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.