Tom Hayden, A Warrior For Justice: Rest In Peace

California State Senator Tom Hayden anounces his candidacy for mayor of Los Angeles during a news conference January 5, 1997
California State Senator Tom Hayden anounces his candidacy for mayor of Los Angeles during a news conference January 5, 1997 in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo

I considered Tom Hayden a friend and a colleague. We did not get together often, but we collaborated on a number of occasions, I teaching with him in a class he offered on deep ecology years ago at a community college in Santa Monica; he lecturing at my university.

When I was stepping down as president of my University of Creation Spirituality, I invited him to take over as president. He took the invitation very seriously and came up to Oakland for us to interview him and he to interview us. Unfortunately he turned the invitation down after serious deliberation, citing his need to remain free from institutional demands in order to maintain his true vocation as an activist and researcher.

We shared books we and others wrote. He was both an activist and a true intellectual because he was a relentless asker of questions. His scholarship was always directed, as is the Irish way, toward behavior and action.

When he joined the civil rights movement in the south as a young man he was beaten in Mississippi and arrested in Georgia and in jail began writing his famous "Port Huron Statement" which urged a more progressive political agenda and activism.

Tom once told me how he first got involved in the civil rights movement. As a young man growing up near Detroit, he fell in love with a woman who lived in the south. He followed her south and lo and behold! There was this thing going on, the civil rights movement. He joined in. He got arrested. His girlfriend moved on. But he stayed to fight for racial justice. That is how his political career was born. And his vocation as an activist for justice remained true for the rest of his life.

He was a man of integrity who managed to swing between action and research. One long time friend and ally, Larry Bensky, commenting on Hayden's diverse career within politics and outside it, said:

He always wanted to be where the action was. He was such an unusual person, who basically lived his politics....He knew that in order to effectuate any social change it is essential to engage the system. [But] he never forgot his principles and was always true to his instincts to help those that needed help in society.[1]

To me Tom was an incarnation of the "preferential option for the poor" principles that were birthed following the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. I think he saw it that way too as he took his church seriously and especially its call to justice that birthed the liberation theology movement following on the Council.

I remember once visiting his home in Santa Monica and on his kitchen table were spread out several books by the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff (he and I were both silenced by the Vatican and in the same year which I chose to visit him in Brazil) and some of my own along with copious pages of notes taken from said books.

Tom was not just an activist but a student, even a scholar, of pressing topics of our day including issues of the environment, economics, media, religion, and their common gathering place, politics. He was a lover of liberation theology and he was proud of the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.

Regarding the church, he remained loyal to it if not always a practitioner thereof (three divorces did not exactly fit the bill for Catholic purity). I recall when I chose to join the Episcopal Church after being expelled from the Dominican Order after 34 years and with the intention of working with young people to reinvent forms of worship, he disagreed with my decision... but this did not diminish our respect for one another's callings.

In fact I often wondered afterwards if the revelations of the truly dark side of the church structure, including the cover up of the pedophile clergy abuse by the hierarchy, did not affect him later. We had talked about my research on the sinister relationship between Pope John Paul II and the CIA machinations to destroy liberation theology in Latin America and he pushed me for footnotes and back up. I included such documentation in my book The Pope's War which I tried to get to him, but I do not know if I was ever successful in that as he was hard to get hold of in more recent years.

Though he was a champion of clear thinking and hard pushing to change our political and economic structures, I think he may have underestimated the radical need for religion to reinvent itself. He did not seem so interested in that particular struggle as he was in the many others that he championed. Deep down his Irish Catholicism stayed with him a long time.

Our most recent correspondence was in 2015 around the pope's encyclical on the Environment and he wrote me these words:

Praise be back to you, Matt... I thought how much you contributed to the final encyclical over so many years of struggle as the herald of the message, and all I learned from you. For me it goes all the way back to the National Partnership on Religion and Environment -- remember that in the '90s? I met those same people in sacramento at a bishops meeting I attended on the encyclical. Takes a lifetime to get the work done, step by step. The most important thing for me about the pope is the content of the encyclical itself including the structure of its thought. I've urged people to actually read it and not 'pontificate' about it. I wrote the Calif legis resolution endorsing it and urging all public agencies to study and discuss it. Definitely has had an impact in the run up to paris! We'll see. On Serra, i figured that was a trade off to get Oscar Romero canonized over the insane and hateful opposition of the Salvadoran right. I am not sure i have all your prolific stuff, but definitely want to read. Here are some of mine which you might not have -- much love. Pope Francis Calls for Climate Justice - Tom Hayden

Hayden's mind was voracious and though a family man and an activist and a state senator and a husband to Jane Fonda and then to his current wife, actress Barbara Williams, he always found time to study and to gather his own thoughts and to write. He wrote twenty books, which is pretty amazing for an activist. And they were books of substance which also named his broad interests and concerns. Among them were the following: The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit and Politics; Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine; Inside the Irish: In Search of the Soul of Irish America; Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence; Ending the War in Iraq; The Whole World Was Watching: The Streets of Chicago: 1968; The Zapatista Reader.

One can see in this partial list his broad interests in social justice and healing--his book on gangs was especially striking to me because in writing it he befriended gang and ex-gang members in the Los Angeles area especially, a work of courage as well as deep insight and importance.

Fellow anti-war activist David Harris said that Hayden had the "best analytical mind of anyone....He could assess a situation clearly, completely and right on the mark." Black activist Bobby Seale, who went to trial along with Hayden and six others for inciting the riots in the Chicago Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, said of Hayden: He was "really a great guy, a great organizer, a great writer"... Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin "had their antics, but Tom was more serious....He understood the problem of exploitation, he understood the plight of African Americans. He understood, the way I did, that the framework of government needed to be more progressive. He was someone we could count on."[2]

We will miss Tom Hayden. I often read his newsletter, to which he was contributing even during the last year of his sickness; it was striking for its common sense and clarity about complicated moral and political issues (and Tom always saw political issues as moral ones). One could always disagree with Tom on specifics but one always had to take his arguments seriously for they were well thought out, reasonably argued, consistent to his basic philosophy, and appealing to the heart as well as head.

Tom was a warrior -- warrior for justice of all stripes, a warrior for the deep values that are to be found in the core of both the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Justice mattered to him.

The great fourteenth-century Dominican mystic and activist Meister Eckhart said the following: "For the just person as such to act justly is to live; indeed, justice is his life, his being alive, his being, insofar as he is just." Justice was Tom's life. And work. And passion. His being and his being alive. It was his spirituality. We are all better for it. Yes, he will be missed, this voice of reason and of caring and of action and passion on behalf of justice.

Truly, here was a man who "fought the good fight" his entire life long with all of his gifts of intellect and caring. Thank you, Tom. May you rest in peace and may your work and person continue to inspire us and future generations.


[1] Cited in Evan Sernoffsky and Steve Rubenstein, "Tom Hayden: Student activist became longtime state legislator," San Francisco Chronicle, Oct 25, 2016, A-8.

[2] Ibid.