by Assemblyman Tom Torklason, was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis. It was the first bill in the nation signed after a slain black child.
It helps protect our most important and valuable resource: our children. This bill, which made history, couldn’t have happened without Hayden laying the groundwork. This nation, and myself owe Hayden a debt of gratitude for his activism we can never repay.
Hayden is survived by his wife, Barbara Williams, and children Troy Garity and Liam Hayden.
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