Moving Past Hate: Lessons from the 1960s

“Wasn’t that a time.” Some of you, ancient like me, might remember a song by that title, sung by Pete Seeger back in the fifties, by the Weavers, and also by Peter, Paul, and Mary. It contains a verse quite apropos today:

The wars are long, the peace is frail
The madmen come again
There is no freedom in a land
Where fear and hate prevail.

Last week there was a time, full of madness, fear and hate. People, mostly white and male, attacked the United States Capitol, egged on by the President and other Republican politicians. They brought implements with which to smash in windows and doors. They carried plastic cuffs with which to bind the Congressional leaders they actively sought to capture and even to kill. They had with them communications equipment with which to keep in touch with those outside the Capitol who may have been directing their depredations. In short, they came, some of them, prepared to carry out a coup against the government of the United States.

I know something about such attacks. For, back in 1967, I too was part of an attack on a federal building, in that case the Pentagon. Some of us, part of a demonstration against the war being carried out by the United States government on Vietnam, left the main demo and charged through the lawns and parking lots outside the Pentagon. When we came upon a line of soldiers with rifles and bayonets, we dodged around then–until we ran into other lines of soldiers, who blocked our progress. We sat down, many of us through the night, as demonstrators often did during the Sixties. Our objective, ill-articulated and vague, was to get into that building. What we might do there, most of us had no idea about, for we had no plan.

Others, however, did have plans, as was the case at the Capitol last Wednesday. I don’t know exactly what the plan at the Pentagon was, since I was not a part of any group trying to carry it out. It might have been to set fires in the building, just as the American military was setting fires all over Vietnam. I don’t know—even though I’ve written about the event in my book, “Our Sixties.” Does my participation in that event make me sympathetic to those who attacked our Capitol last week? In no way! And it is worth thinking about why.

First of all, a significant number of last week’s crowd were, plain and simple, fascists: they wore shirts with anti-Semitic slogans, they carried Confederate flags, they promoted taking over the government by a violent mob organized for power, like the Nazi Brown Shirts of the 1920s and 1930s, and they swore fealty to a leader, a fűhrer, who egged on their viciousness. And what was their cause? The myth that Trump had actually won the presidential election and was being kept from victory by fraud. They sought to maintain this utter fiction, which had been dismissed by courts and voting officials of both parties all across America.

In 1967, we did not need fictions to generate opposition to the American war on Vietnam. Every day newspapers published the names of American soldiers killed in action as well as the awful military claims about “body counts” of dead Vietnamese. Every day brought us photographs of terror: a naked girl burnt by napalm running down the middle of a road, a captive Vietnamese soldier shot in the head by a South Vietnamese officer in front of TV cameras, water buffalo shot from American copters, houses torched by American marines, and women and children butchered at places like My Lai. Nothing was made up; it was plain to see. Indeed, the military boasted of the effects of its firepower.

Many of us there at the Pentagon had learned to confront the reality of racist cruelty in places like Mississippi. For my own part, I traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, to teach and to show films in the large network of Freedom Schools the Civil Rights movement had established across the state. That opportunity was an eye-opener. While I was “the teacher,” I was actually “a student,” learning from the kids in my classroom about what it meant to be Black in America. As we all know, you can’t have a conversation with a black person today, especially with a man, without hearing about “driving while black.” In 1964, however, that wasn’t an urgent issue for Freedom School kids: they didn’t have cars; they also didn’t have access to decent schools, libraries, or pools, much less to the voting booth or to good jobs. That’s why so many guys wanted to join the military.

It is instructive to be reminded of the conditions for black Americans in Mississippi back then, especially when Mr. Trump has basically called for throwing out the votes of black citizens. For instance, in 1963, in nine Mississippi counties there were no black people registered to vote (eligible African-American citizens in these counties ranged from 1071 to 5172); in sixteen counties, the number of black people registered was under 10. In Amite County, one black person was registered. One. Black victims of crimes were forgotten. A cotton gin in Amite County was the site of the murder, before a dozen witnesses, of Herbert Lee. Lee, who had been supporting efforts to register black voters, was shot by E.H. Hurst, his neighbor and a member of the Mississippi legislature. Hurst was never prosecuted. Schools, libraries, pools, water fountains, and restaurants were strictly segregated—when they were even available to black people.

