Off the Page and Into the Streets: A Graphic History of SDS

Reviewed here:

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History

by Harvey Pekar, art by Gary Dumm, edited by Paul Buhle

Hill & Wang, 2008, 224 pp. $22

From Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the graphic form has proved a powerful narrative tool. Combining memoir and social commentary in a visually appealing package, such illustrated stories blur the boundaries of art and history, reality and fantasy. It should be no surprise, then, that social movements-those rare hybrids of reality and fantasy-are finding themselves increasingly illustrated. Walter Benjamin’s argument that radicalism politicizes art seems more relevant now than ever.

The latest offering from the drawing board is an illustrated history of Students for a Democratic Society, written mostly by legendary graphic novelist Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), illustrated mostly by Pekar’s regular collaborator Gary Dumm, and edited by historian Paul Buhle, who founded the SDS journal Radical America in the late 1960s and more recently co-edited the graphic history of the Industrial Workers of the World. Although Pekar penned much of the text-including the fifty-page introductory chapter which endeavors an overview of SDS-it is not his alone. The book’s second, final, and largest section contains brief memoirs about SDS projects and events from across the country and often written by the activists themselves. Thankfully few of these vignettes are from or about the well-known people most publicly associated with SDS. Those looking for the Haydens, Gitlins, and Ogelsbys will be pleased with the first section, which follows the traditional story arc of key national leaders, protests, and conventions. But it is the collection of short, first-person narratives (some of them by Buhle or Pekar) that bring SDS to life. Such a focus on the local people and projects is a welcome departure from the histories tracking SDS primarily through its national leadership.

True to its genre, Students for a Democratic Society is most effective at being affective. The book is best when it captures the feeling and setting of the times. The graphic format lends itself nicely to capturing the spirit and passion, the serendipity and power of SDS. Dumm’s realist cartooning, sometimes augmented by other artists (who knew that SDS produced so many professional cartoonists?), powerfully illustrates demonstrations, meetings, concerts, and dreams. Capturing the affective anarchy of SDS is no small feat, though the format can at times frustrate those (or those wanting to be) well versed in SDS history. Both sections of the book include the occasional anachronistic panel, which is compounded by only sometimes referencing the year in which events occurred.

As is perhaps likely in such a volume, some of the vignettes meander without a clear narrative, and other fascinating stories conclude before they develop-more interludes than retrospectives. A couple flirt with self-aggrandizement. A full history of SDS is perhaps an impossible endeavor, and the roughness of some of these shorter selections may also reflect some of the organization’s unevenness. The best stories ground the often-frenetic energy in a concrete campaign, event, or specific coming of age. In that respect, Buhle’s chronicles of the 1967 Madison student strike and of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s lucky success at saving the organization’s records from the brutality of the Chicago police and the insanity of a defunct SDS stand out. So too do James Cennamo’s depiction of Children Strike for Peace, John Pietaro’s description of Phil Ochs and the culture of antiwar activism, and Michael Balter’s memoirs of organizing within the Army (and as part of the Progressive Labor Party faction of SDS).

Some of the strongest narratives are from the South: Eric Gordon captures the complications of race and radicalism in New Orleans, whereas Mariann Wizard and Alice Embree’s two-part Austin chronicles do perhaps the best job in the book of showing the directions people took after SDS collapsed. (In this case, one continued antiwar organizing, while the other joined the feminist movement and worked as a midwife.) Although many narratives assure us that the author’s political involvement continued, the often celebratory tone of some narratives stands out: several vignettes state or imply that this was the best time of their life. That may be true, and it would be counterproductive to dispute the transformative excitement of living through periods of mass movement. But such reminiscences can easily slip into a wistful longing of yesteryear. The best parts of the book are those which eschew romanticism for realism, nostalgia for narration in depicting the challenges SDSers routinely faced and, as with any organization, unevenly navigated.

Like most histories of SDS or the 1960s, this book stumbles at two critical fault lines: race and militancy. None of the vignettes chronicle SDS solidarity with the Civil Rights or Black Power movements, and the opening grand history mentions these struggles only in passing. Yet the organizing by black youth, students, and communities provided the early inspiration for SDS, and it remained a key feature of the organization’s politics-with factions ultimately scrambling to outdo each other in professing their solidarity with the Black Panthers and other nonwhite organizations. Although SDS remained a mostly white organization, the black freedom struggle provided much guidance and inspiration. Indeed, support for black radicalism was for many in the organization a central tenet of building a social justice movement. (And the "This is what a black student looks like" sign in the final vignette is, at best, an awkward attempt to characterize the efforts of making the new SDS a multiracial, antiracist organization.)

