26 November 2011

Power to the People, Part Three

After the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, there were more local demonstrations. During my senior year at high school, I continued to work on the student newspaper; I was even the co-editor for a semester. I was somewhat aware of what was going on nationally with SDS, but did not know much of the story until later. The increasing willingness of the government (at all levels) to use force to quell anti-war protests had provoked a belief on the part of many involved in the movement that a violent response was called for. SDS had fragmented into two separate factions, one of which was the Weatherman group which advocated cultural, as well as political, revolution. The division would eventually lead to the dissolution of SDS which had been the largest campus-based political movement in U.S. history. The first major action by Weatherman had been the Chicago Days of Rage in the late fall of 1969 during which demonstrators openly battled with the police. The event did not go as planned; only a fraction of the expected number actually turned out and the Black Panthers, with whom Weatherman was actively seeking an alliance, publicly disassociated themselves from the protest.

Less than two months later, the charismatic Panther leader, Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by a team of Federal agents and Chicago police officers. This only confirmed to Weatherman that peaceful protest was ineffective, that they were at war with the government. A guiding principle of the group was that to stand idly by while acts of violence were being waged by one's government (and, by extension, in one's name) was an act of violence in and of itself. A plan was developed to begin bombing government targets, a decision which was to have a tragic result; in March, 1970 three members of the group were killed by an accidental explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse owned by one of the members' family. Diane Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins were killed; Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin escaped without injury. The accident led to a re-evaluation of the group's strategy; it was determined that only property damage was acceptable and that all measures to prevent loss of life were to be taken. Those measures were successful; the only people to die as a result of Weatherman bombs were three of their own members. In effect, Weatherman bombings were acts of vandalism staged as political theater - not any sort of terrorism as some have alleged. The fact of the matter is that the Ohio National Guard killed more innocent victims in one day than Weatherman did in its entire six year history. One does not have to support the group's tactics (and I did not) to see the irony in this truth. Still, the strategies developed by Weatherman/the Weather Underground were flawed, however as member Brian Flanagan noted in a 2002 documentary, "when you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things."

The following school year was punctuated with more anti-war protests and the beginning of a local underground newspaper, the Gulf Coast Fish Cheer, which was published by a group of university and junior college students. Perhaps the crescendo of the year (politically, at least) was the Festival of Life held in April at UWF which brought Chicago Seven defendant Jerry Rubin and fellow Yippee Stewart Alpert to Pensacola. Their appearance caused quite a stir; the university was closed to all but students and faculty members. I suppose they were afraid of a full-fledged riot breaking out, but those worries were groundless. I managed to borrow someone's UWF student ID (they didn't have pictures then) and got on campus to hear the speeches. The only thing I remember from the speeches was Rubin calling for Richard Nixon and Lt. William Calley (of My Lai massacre notoriety) to be tried as war criminals - a sentiment with which I fully agreed.

In 1972, I supported George McGovern for the Democratic nomination and was pleased when he won. The ensuing campaign would prove to be inept of course and Nixon coasted to a landslide victory. I suppose that we had the last laugh when his Presidency was reduced to a shambles by the Watergate scandal and his subsequent impeachment. His successor would prove to be little more than a placeholder, even in the face of the major events that occurred during his term. The US involvement in Indochina came to an end and the country was plunged into the worst recession in forty years, but the government was paralyzed and unable to act. The result was that Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a leader in whom many on the liberal side invested a great deal of hope. His presidency was also the victim of world events and the dissatisfaction among the American people resulted in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, an affable right winger who would do untold damage to the country and inaugurate a thirty-year reign by conservatives. The destruction resulting from those three decades has literally brought the country to the precipice; income disparity, environmental damage, pointless wars are the legacy of the era which began in 1980. There may be some hope that this conservative period has finally run its course, but we should remember that a wounded beast is often the most dangerous when in its death throes. There is little doubt that we are in the twilight of the period which began with the election of Reagan, but the recovery will be painful and will take many years to effect. We can all have a good laugh at the clownishness of the modern conservative movement, but they have yet to be defeated; the battle continues. The fact that we will almost certainly prevail in the end may be small comfort during the suffering that may yet have to be endured.

The legacy of the Sixties Movement is significant. It gave rise to later efforts to achieve equal rights for women, gays, and Native Americans, as well as to the modern environmental movement. Perhaps its greatest shortcoming was the antiwar movement's inability to come together with labor groups and working class citizens, a failure which is understandable given the relative prosperity of the period. Furthermore many union members and blue collar workers, as veterans and survivors of the Second World War, were not ready to give up on their convictions that the foreign policy of the United States was a force for freedom and good in the world. In those days, a working class parent still could hope that his or her children would be able to have a better life; the so-called "American Dream" was still part of of the dominant mythology. Of course the ensuing conservative era would deal a series of blows to that mythology which have proved fatal, opening new opportunities for the Left and giving reason to hope that a truly equitable and just society will eventually become a reality. The struggles of the Sixties were not in vain; they resulted in great victories in the fight for civil rights, they destroyed two Presidencies, and ultimately, they ended an unjust war. No doubt there was progress made, but the struggle goes on; ultimate victory will be our destiny if we will but fight for it.

