Classroom Activities

  1. Few Americans are familiar with Potter’s speech. Identify at least three reasons why this might be the case? Should Americans remember the speech more? Why is it important historically? Does it still speak to us today?
  2. Some people labeled Potter a “radical.” What about Potter’s speech do you think was “radical.” Or do you feel that the speech is not, in fact, “radical” at all? What does it mean to be a “radical”? Is there some difference between a “radical” and a “militant”?
  3. In his speech, Potter called for the audience to name and then change “the system.” In line with this theme, he titled his memoir, A Name for Ourselves. Why might Potter be so concerned with naming? What power is there in a name?
  4. Potter utilized a problem-cause-solution structure for his speech. How did Potter describe each of these–the problem, the cause, and the solution–in the speech? Is his solution clear, feasible, and/or appropriate given the problem and its cause?
  5. What was Potter talking about when he referred to “the system”? Can you define and give examples of what he meant by “the system”?
  6. What is “the movement” that Potter described? Who did he explicitly and implicitly include in this movement? Use the text for your evidence.
  7. Do you think Potter’s call for a movement to change “the system” was beneficial or detrimental to American democracy in the 1960s? Why or why not?
  8. Discuss the methods of protest and reform available to those who share Potter’s goal of changing “the system.” Can change come from inside the “system”? Under what circumstances, if any, might violence be justified?

Student Research

  1. Search your school’s on-line newspaper databases for coverage of the April 17, 1965 March on Washington. Does the tone of the coverage surprise you? Write a paper discussing the positive and negative coverage. How do you account for the differing reactions to the speech?
  2. Read Carl Oglesby’s speech delivered on November 27, 1965 ( Write a short paper that assesses how this speech builds upon Potter’s speech in defining the goals and strategies for advancing the SDS movement. Whose arguments about the strategies and tactics of the movement do you find more persuasive?
  3. Choose another student activist organization in America’s history (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Young Americans for Freedom, Campus Outreach Opportunity League, National Student Association, etc.). Research the origins and communicative tactics of this organization. Then write a paper comparing the organization to the SDS, explaining the organization’s evolution and identifying the strengths and weakness of its public communication.
  4. In an essay, compare and contrast how President Lyndon Johnson described “freedom” during the Vietnam War and how President George W. Bush described “freedom” during the Iraq War.

Citizenship Resources

  1. The primary goal of the Students for a Democratic Society was to foster what they labeled “participatory democracy” (explained in the introduction of SDS’s manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, available here: Think about what this phrase might mean and how you, as a student, could implement this vision today.
  2. Write a newspaper op-ed column about the relationship between activism and student life. In particular, write about the role that students might play as agents of social change. Send the column to your school’s newspaper or your local newspaper.
  3. At 26 years of age when he delivered this speech, Potter became involved with SDS as an undergraduate student. Do you think the same climate exists today for students to start a social movement? Would an appeal like Potter’s speak to you and your generation? Why or why not?
  4. Explore the new Students for a Democratic Society’s webpage ( What issues concern this organization’s members now? Given the lessons from Potter’s experience, do you think this focus is appropriate? Would you ever consider joining the organization? Why or why not?
  5. Using your school’s website, research organizations on your campus today that promote political or social reform. What is their mission? What sorts of change do they advocate, and what activities do they sponsor?
  6. Visit the Port Huron Project’s website ( and read the description. You can also watch their re-enactment of Potter’s speech. What value does this project have? What do you think they hope to accomplish? What other speeches did they re-enact and why?

Last updated May 6, 2016