CHICAGO--What began as a small conference of academic radicals mushroomed into a weekend meeting of more than 1000 activists and leftists--proof, organizers say, that the ethos of the 1960s is alive and well.
"It's true that many of us are a little heavier around the middle and losing hair," said Lauren Langman, 50, a conference leader. "But we're still here."
"The radical left is still very much alive," agreed Carl Davidson, 47, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society and a conference organizer.
"Not all of us could marry Jane Fonda," he said, referring to the actress' marriage to '60s radical Tom Hayden, now active in mainstream California politics.
A colorful band of political warriors--socialists, environmentalists, feminists and others--registered for the Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference, which runs through Sunday.
When first conceived in May, conference organizers counted on attracting a small cadre of left-leaning college intellectuals, said Langman, a professor of sociology at Chicago's Loyola University.
What they got was an enthusiastic response from hundreds of people, with conference attendees coming from as far as New York and California.
"It's a small event that just mushroomed," Langman said. "It started slowly, but we're being overwhelmed."
One reason so many people were attracted to the event may be that intellectuals of all disciplines and on-the-street activists were encouraged to attend.
"A lot of times that's like getting together cats and dogs," said Davidson, who runs Networking for Democracy. It uses computer technology to link various leftist causes.
While academics and activists frequently clash about the ways and means of radical social change, Davidson predicted the tension between the two groups would spark "a creative mix" at the gathering.
Fists probably won't fly, Davidson said, although "there might be some fruitless debate."
Organizers said the political climate is right for the conference, another reason for its popularity.
The Middle East crisis, the transformation of Eastern Europe's socialist governments, the failing capitalist economies in Africa and elsewhere are of great interest to the group, organizers said.
"This is much more a spontaneous explosion of the needs of people who are committed to a certain politics to...get together," said Danny Postel, a senior philosophy major at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., who helped organize the event.
The conference, organized loosely around the theme "The Global Crisis," includes more than 100 panels and workshops such as "Socialism and Democracy" and "Organizing for Mideast Peace."
Organizers said more than 1000 people were attending the conference, further proof the "invisible left" is alive and well.
"There's a pretty cruel myth that the people that were active in the civil rights movement and anti-war movement grew up, cut their hair and became Yuppies," Langman said. "But we've become teachers, organizers."
Davidson said '60s radicals, "the unsung heroes of our generation," still live their values, whether in academic settings or in places like battered women's shelters.
"We're at the heart of a lot of things that happen," he said.