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Sixties Lessons and Lore

Bernadine Dohrn activist, academic and child advocate, is Director of the Children and Family Justice Center and Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law, Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2000), 368 pages, $25.95 paper.

The sixties were risky, frisky, shattering, chaotic, moral, exhilarating, riotous, international, destructive, communitarian, divisive, vivid, anarchistic, dogmatic, and liberating. Relentlessly commodified in subsequent years, the sixties became a boxed set: music, culture, clothing, academic professions, mythology, and de-fanged pabulum. It takes courage to undertake an interpretive survey of a turbulent recent decade; historians Isserman and Kazin’s achievement provokes, reminds, and informs. They have produced a valuable reference book, a genre where their uncertain perspective does little damage. Their brilliant opening set piece describes the 1961 Civil War Centennial Commission—which decided explicitly to exclude the words “Negro,” “slavery,” and “Emancipation,” from their re-enactment pageantry of white regional rivalry. When a black New Jersey delegate, arriving to participate in the opening Fort Sumter commemoration, was denied a room at the Commission’s segregated South Carolina hotel, all hell broke loose. Eventually, in a resolution that foreshadows the 1995 Hiroshima exhibition at the Smithsonian,“two separate observances were held, an integrated one on federal property, and a segregated one in downtown Charleston.” What a sensational narrative to open an exploration of race, history, and the war to explain the war.

In the post-September-11 world, it appears that the reactionary drumbeat to criminalize, demonize, and marginalize the sixties has taken on renewed life and significance. Domestic opposition to U.S. wars and global strategies are being re-characterized—adding urgency to writing that opens up thinking, clarifies language, and promotes analysis.

That Isserman and Kazin raise urgent questions and stir debate more than they offer definitive analysis is a tribute as much as a flaw. The existing shelf of books about the sixties is largely composed of flawed attempts at “definitive analysis” a series of partial views that often speak more of the inevitable distortions in the participant/author’s retrospective viewpoint, than of the scene described. This is surely understandable—these authors were also activists and while they aim at more than memoir, they often fall short of history. The Isserman and Kazin book is probably the last of that series and, as a comprehensive reference work, perhaps the best. The next wave of sixties interpretive analysis is about to begin; I predict it will be clearly divided between the more mature memoirs of participants and a virtual tidal wave of new scholarship by young historians on the multiple movements born in the decades that have come to be packaged as the sixties. So get ready for a new generation’s take on what it all means.

The sixties began in 1954 and the real news is that they’re not over yet. The twin blindspots of pre-sixties American social struggle—race and imperialism—blaze as the touchstones of the civil rights, anti-war, student, women’s, and black liberation movements, as well as all their propulsive, variegated progeny. But without a persistent focus on white supremacy and U.S. global domination, Isserman and Kazin miss the ethical and political heart of the sixties—and any significance for the growing movements for social justice today. For, of course, it matters far beyond academic nit-picking or self-justifying squabbles. There is no room for nostalgia or sentimental reminiscences. A truism: we lack a left “movement” today which integrates distinct, single-issue organizing into a sum greater than the parts. However, there is a contemporary array of serious left organizing—locally, nationally, and globally. Among them are resistance to the prison-industrial complex; the campus anti-sweatshop surge; disarmament and peace; exposure of racial profiling; anti-globalization; environmental justice; women’s liberation and equality; human rights; AIDs; solidarity with Chiapas; efforts for peace and justice in Colombia, Ireland, and Palestine; health care; labor; indigenous rights; school reform; lesbian and gay rights; opposition to police violence; and children’s rights.

Where does America’s wealth and prosperity come from? In the first three chapters of America Divided, there is no recognition that U.S. economic and military power had replaced the previous colonial powers of Europe in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia. There is no U.S. extraction of oil and natural resources, no terms of trade that progressively devalue third world exports, no creation of indebtedness, no theft of labor, no destruction of subsistence culture and its replacement with reliance on imports, no violent suppression by the U.S. military of democratic national interests in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, or the Philippines. Instead, there is a “golden age of economic growth and political stability,” “tarnished only by the omnipresent Cold War.”

But it was the very revelation of U.S. brutality and plunder in the Third World, and the rejection of Cold War ideology and its justifications, which defined and forged the “new left.” Both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) grappled with and refused to impose the de rigueur anticommunist clause in their founding documents—to the dismay of, and ultimate rupture with, their elder social-democratic godparents.