05 November 2011

Power to the People, Part Two

In the fall of 1969, I changed schools. My new school had been a segregated, all-black institution, Booker T. Washington Senior High. Once again, as I made new friends, I found a few students who, like myself, were supportive of the anti-war movement. I also managed to join the staff of the school newspaper as an editorial writer; my first column was (you guessed it) a call for an end to the American involvement in Vietnam. That fall, I participated in my first anti-war demonstration which was part of the national (actually international) Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

My life changed one weekend when my friend Doug suggested that we go to The Establishment, a local coffeehouse located near the University of West Florida. I soon began going there every Friday and Saturday night; it was pretty much the only place I went on weekends. I got to know a few UWF students there, including David Goff and his wife Karen who lived in the house next door and managed the coffeehouse. They were amazingly tolerant of a young high school student who shared their political views; but, more importantly they, along with a few other students from the university, were looking for ways to become more involved in the movement that was sweeping the country.

Over the next few months more people drifted into our circle, including Dr. Alan Kirshner, a UWF History professor who became a mentor to our group. He recommended that we form an official organization which would serve as a clearinghouse for protest activities in Pensacola. And so the unfortunately-named Survivalist Coordinating Committee was born with the goal of working to link students from the university, the junior college, and local high schools with like-minded members of the community. We were especially interested in connecting with Pensacola's civil rights organizations. It should be noted, by the way, that the term "survivalist" did not have the same meaning then as it would years later. Our idea was that change was going to be required if our society was to continue and grow.

Our attempts to form liaisons with the various community organizations were not overly successful; however I did have experience of meeting several of Pensacola's foremost civil rights organizers, most notably the Reverend H. K. Matthews. It seems strange, given the respect and honor that is accorded Rev. Matthews today; in 1969 he was regarded as a dangerous radical by the white community. But he was probably the most important civil rights leader of his day in Northwest Florida and was (and is) a truly great man. Even today as a man in his mid-eighties he is active; he recently visited the Occupy Pensacola group and let them know that he was willing to occupy the park with them if needed. As I said - a truly great man who has spent his life dedicated to the pursuit of social justice.

That spring, the S.C.C.'s focus turned to environmental issues. April 22 of that year was the first Earth Day and I was able to organize an assembly at my high school to mark the event. I arranged for two UWF professors to speak at the assembly: a biologist and Dr. Kirshner. Alan's remarks at that gathering were to have far-reaching effects. He had already gotten the attention of some powerful individuals in the community by speaking at local anti-war rallies, but his remarks at Washington High School that day would eventually cost him his job.

Alan's speech that day was relatively mild, but it did not go over well with some members of the school's administration. That was ironic, because the line that created the strongest reaction was actually complementary to the school's principal, Neroy Anderson. Alan praised Mr. Anderson, saying that he was a man more interested in what was inside his students' heads rather than what was on top of those heads (referring to his toleration of males wearing long hair). The students' reaction was overwhelmingly positive and it seemed that the assembly had been a great success. Later on, however, word came down from the County Superintendent's office that his speech at the assembly had been geared to incite a riot (ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing of the sort had occurred). They declared Alan persona non grata and banned him from setting foot on county school property. This presented a problem as one of Alan's job responsibilities was to supervise student teachers from the History Department. Pressure grew - once again from powerful interests in the community - to fire him and several other faculty members who were perceived as dangerous radicals. Eventually that is exactly what happened; Alan appealed to the Board of Regents to be reinstated, but that appeal was denied. I testified during his hearing that there had been no adverse reaction, but the Board decided to defer to the School Board and denied the appeal. Alan quickly got another teaching job at a school in California, a position which he held until his retirement in 2011.

I will never know exactly what the real circumstances leading to Alan's termination were; that is, who actually was responsible for his banishment from county school property. I do believe that Mr. Anderson was basically a good man however, so my best guess is that it came from some community leaders and the county administration. Alan was not the only leftist professor to be let go; another had lost her job for making a speech to a Rotary Club which was not well-received. I suppose that if one was going to make a left-leaning political speech in those days, a Rotary Club in Pensacola, Florida was a dangerous venue to choose.

Less than two weeks after that first Earth Day, the war was suddenly at the forefront again. On April 30, Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, sparking outrage and intensifying protests on American campuses. It was at one of those protests that four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. Four days later, eleven students were bayonetted by the New Mexico National Guard during a protest at the University of New Mexico. Fortunately, none of those students were killed, but two students at Jackson State were not so lucky on May 14, when they were shot and killed in a similar fashion as those at Kent State. The United States, under the leadership of the Nixon Administration, had declared war on its own children.