Then comes militancy. It is hard to make sense of the movement’s violence of that era, and minimizing the impulse for solidarity with the black struggle exacerbates this difficulty. For it becomes easy to separate the militants from the less-violent, and say that the war drove the former group crazy. The Weatherman tendency becomes a convenient target in this approach, which blames a larger crest in leftist violence and political rigidity on one of many such expressions. This traditional narrative is fraught with contradictory impulses. Pekar, for instance, chastises Weatherman for both having "written off whites" and for seeing in them a false "revolutionary promise." Weatherman’s politics, it would seem, went too far and not far enough: they gave "little or no place for whites" and yet they underestimated how racist "a lot of the white working class is."

Militancy had become a routine part of the left by 1967, with people increasingly fighting back against police or damaging property in working toward what seemed like an imminent violent revolution. Greg Calvert, then-head of SDS, publicly raised the idea of guerrilla warfare in the United States years before the group splintered. By this time, SDS discussed a system of imperialism to be overthrown, not just a war to be stopped. The "left adventurers" constituted an ever expanding part of SDS’ base; far more believed in fighting the government than in student syndicalism by the end of the decade. That is not to say that most agreed with Weatherman, and Max Elbaum’s tale of Weatherman shenanigans in Madison highlights some of the absurdity. But combined with the murderous attacks against the Black Panthers, an ever more rapacious imperialist system, and the duty many felt to hasten the pace of change-the Weatherman tendency was neither alone nor especially original in its militancy. As the 1968 anniversaries begin to roll out, remembering the many impulses uneasily percolating within SDS seems to be the best gift we can give to history.

Students for a Democratic Society is very much a history of and for the present. Several of the personal narratives, as well as a prefatory note by Buhle and Pekar, connect the radicalism of the 1960s to contemporary movements for peace, environmental sustainability, and women’s rights. In a strip about Kent State, Harvey Pekar and Wes Modes lament that between the war in Iraq, global warming, and the ignorance of everyday Americans, "things have gotten worse." Nick Thorkleson concludes his fascinating history of SDS involvement in the Hazard, Kentucky, mining strike by hoping aloud that ERAP’s vision of "an interracial movement of the poor" might still come true. And Sandy Lillydahl’s coming of age narrative provides tips for practicing participatory democracy.

Perhaps the best example of this contemporary focus comes in the last chapter, which chronicles the resurgence of SDS since the winter of 2006. Despite the invocations of several authors that the seeds SDS planted decades ago continue to grow (as Pekar puts it at one point), closing with mention of the new SDS provides the best demonstration of small-d democracy’s enduring appeal. But it also presents a Great Man mythology of how the new SDS was founded-as the rapidly spreading brainchild of two individuals, rather than the collective expression and hard work of dozens and then hundreds of eager and pissed off students. Such a presentation misses the opportunity to use the graphic format for what it is best suited: to depict the multiple entry points by which social justice organizations form and grow. With the vignette narrated by an older activist who was a visible but frustrating part of the group’s rebirth (and who has since dropped out), the strip about the new SDS says much more about a certain, short-lived vision of what the organization was and would do.

One of the biggest changes in the new SDS obviates what is at the heart of the vignette: the institutionalized national collaboration between old and new SDSers proved dissatisfying for the newer generation, which had little patience for the ego trips and petty squabbles some older activists tried to press upon the younger rebels. While many personal relationships endure, the attempt to develop parallel national organizations of SDSers young and old failed. The new generation marches forward for climate justice and against empire, working to build an organization of youth and students that is relevant to the twenty-first century.

But here, too, the book’s affect may be its strongest quality. The last strip concludes with the new SDS jumping out of the box in which the cartoonist had confined it. The people streaming out of the cartoon’s confines look more like 1960s SDSers than they do the contemporary activists the panel claims to represent. Still, the spirit seems the only fitting way to conclude a history of SDS: by resisting the constrictions in which we too often find ourselves, inviting us to leap off the page and into the streets.


Dan Berger is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists (Nation Books, 2005). He is a Ph.D. candidate in communications at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, see