The U.S.-sponsored assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the U.S. military invasion of the Dominican Republic, and the growing numbers of U.S. advisors in Vietnam alarmed and awoke many young people. And behold, these were bipartisan matters. What was revealed was the consistent Democratic/Republican unity in ruthless U.S. global hegemony—not “big power bullying tactics” or “bellicose foreign policy.” Liberal elders—whether socialists, labor leaders, academics, or politicians—almost all went along with U.S. domination, aggression, and violence in the so-called “underdeveloped” world. And they welcomed the consequent wealth here. SNCC’s reception of Oginga Odinga (a leader of newly independent Kenya), Malcolm X’s revelatory travels to the Mideast, and the student movement’s participation in international youth congresses (some CIA-sponsored!), opened eyes to a broader political spectrum than narrow Cold War liberalism. Tellingly, the new left also refused to apologize for or defend what had become of “socialism” in Russia, Eastern Europe, or even China. Protest and domestic opposition grew, from objections to resistance, to the U.S. violations of its own stated principles and laws. While the movement was in that sense homemade, it was also a student of national liberation movements abroad. We discovered our rebellious American ancestors, in large part, after the fact.

Moral outrage at what was being done in our name created a healthy breach, and that led to deeper analyses of the relentless workings of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. It seemed then, and it is as true now, that no one can begin to comprehend world political dynamics without such an effort to understand capital and the creation of wealth and poverty. Of course, analysis does not tell us what to do, but without a Marxist critique, all is chaos and impossible to explain without resort to myths of “U.S. superiority” or “manifest destiny.” How do less than 5 percent of the world’s people control more than 60 percent of the world’s wealth? For youth, the rejection of an Americentric worldview was fueled, not primarily by ideology, but by the concrete instances of university complicity with war research, segregation, and corporate power; government and academic lies and cover-ups; and the government/corporate/military/police nexus.

We cut our teeth on liberals. It was the Kennedys and LBJ who revealed the essential unanimity of power, despite some relevant and real differences. This critical edge is obscured by Isserman and Kazin who—while they point out that Kennedy was a liberal in style rather than substance—seem to write without irony, “Americans had long cherished the belief that they had a special role to play in determining the future of Asia,” or, “The early days of American involvement in Vietnam were almost like an adventure story.” Graham Greene, writing in 1955, saw the U.S. role and rationale more clearly.

The Isserman and Kazin book is rich in detail and reminds the reader of the intersecting claims of civil rights, poverty, and Vietnam. We see the timing of Brown v. Board of Education coincide with the lynching of Emmett Till and the actions of Rosa Parks; of Birmingham with the Cuba missile crisis; of the U.S.-sponsored assassination of Diem with Dallas; of Operation Rolling Thunder in Viet Nam with Selma and Watts; and of the Tet offensive with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the resignation of LBJ. Yet pat generalizations rather than dynamic complexities undermine much of the material. For example: (1) “the nation’s brief honeymoon of concern and goodwill with the poor was coming to an end.” (2) “It was difficult to tell how much racial attitudes had changed since the ’60s.” (3) “The decisions Kennedy was making about Vietnam would soon split Democrats into warring camps, to the lasting detriment of the liberal cause and agenda.”

And there is a drumbeat of apologist whitewash: McNamara’s personal disillusionment (he “kept his doubts to himself”); Johnson’s misgivings; the Bundy boys signature romance with guesswork statistics; and three pages of exculpation for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Liberals—from Michael Harrington to George Meany to President Kennedy—were corrupted by the Cold War and willfully blind to white supremacy. Laments are inappropriate.

While great attention is devoted to the details and strategy of the early Civil Rights movement, it is severed from the two hundred years of effort that preceded it and from the powerful black liberation movement that exploded beneath it. Like most mainstream sixties histories, America Divided romanticizes the early sixties and diminishes the late sixties and seventies, avoiding the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Afrika, black student unions, the Nation of Islam, and their numerous local incarnations. The legislative goal of voting rights was a critical part but never the sum of the great struggles for racial equality—and even today, voting rights remains far from assured as conflicts over the census, re-districting, disenfranchisement, and the 2000 elections in Florida reveal. Isserman and Kazin mistakenly reduce the Southern civil rights movement to a struggle for de jure voting rights, rather than an inclusive movement for desegregation, political power, racial justice, economic equality, and liberation. They give it an integration coherence, rather than analyzing it as an effective and temporary coalition of variegated, contending perspectives: religious and nationalist, multiracial and separatist, single issue and radical, legislative and economic. The historic strands of freedom struggle were all present in the South, and they re-awaken as the civil rights movement moves North.

