By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald
More than half a century ago, college students camping on the shores of Lake Huron issued their manifesto demanding equality, justice and a return to participant democracy.
Whether the “Port Huron Statement” even led to the “truly democratic” society the Students for a Democratic Society envisioned is probably open to debate.
But a democratic process has led to a historical marker that will commemorate their contribution to 1960s society and the counter-culture of student activism.
Acting on a petition from 96 Blue Water Area residents, the Michigan Historical Commission approved a marker for the site where the Port Huron Statement written.
In June 1962, college students met at a United Auto Workers camp — now Lakeport State Park — to fashion a manifesto calling for a “truly democratic” society. Later named the Port Huron Statement, it was considered to be the catalyst for the student movement in the United States in the 1960s.
The Port Huron Statement called for nuclear disarmament, civil rights protections for minorities, educational reforms and other changes to American society.
“We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love,” the 25,000-word manifesto proclaims.
Port Huron resident Dave Bennis sent in the initial application for the historical marker after events to make their statement’s 50th anniversary.
Bennis, one of nearly 100 community members who lobbied for the marker, said the two years spent on the project was well worth it.
“There were so many influential people who were involved in that movement,” Bennis said. “It underscored the need for non-violent, peaceful confrontation. It was the birthplace of a lot of different movements. This was before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964).”
Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, said, “The commission agrees this is a significant part of the state’s history and the nation’s history, as well.”
In 2012, St. Clair County Community College associate professor Jim Soto invited Tom Hayden — the author of the original draft for the statement — to give a lecture to his students. Hayden, now 77, told his audience they should make the site a historical marker.
“Tom had told us ‘The history should be woven into the landscape,’” Soto said. “It advanced the idea of participatory democracy where individuals should have the decision-making power over the laws that affect their lives.”
Two years later, the Lakeport State Park will have a green sign with gold lettering on it explaining the site’s significance. Bennis said a date for the installation hasn’t been set.
Approval for the Lakeport marker look at least twice as long as normal, but that wasn’t because of the subject.
“With this particular one we had a change in staff and had a hole in the middle, delaying the process,” Clark said. “Because markers are very small in terms of the amount of text, a lot of things we do is weeding things down.”
Clark said the Michigan Historical Commission has approved 18 to 24 markers every year, on average, since the 1950s.
St. Clair and Sanilac counties are home to dozens of markers, ranging from a lakeside marker remembering the Great Storm of 1913 to one commemorating Harry Truman’s honeymoon visit to the Harrington Hotel in Port Huron.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2014)