What I’m Reading – “The Sixties” by Todd Gitlin

The full title is “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage”

This is not to be confused with CNN’s series “The Sixties”, historian Todd Gitlin wrote a combination history book/memoir about America’s, and his own experience of struggle and rage as a front line witness to the beginning of the counter culture, the anti-war and racial equality movements.

A few takeaways that have struck me as essential to the story of that period are the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) dictum that it was all about love. Nothing could be achieved without it. The entire reason for activism and struggle was love. Love of country, love of freedom and knowledge, love of the person working next to you and the persons your work would bring a better life to. Love of the people of Cuba and North Viet Nam as well as Birmingham and Berkeley.

It takes a moment to step back but yeah, it’s all about love. Everything we do even in the mundane work world is about love. I would not be working in the jobs I’ve taken, and commuted to and from, if not for my love of my family. Whenever I have gotten the consciousness to march or give or work for a cause it’s about love for that cause. Love can heal wounds and make ancient enmities melt away. Anger only goes so far. Love has to be the prime motivator.

A saying of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was “freedom is an endless meeting.” Democracy is hard, a constant struggle of education and activism. Think about how few of us do the basics of reading newspapers, voting and jury duty. Other than paying taxes, that’s really all democracy demands of us, but it’s too much for most of us. This is why strong man dictators hold such fascination, they’re easy. The gray despair of a totalitarian regime that asks for nothing but loyalty and compliance is easier for many people, and attractive. The struggle for a government that reflected an evolving society and a society that reflected the promised ideals of justice and equality were seemingly out of reach. There was hope in activism and consciousness raising. But the forces of the status quo were militaristic and hellbent on maintaining the order of the past.

Also, it’s very hard to internalize just how much more chaotic and full of peril the world of the Sixties was perceived to be. Everyone lived with the threat of global nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads. Everybody held their breath for 10 days during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The young also had the war in Viet Nam reverberating constantly around them. The draft and draft registration and what you would do if… was always there.

The threat of violence was all around the activists, in the South always, and especially after 1966, in the cities of the North. We all know about the riots around the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and Kent State, but those were the tip of the iceberg of anger, rage and confrontation between culture and counter-culture.  As bad as the abortion wars and our other confrontations are today, they do not compare to the vitriol, hatred and violence of the Sixties.  People died in the struggle for justice in Detroit, Newark, Oakland, Watts, Chicago, Berkeley, everywhere.

Imagine a world where just wearing your hair long could incite an attack from hardhats.  What you wore, what music you listened to, everything was a statement, was a flashpoint, in a society that was splitting along lines of confrontation, everywhere.

How the government under Johnson, Hoover and Nixon treated everyone who spoke out as an enemy of the state – traitors worthy of the full power of the military/police state.  Police waded into non-violent protests swinging clubs, everyday. There were Ferguson style-riots,  daily. Chicago made Ferguson look like a child’s birthday party.*

We also don’t have to deal politically with the stigma of communism. Of course, that word and “socialism” get bandied about as insults. But it’s not the same as earlier decades when the New Left groups of student activists had to come to terms with Old Left groups of activists who had been around since the New Deal, who really had been, some of them, members of the Communist Party, who really had grown up with affinities for the Soviet Union and had lived through the dark days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).  Many of the New Left were “Red Diaper” babies, kids who grew up with parents who were old style communists of communist sympathizers. The constant debate of communism versus anti-communism wracked the New Left and liberals throughout the ’60’s.  This intellectual/ideological struggle was real, especially as applied to the anti-war struggle and finding the viable balance between being anti-war and being pro-America.  Are you communist, anti-communist or anti-anti-communist? You had to pick a side and argue your case. Debate, debate, debate. The activists of the Sixties argued with each other, about ideology and tactics, as much or more than they actually argued with the opposition.

Our inner debates are nowhere near as complex today. Today the greatest obstacle to justice seems to be apathy itself. We have struggles, of course, including the existential struggle against global climate change. And we’re still fighting many of the same fights whose first shots were fired in the Sixties. But it seems to me that we have come a very long way from the world of constant conflict that was America in the Sixties. And for the most part, the forces of light, freedom and equality have won and are continuing to win a battle of ideology, and attrition.


*Chicago’s current police brutality problems show that nothing has changed from the brutal days of Richard Daley, who ordered Chicago police to “shoot to kill” unarmed, non-violent protesters. Former Chicago police testified that they had an arrest quota even for non-violent protests.  The police made every attempt at free speech a battle zone.


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