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The Sixties Turn Fifty


We’re well into the Golden Anniversary of the sixties and I’ve scheduled in the Free Speech Movement’s Reunion in September in Berkeley.  I expect to be in Paris with other “soixantehuitards” in 2018 if my body and wits still pulse. These and other celebrations in between are great opportunities to see old friends, relight old fires, and bring on the next generation with love and revolution.

Writing about the Puritan Revolution–which brought us juries, the right to remain silent, the overthrow of patriarchal legitimacy and the establishment of legitimacy from consent, a decade of creative debate and activism, and the Diggers–Thomas Hobbes observed that if we thought of time like space, there are moments in history like mountain tops–from which we can see far into the past and into the future.  The Sixties were such a mountain of time.

In the foothills of the Fifties the Spanish Civil War, the New Deal, the Wobblies, unionization of workers through strikes and sit-ins, Eugene Debs or Farrell Dobbs were as remote as the Pharaohs and certainly not relevant to becoming an Organization Man and developing a winning personality.  As for looking forward to the future, could anyone envision the FSM, the SDS, Freedom Riders, Black Power, Gay Pride, Gender Equality,  Prague Spring, Tiananmen Square, the Seattle uprising against the WTO, Occupy Wall Street… Impossible!   But from the heights of the Sixties actions of the past seemed like Now and the Future was Ours.

The Sixties was a Big Mountain and there were many peaks.  One such was the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964.  It would wildly strain the metaphor to ask “which was the highest peak”.  The mountain was built with actions in Paris, London, Berkeley, Mississippi, Prague, Chicago, Madison, Kent State, Such mountain tops are not reached with thought.  Only through action. Move your ass and your brains will follow.  Build the mountain and many will see clearly.

For those of us lucky to have been there the FSM was a long year of enchantment, passion, argument, and high speed learning–of Real Education.  It pervaded every department, every classroom, every encounter, every day.  I was teaching political science that year and what an easy job it was.  Every class was packed, eager anticipation, students bursting with things to say and projects to promote. Books came alive and were carried like flags and eyes were flashing with excitement.

Consider—at the end of the Fifties every male at Berkeley wore a uniform  and marched in drill with rifles once a week; two years of required military training with haircut and polished shoes,  the entrance to campus (Sather Gate) was controlled by a large contingent of fraternity “boys” dressed identically in khaki pants (buckle in back), oxford cloth button-down-shirts (as Shelley Berman put it “button down minds”) penny loafers, and 99% as white as Ivory Soap. They insulted every one different,–every female, every non-white, everyone carrying too many books.

So how did we get from there to FSM?  And in just four years. By a hundred varieties of activism– Socialists, fair housing advocates, ending racist hiring practices, ending colonialism in Africa, Ban the Bomb, Pacifists, Ron Paul libertarians, Ayn Rand followers with wild eyes, union activists, farm worker support groups,  civil rights and civil liberties groups,–all with information tables replacing empty headed frat rats and Recruiting people to Do things.

This will not be a Reunion where we brag about our cars and summer homes and  drink the best champagne.  This will be a chance for education, argument, plans for the future, and above all— Let’s Do It Again. Be there !

The celebration/incitation begins September 26, across many campuses, with the Welcome Party and  the “big” moment will be the noon rally on Sproul Plaza on Wednesday, October 1, featuring speakers as diverse as Robert Reich and Dolores Huerta.  In between there is a meeting to discuss fighting the attacks on voting rights, dinners, panel discussions on many topics, music, plays, film, historical exhibits,poetry, poster art displays and much more. A lot of the “much more” is your passion and your dreams—do bring them.

Joe Paff (and his wife Karen) roast their Goldrush Coffee in Petrolia. Joe formerly taught political science at UC Berkley and Stanford. He can be reached at



Joe Paff is the chairman of the board for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity. He lives in Petrolia.

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