Briscoe Center Acquires the Abbie Hoffman Papers
The Briscoe Center for American History has acquired the papers of political activist Abbie Hoffman (1936–1989), which join others at the center related to social and racial justice, anti-war protest and environmental activism, as well as political organization and free speech activities across the ideological spectrum. Hoffman gained national attention in the late 1960s for his theatrical protests at the New York Stock Exchange, the Pentagon, Woodstock, the Democratic National Convention, and the ensuing landmark trial, United States v. Dellinger, et al., which upheld the constitutional rights to public demonstration and free speech. The center is currently displaying selections from the Hoffman papers in the exhibit hall.
“Abbie Hoffman’s historical importance stems from his role in two of the 1960s’ most important flashpoints over the First Amendment—the Chicago police riot of 1968 and the ensuing trial of the ‘Chicago Seven.’ In addition, he pioneered new forms of activism that combined celebrity, media spectacle, comedy, and cynicism—a mix that was new at the time but which we now think of as a natural part of the cultural landscape,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “I want to thank Johanna Hoffman Lawrenson and the center’s donors for making this acquisition possible.”
A founder of the Youth International Party (the “Yippies,” who nominated a pig for president in 1968), Hoffman was known for his innovative protests against the Vietnam War. He was born in 1936 to a middle-class Jewish family in Worcester, Massachusetts —”between Boston and nowhere,” he would say. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1955 and went on to study psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. In the early 1960s he was a voter registration worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In 1967, he organized a publicity stunt at the New York Stock Exchange, dropping dollar bills on Wall Street brokers from the balcony, some of whom halted their work in order to scramble for the money. The same year, he led a group to the Pentagon with the ostensible intent of levitating the building through an exorcism ritual. Both events were well covered in the national press and garnered a mixture of outrage, confusion, and laughter. During the zenith of his celebrity, Hoffman was an avid writer and speaker, touring college campuses and publishing Revolution for the Hell of It (1968), Woodstock Nation (1969), and Steal this Book (1971).
Hoffman was arrested protesting the Democratic National Convention in 1968 along with Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, and others. They were prosecuted the following year in a landmark case that wasn’t dismissed until 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, that same year Hoffman was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking in New York. To avoid a mandatory life sentence he skipped bail, underwent plastic surgery, and lived as a fugitive until 1980.
After serving a short sentence, he returned to his activism. He remained committed to universal healthcare, economic equality, and greater transparency in foreign policy and national security through organizing and protest. In 1987 he was arrested with Amy Carter (President Jimmy Carter’s daughter) while protesting the CIA in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair. He died in 1989. At his funeral, Rabbi Norman Mendell placed Hoffman “in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” According to his tennis coach, Bud Collins, Hoffman should be remembered as “the kind of all-American boy who would have thrown out the first barrel at the Boston Tea Party.” However, Collins also noted that “on a tennis court, he was a boringly conservative—possibly right wing—performer. He camped on the baseline . . . never venturing to the barricade to shake things up.”
The Abbie Hoffman Papers include drafts of his speeches; FBI records related to their surveillance of him; correspondence with a wide variety of individuals including Jimmy Carter, Norman Mailer, John Lennon, David Bowie, Allen Ginsburg, and Studs Terkel; photographs; posters; and ephemera. It is a large collection that will be processed and opened for research in 2020.