Isserman and Kazin succumb to the peril of nostalgia for the “good” early days of the sixties and contempt for the later days of militancy, mass struggle, and black liberation. As the demands, rhetoric, and tactics of the black, Latino, and Native American freedom movements and the anti-war movement escalated in 1967–1969, the “movement” burst beyond its small band of activists. Tens of thousands joined the Black Panther Party, SDS, the Mobilization against the War, the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, Resist, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and their hundreds of local equivalents; millions participated in protests or resistance not imaginable a short year before. The authors, noting the simultaneous rise of militancy and the expansion of small protest into widespread popular insurgency, concede the irony, but without re-thinking their assumptions.

Getting it right about race, even for a moment in time, is rare enough in the long effort to complete the U.S. project of democracy to be worthy of much more sober examination. In a book that sweeps through a myriad of details, the core struggle over white supremacy and inequality can get reduced to the weaknesses of great leaders or the tactics of those in struggle. Too often, the authors appear to place responsibility for setbacks on the black struggle. Watts, for example, sounds the death knell for LBJ’s Great Society and liberal reform. King in Chicago threatens white voters with demands for housing, jobs, education, and political power. Indeed. Has anything changed?

A different yardstick is used with the anti-war movement. “In the civil rights movement, confrontation served strategic ends.” In contrast, apparently, confrontation in the anti-war movement was “media-oriented” in “an atmosphere of frustration and extremism.” Gone are the five years of patient and strategic organizing against the Vietnam War: marches by mothers and veterans; resistance to the draft; legal challenges to an illegal war; community organizing in Detroit and Newark and Chicago; campus teach-ins; and organizing on military bases (coffee houses, GI unions, underground newspapers, and refusal to serve an unjust cause). “Unlike the civil rights movement,” they write, “which until 1965 was organized to achieve a series of concrete political and legislative goals, the antiwar movement could measure success only by one all-encompassing aim, the end of the killing in Vietnam.” Ending the U.S. invasion of Vietnam is pretty concrete. But their sentence is wrong on both fronts, simplifying the complex and multi-pronged freedom struggle and making the antiwar movement seem small or linear.

In fact, as they merged—as SNCC, Dr. King, and the Panthers opposed the Vietnam War and as the anti-war movement came to include black GIs, black students, and working class resisters—state repression escalated, assassinations flourished, and COINTELPRO was launched. And, as the authors ruefully concede, the movements became both radical and huge—number swelled, millions participated, organizations bloomed, and common strategic goals were pursued by a thousand voices. We were bringing the war home, and the war was bringing the black liberation and youth movements to the U.S. army in Vietnam. In important ways, finally, the authors miss the decisive role of both Vietnam’s political and military strategy and the resistance by American GIs.

What many came to grasp through the civil rights and anti-war movements was that racism—that bedrock recognition of white supremacy, inequality, and privilege (not just prejudice)—defined and shaped the “new abolitionists.” While many students dropped out of a life path of privilege, others fought to expand access and inclusion. Multiple strategies were explored and abandoned: direct action based on your beliefs; confronting power; moral witnessing; community organizing; militant mass movements; coalition efforts; workplace labor organizing; alternative institution-building; grass roots theater; electoral third party politics; cultural renaissance; lawsuits and participatory legal defense—all became tools to win hearts and minds, to challenge the taken-for-granted, to resist the status quo. Students sat-in and seized; demanded open enrollment in privileged universities (“Open it Up or Shut it Down!”); sought an end to racist or sexist texts and teaching (African-American, women’s, and Third World studies); mobilized solidarity with university employees; and challenged the exploitative university/landlord relationship with surrounding poor neighborhoods of people of color. The early stirrings of women’s liberation and then gay liberation opened new fronts, innovative organizing and democratizing strategies, and freedom forces. As in all movements, there was an explosion of cultural creativity and there were tragic and painful casualties.

Perhaps looking at ten critical events in some depth might have produced a more nuanced, dynamic and illuminating book about the sixties, avoiding the generalizations in this survey that cloy and irritate. Yet Isserman and Kazin have produced an important reference book, and also begin to describe the rise of the powerful counter-revolution. Most of the events that matter are there. The lessons will be found not in their feeble attempt to sum it up but in Seattle’s protests and in prison resistance, in reinvented attempts to face challenges of today with exuberant courage, radical vision, and ethical determination.

The propulsive energies unleashed in the sixties animate our lives today in obvious as well as invisible ways. If the mission of the powerful is domination, exploitation and control, and if global domination and racism are central—not peripheral—to our ongoing story, then “America divided” is not such a bad thing. In fact, it’s the only choice for humanity.


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