26 October 2011

Power to the People, Part One

The fires of activism are burning again. The Occupy Wall Street protests may be the beginning of a new era of political action by a long dormant American Left. It is in that context that these reflections are written. I can only hope that the movement inspired by OWS is real and lasting...

"We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit" - Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962

I was born in 1953 - just months after Dwight Eisenhower began his first term as President of the United States. My earliest awareness of politics came with the election of 1960. I was only seven years old and knew nothing of the issues of that day, but I liked John Kennedy. Compared to the grandfatherly Eisenhower, he was young and vibrant - from the same generation as my parents. I dimly recall that his election seemed to mark a new beginning - but I didn't know why. Growing up in Atlanta, I saw the separate drinking fountains and attended a segregated school (until the 6th grade) and even at that young age I had a sense that the treatment of African-Americans was brutally unfair. But I was a child and had only a child's perceptions of the world I lived in.

My memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is of my Mother telling me that we would have to watch the President speak on television one night to see if "the soldiers were going to go to war." My fear was for my Father; I was terrified that he was going to have to leave our home and fight. Fortunately was averted, although it was years before most people realized just how close we came to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.

The Kennedy Administration was, sad to say, all too short-lived. In November 1963, I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom when the school principal announced on the intercom that the President had been shot in Dallas. A few minutes later a second announcement came - the dreaded news that John F. Kennedy was dead. School was dismissed early and for the next four days I watched events unfold on my family's black and white television. I actually saw the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald live on the news as our family sat eating lunch. My Father simply said, "My God." The whole world seemed to have gone mad in this terrible and frightening time that marked the beginning of the period we now call "the sixties."

Lyndon Johnson assumed office and immediately began to press for passage of Kennedy's Civil Rights legislative agenda. By the end of 1964, the Civil Rights Act was law to be followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act and the Social Security Act of 1965 which established Medicare, a cornerstone of Johnson's ambitious Great Society program. These accomplishments should have established the Johnson Administration as one of the great presidencies in American History. But, in 1964 another bill was passed which would overshadow LBJ's social agenda and eventually destroy his presidency: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which began the escalation of America's involvement in Vietnam. Over the next few years, S.D.S. and the student movement gradually refocused its attention from Civil Rights and Nuclear Disarmament to the organized opposition to the War in Vietnam and set the stage for the explosive events of 1968.

By 1968, Vietnam dominated the American consciousness, especially on college campuses. On the last day of January, the Tet Offensive began - which led to two key media events which would begin to turn American public opinion against the war. The first was the publication of the famous, Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams depicting the summary execution of a Viet Cong officer by a Saigon police official. The second was the February report on the war by Walter Cronkite in which he declared his opposition to America's involvement in the war. One month later, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election and the race for the Democratic nomination became a three-way race between Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Robert Kennedy.

Despite the focus on the war, the Civil Rights movement was still very active. Its primary leader, Martin Luther King had begun to expand his focus to broader issues, recognizing that people could not live in freedom when they were oppressed economically. It was that economic oppression that brought him to Memphis in early April to support a strike by African American sanitation workers. That work was brutally cut short when he was assassinated on April 4. I was in the ninth grade that year and was a member of my high school's tennis team. We were to have practice the next day, but it was canceled, not out of respect for Dr. King, but because of the rumors that there was going to be "trouble."

Two months later, I was camping out with two friends when a third friend came to visit us. He gave us the news that Robert Kennedy has been shot the night before in California. We were stunned - but not as much as one might think. to our young minds, this was becoming the status quo - people who worked to make a difference politically were (it seemed) routinely gunned down in the United States. I can't say that the event had any immediate effect on my political views; it was simply too commonplace then. It retrospect, the loss of Robert Kennedy was a turning point for me and for many. Even today - 43 years later - there are many on the Left who think his assassination changed the course of history. Would we have suffered through the Nixon presidency had Kennedy gotten the Democratic nomination that year? Would we have suffered through a thirty-year conservative reign later on? No one will ever know.

What did have a profound and immediate effect on my politics that summer was the police riot that occurred outside of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The images on television were dreadful and there was absolutely no question which side I was on. I can say that my radicalization really began that week; it was then that I began to realize that the promises of American freedom of expression and the right to political dissent were not guaranteed by the political system. In fact, the political system seemed intent on suppressing those rights whenever it could. That, by the way, is still true to this day; the powerful corporate interests that control our nation are intent on using their resources to quash any action which threatens their power. More on that later.

In November of that year, my family moved to Pensacola. As I began to make new friends, I gravitated to students who, like myself, were sympathetic to the anti-war movement. Pensacola was (and is) a conservative town so there was very little in the way of organized protest in 1968. Over the next few years, that would change, however.