In fact, the schools, separate and altogether unequal in facilities, textbooks and class size, taught segregation. A reader for third and fourth graders prepared by the powerful White Citizens’ Council states, “The Negro has his own part of town to live in. This is called our Southern Way of Life. Do you know that some people want the Negroes to live with white people? These people want us to be unhappy. They say we must go to school together. They say we must swim together and use the bathroom together. God has made us different. And God knows best. Did you know that our country will grow weak if we mix the races? White men worked hard to build our country. We want to keep it strong and free.” That’s what the White Citizens’ Council wanted Mississippi schools to teach. The Civil Rights movement had a different idea in setting up freedom schools.

Oppressed and demeaned though they were, my students had a distinctive, elaborately developed culture–of music and dance, political insight, poetry, and personal aspiration. I needed to learn from them in order to teach them, and that’s what I tried to do. I remember in Indianola, one blazing afternoon, talking about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, just 19 years before. “Why we drop the bomb on them Japs,” a young man interrupted, “and not them Germans?” He quickly provided his own answer: “Hey, ain’t it obvious?” leaving unsaid but clear to all of us, that what was “obvious” to him was who was considered “white.”  The Freedom schools, yes, helped educate the students who attended, but also those of us who, in theory, were their teachers.

One major continuing lesson was displayed clearly a week ago Wednesday. As had been the case in Mississippi, 1964, two very different directions opened before Americans. On the one side 57 years ago was the White Citizens’ Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, the complicity of the local police in the murder of black and white summer volunteers like James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Miss. On the other side, was the Movement, with its Freedom schools and the perilous efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to register black people to vote. The distinction was stark and powerful. So last Wednesday, as I have said: one direction was American fascism, white supremacy, the violence and hate we have increasingly seen as the videos and photographs of the Capitol assault surface. The other direction had been displayed just a few hours before, with the elections of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate. I was up at 4:00 a.m., Wednesday morning, by which time it had become clear that both Democratic candidates were going to win their races. I thought that as modest supporters, we might have a modest celebration that evening. But then came the assault on the Capitol and everything it implied about the dangers facing American democracy but also everything it exhibited about the violence white supremacy had been inflicting on black and Native Americans since the 15th century. We didn’t have our small celebration. Instead, I thought about the impact of Mississippi Summer, 1964, on my life as an activist.

My Freedom School “education” led me in many directions in the Movements of the 1960s: protesting for civil rights from Baltimore to Montgomery, Alabama, anti-war and anti-draft organizing, co-founding The Feminist Press, as well as creating classrooms dedicated to serious social change. These are among the many activities I chronicle in my new book, Our Sixties (University of Rochester Press). I was like a Jerusalem artichoke planted in your garden: once put there, you never know where it will pop up the next year.

There were good reasons for this ubiquity. The received wisdom of the time was that civil rights, the war on Southeast Asia, much less the subjugation of women, the huge build-up of American military power, and the murderous spread of military-type weapons throughout America were all “separate” issues, having little or nothing to do with one another. Well, that has turned out to be nonsense. They are all, in the terminology we adopted in 1967, manifestations of “illegitimate authority.” Sorry, that’s not a very ringing phrase, like “one man, one vote” or “me, too,” or “never again.” But that’s what we named it when we issued the “Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” on October 2, 1967. The Call committed us to breaking the law to urge young men to reject the draft and to deny orders to fight in Vietnam. We hoped that the spectacle of Dr. Benjamin Spock, America’s favorite baby doctor, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Yale, and hundreds of professors like me, writers and intellectuals all agreeing to commit civil disobedience and foster draft resistance would turn the American government away from its war policy. It did not, alas. Neither under Johnson and McNamara, nor, for sure, under Nixon and Kissinger. They ploughed ever deeper into the Big Muddy, killing ever more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, not to speak of Americans—first abroad and then, as at Kent State and Jackson State at home.

We had in part been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially in his speech of April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In beginning his speech King insisted that “my conscience leaves me no other choice.” He offered a number of striking reasons why that was so, but perhaps the most revolutionary was this:

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. [And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.]

King might have cited the sentence that had begun circulating among young black people as early as 1965: “No Vietnamese never called me nigger.”

In his speech, King went on to sketch the history of betrayal that marked French and American policy in southeast Asia. But then he pushed beyond the particularities of the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, into the underlying notions, like “American exceptionalism,” that shaped U.S. foreign military policy. And he called for a fundamental “revolution in values” necessary to bring about positive change:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

For some of us, a “revolutionary spirit” hostile to “poverty, racism, and militarism” was central to our condemnation of the war and its perpetrators. It sustained over many years the kind of work that led to electoral victories not only in the presidential race but in the elections of Warnock and Ossoff. And that “revolutionary spirit” stands in sharp contrast to the destructive, hate-filled outbreak that we all saw on Wednesday last.

