We met in rigorous seminars with a collegium of renegade Christian ministers, headed by a chaplain from WWII who’d seen the carnage, demythologizing the church fathers and scriptures; studying the contemporary theologians: Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, based in Kierkegaard; Buber, Tillich, the Niebuhrs; and readings in cotemporary thought: Satre, Camus, Arthur Miller, Dostoevsky, Ionesco, Beckett, and more. We lived in joy without hope, like Camus’ Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, watching it roll down. God was dead, the word god empty. All words were empty of intrinsic meaning, symbols pointing to experience.
Driven by a politics of ethics, Hayden committed herself wholeheartedly to the struggle for racial justice while at the University of Texas, Austin (Fall 1957 to Spring 1961). She initiated
Much of Hayden’s work during the 1960-1961 academic year was inspired by her participation, during the summer of 1960, in the National Student Association Southern Student Human Relation’s Seminar led by Constance Curry.[v] Following that seminar, Hayden attended the NSA’s annual congress, where SNCC students asked for endorsement of the recent sit-ins in the South.[vi] When white southern student delegates demanded equal time, Hayden was asked to speak, as a “pro sit-in white southerner.”[vii] She delivered a rousing speech in support of the sit-ins.[viii]
Combining Thoreau’s civil disobedience with an existentialist approach to addressing the “ethical question” at hand, Hayden spoken with such stirring affect that she brought some in the crowd to tears, and received a standing ovation.[ix] She ended her speech by declaring:
“If I had known that not a single lunch counter would open as a result of my action, I could not have done differently than I did. I am thankful for the sit-ins if for no other reason than that they provided me with an opportunity for making a slogan into a reality, by turning a decision into an action. It seems to me that this is what life is all about. While I would hope that the NSA congress will pass a strong sit-in resolution, I am more concerned that all of us, Negro and white, realize the possibility of becoming less inhuman humans through commitment and action.”[x]
Here the seeds of Hayden’s subsequent work in the freedom movement are all present. Her focus is on conscientious action rather than particular outcomes. Beliefs must be enacted to matter. The ultimate hope was one for greater humanity, for both whites and blacks.
Read through an existentialist lens, the Memo reveals an ongoing commitment to action in the face of indifference or hostility. Hayden, organizing in Mississippi for the first time in 1963, reflected “we won’t ever really win down here, but a few people are changed and their lives are richer because they see that it’s worth fighting to change things.”[i] She maintained that attitude through the long Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge, pointing out that "the local people knew they had done it right and they didn’t buckle.”FN What mattered was that they took a principled stand. Although the 1964 Position paper “caused hardly a ripple” and with full anticipation of the “usual response … laughter,” Hayden still kept “rais[ing] questions” in “A Kind of Memo” [ii]
Ultimately, what the movement provided Hayden with was not access to power, but a solution to the dilemma of Riesman’s Lonely Crowd: “I was a product of the fifties. Inner and outer directed remained key to my sense of myself; the idea of living on the edge was also key, inner directed and on the edge as ideal. The CFLC [Christian Faith and Life Community] let me know that one had to have community to live in this place. Otherwise, one was lost and alone.”[3