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American rebel Tom Hayden left us one last lesson for 2016

Tom Hayden was an American hero who never stopped fighting for his ideals forged in the 1960s. And his left us with some words of wisdom for November.

Today got off to a sad start when I learned with the rest of the world that the one-of-a-kind American rebel and activist Tom Hayden had died of heart failure at age 76. I certainly felt a small twinge of regret over not trying to meet Hayden when he came to Philadelphia this summer for the Democratic National Convention; as one of the so-called "Chicago 7" who led -- and was later tried for -- protests at the infamous 1968 Chicago DNC, I thought his views on the events of 2016 would make for a great column. But then I got distracted by other nonsense, and only today did I learn that Hayden -- who'd long been a hero of mine -- had actually left Philly that week with the first signs of the illness that would take his life.

But mainly the sorrow was because the wisdom and experience of Hayden -- who was on the cutting edge of his generation's protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and who remained a tireless advocate for social justice for more than five decades -- is exactly what we need to help the rest of us steer through the current crisis.

Hayden had emerged as kind of the Thomas Jefferson of what became known as "the New Left" in the 1960s, authoring the seminal document of that decade's youthful protest, the Port Huron Statement from the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Here's how it begins:

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

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people -- these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others" we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

Any similarity between the contradictions and the anxiety facing young people in 1962 -- when Hayden was the main drafter of the Port Huron Statement -- and those of today is very much not a coincidence. Their angst, in fact, was quite similar to the unease that youth feel today upon learning that the self-congratulatory act of electing a black president didn't end systemic racism in American society, or that their college diploma left them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt yet no job prospects that could pay it off. There is a straight line from Hayden's SDS to Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter -- a connection that Hayden himself was very much aware of in his later years.

Like Woody Allen's fictional character Zelig, Hayden was everywhere that mattered in the 1960s, getting beat up by segregationists in Mississippi, a witness to the violent riots in Newark and finally in the docket as the government tried to send him away for his role in the '68 convention protests as one of "the Chicago 7." (His conviction for "inciting to riot" was eventually tossed.) In the 1970s, he surprised some folks by a) marrying the movie star -- and fellow activist -- Jane Fonda and b) turning to mainstream electoral politics, which he proved to be very good at. He eventually fashioned an 18-year career as a state lawmaker in California, often focused on bread-and-butter issues for working-class people such as rent control.

Hayden's untimely passing came just as his brand of progressive politics -- "the long game," for lack of a better term -- was having a moment. His generation-mate, Bernie Sanders -- who like Hayden came of age fighting for the civil rights of African Americans in the early 1960s -- shared a life  model: Hold onto to your youthful ideals, yet grow older whole always thinking more and more practically about how to actually get there. For Hayden, this blend of idealism and pragmatism kept him as an essential voice until the end of his life -- and even allowed him to leave his mark in the tangled 2016 presidential race.

Maybe it's ironic, but Hayden -- despite his fondness for Sanders, his policies and his ideals -- came to the conclusion by his final spring that the only practical way to advance progressivism was to throw his support behind Hillary Clinton. Here's what he wrote in The Nation:

I intend to vote for Hillary Clinton in the California primary for one fundamental reason. It has to do with race. My life since 1960 has been committed to the causes of African Americans, the Chicano movement, the labor movement, and freedom struggles in Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America. In the environmental movement I start from the premise of environmental justice for the poor and communities of color. My wife is a descendant of the Oglala Sioux, and my whole family is inter-racial.

What would cause me to turn my back on all those people who have shaped who I am? That would be a transgression on my personal code. I have been on too many freedom rides, too many marches, too many jail cells, and far too many gravesites to breach that trust. And I have been so tied to the women's movement that I cannot imagine scoffing at the chance to vote for a woman president. When I understood that the overwhelming consensus from those communities was for Hillary—for instance the Congressional Black Caucus and Sacramento's Latino caucus—that was the decisive factor for me.

I remember a feeling of minor disappointment reading those words at this time, but six months later, what other serious and realistic options are there for people who don't want America to move backwards? It's sad that Hayden won't be casting that vote on November 8. But it's also some comfort that he left us with a lot of wisdom -- words that might even help his generation and all the ones that came after start coming together on November 9, if we're willing to actually listen.