King was widely condemned for getting out of his supposedly proper lane, civil rights. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote editorials saying that he had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” And the NAACP as well as Ralph Bunche strongly criticized him for linking two supposedly “disparate issues.” But King sustained, and indeed broadened, his condemnation of the war and his call to challenge the status quo.

Just as it was for me personally, the civil rights movement of the late fifties and early sixties became the seedbed of the other movements for change that we think of when we evoke the term “the Sixties.” Even if our phrase, “illegitimate authority,” has faded from the script, the ideas behind it remain convincing. What are those ideas?

First, all change in the United States begins by confronting racism. Racism is not just the “original sin” of American history; it has been and remains still the main wall blocking progressive change in our society. No surprise that so many Confederate battle flags were carried by those attacking the Capitol last week. Racism is a social pandemic, for which there seems no well-developed vaccine—yet. The underlying story of the Sixties, as I tell it, is the ongoing struggle against the institutions of racial injustice. That effort, first of all, shaped the personal experience of the young leaders of the Sixties movements, a kind of training ground for the young—and now not so young people—who helped to bring about positive changes in America. In providing a model for activists, the fight against racism also stimulated change in all other political and social domains; it provided what I have called a seedbed for the flourishing of the movement.

I have argued that I first encountered Black Lives Matter in Mississippi in 1964. “But,” you might ask, “it wasn’t founded until 2013.” Yes, as an organization. But Black Lives Matter is, in fact, the most recent and remarkably widespread manifestation of this centuries-old struggle against racism—especially in financial institutions, law enforcement and schools in America. A major goal of my teaching in the Sixties and especially after—as I illustrate in my book—was always to find texts and pedagogies that helped students think about what matters and who matters. Did it matter that students, as in a basic English course at Smith College that I had been assigned to teach, read only work by white men? Yes, it mattered whether students read Gwendolyn Brooks as well as T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin as well as James Joyce. Who we encounter in literature and on the tube as well as in daily life significantly affects who and what is important to see and care for, as we are learning all too well in trying to respond to this pandemic.

But in my view to make Black Lives really matter forces us to consider, and act upon, other basic issues. Racial inequality cannot be addressed, much less changed, by dealing only with race. Yes, we need to tackle the organization and funding of police—but also our overfed military. We need to figure out how to change an economic system under which billionaires pay $750 in taxes to Uncle Sam and sail off in their multi-million-dollar yachts while leaving hard-working and often minority people vulnerable to poverty, the Coronavirus, and our crazy-quilt health care system. And that does not begin to speak of the need to deal with global warming, which, if we do not produce change, will leave the earth with only faint traces of human life. To solve the social and economic questions raised by Black Lives Matter, will, in my view, require focusing on changing the unquestioned domination of the market, what might be called “market fundamentalism,” an ideology as dangerous to achieving human equality as other forms of fundamentalism.

Which returns me to that other event of last Wednesday: the victory of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Georgia Senate election. It is, from my point of view, a good thing that the Democrats will control the U.S. Senate. A good thing but not in and of itself an adequate conclusion of the efforts to achieve change. One thing we learned in the Sixties: Some allies, under the veneer of moderation, turned out to be adversaries. Many of us who saw ourselves as “liberals” discovered with horror that those with whom we shared many social and cultural values were the very people directing the illegal and repulsive war in Southeast Asia. Those liberals, often our teachers or even college classmates, would strongly oppose segregationists like George Wallace or “Bull” Connor. But they would also napalm farm girls in Vietnam. Change in one area of American politics–voting rights, say–did not guarantee anything like a compassionate foreign policy, protection of the environment, or support for the equality of women.

I have nothing but admiration for Stacey Abrams and the other black women who led the campaign to register and motivate a winning coalition of voters in Georgia and elsewhere. But that victory is only a beginning. To achieve the goals of a “Green New Deal,” of “#Me, too,” of the “Coalition to Stop Gun Violence,” and, most of all, of “Black Lives Matter” will require a patient and on-going struggle. A struggle not only against those who would impose a fascist regime on America, but a struggle with our friends and allies to carry yet further the commitment to building a nation, as Lincoln didn’t quite put it, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.” That goal, as I argued in Our Sixties, might best be named as “socialism.” But that is a further discussion, which I shall not try to pursue at this very moment.