Tag Archives: civil rights movement

How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

VietnamWarGIsInWater

The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

Vietnam-JoinTheArmy

I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.

Advertisements

Blind Power, by Lynne Koral, Part 1 of 2

12 Jun

Lynne Koral

Lynne Koral is the owner of Koraling Genius Consultants, http://www.koralinggenius.blogspot.com, and has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for almost 22 years. She has a Masters in Social Work and in Public Administration and Policy Analysis. Disability issues have occupied her all her life. She is blind.

Part 1

I was a premature twin; my brother was brain-damaged and I became blind after a few months. Doctors aren’t sure why this happens; perhaps it’s because of receiving too much oxygen as a preemie or the use of the wrong kind of lighting. From my birth in 1952 until the early 70s I lived in Queens, New York. My parents were progressives. They met at a folkdance group and both went to Camp Wochica1 in New York. The International Workers Order (IWO)2 sponsored it. My grandpa was secretary of the Jamaica Branch.

 I was bussed to an all-white elementary school (PS179) but there was one African American, who was also blind. It was very difficult for her because she was scapegoated, but it was the only school in the borough that had a braille class. Her brother was gay and committed suicide. The choir sang a Negro Spiritual and her mom wouldn’t let her attend the performance. That was in 1962, before the Civil Rights Movement really took off.

Boycotts of de facto segregated institutions were common. I remember that some of us boycotted junior high school to protest discrimination.3

Grover Cleveland High School in Queens was integrated; there were Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and whites. There was also a lot of unrest. Black students had meetings and teach-ins. Some white teachers were part of SNCC4. I was in Honors English in 1968. My teacher, Mrs. Bruno, was involved in the civil rights struggle. My parents and aunts and I went to anti-war demonstrations.

I was often scared in high school because of the anger of some of the African Americans. People were always talking about the issues of the time. I was riveted to WBAI [listener-sponsored Pacifica Radio], listening to accounts of Selma; Montgomery; Martin Luther King; Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.5

Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney

Julius Lester6  had a show on WBAI and I listened to his folk music. I loved folk music since childhood. My parents took me to concerts: I met Pete Seeger and Freddie Hellerman at one of them. Around 1972 during the time of the Democratic National Convention (George McGovern won the Democratic nomination and later ran against Nixon),  I went to  concerts with friends and heard Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs (at a Washington, D.C. anti-war demo), Harry Chapin in Central Park, and Arlo Guthrie, among others. I attended the Sloop Clearwater Revival7 to protest the pollution of the Hudson River.

Phil Ochs Washington DC

Washington, D.C. demo with Phil Ochs

Tom Paxton

Tom Paxton

Pete Seeger

My friend Caryn was introduced to me by our Braille teacher because she had only recently become totally blind. The school thought it would be useful for her to meet me. She wrote a satirical song about George Wallace,  and I put music to a couple of her poems, which included one about me. We are still good friends.

My older friend Pat was the one who turned me on to good books and early demonstrations, to Julius Lester and WBAI. We used to eat chicken and drink sodas in her bedroom.

In 1968 when I was about sixteen I was sent for nine weeks to a progressive “work camp” called Twin Link Camp8. The older kids—from 14 to 17—had the job of maintaining the camp. I was Jewish but there were all kinds of religious views there including atheists. We learned about conflict, struggle, class, and race, and had constant meetings. We were assigned roles; some would be working class for a day, others middle class, then switch roles. Morris Eisenstein from Brooklyn was the camp leader. He was autocratic, dictatorial, authoritarian. (I didn’t like him.) However, he was an effective leader. My parents didn’t like his attitude towards my twin brother Steven, who suffered from mental disorders. I learned the lesson that just because you are left-wing doesn’t mean you are nice.

At the camp we put on a play by Clifford Odets called “Waiting for Lefty” and also a Brecht play. We wrote songs. We learned about Sacco and Vanzetti9, whom I’d never heard of before. It was also the first time I met Native Americans: an Apache named Gil Gutierrez and a Choctaw or Chickasaw woman named Suzanne Heard. When I got back home, I was spouting camp rhetoric.

[To be continued]

Notes

1.  Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers Children’s Camp). This interracial, co-educational summer vacation camp was situated in Port Murray, New Jersey. Founded in 1934, it closed in the early 1950s, partially as a result of McCarthyism. It was one of many Communist camps (twenty-seven were run at one time in New York state alone). In 1943 black children made up 20% of the residents. Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie visited or worked at the camp during its existence. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

2.  The International Workers Order was a Communist Party-affiliated insurance, mutual benefit and fraternal organization founded in 1930 and disbanded in 1954. At its height in the years immediately following World War II, the IWO had almost 200,000 members and provided low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, and supported foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities. The organization also operated a summer camp and cemeteries for its members. The IWO also ran a Jewish summer camp, Camp Kinderland and the racially integrated camp Wo-Chi-Ca. While the leadership of IWO sections were members of the Communist Party, most of the IWO’s rank-and-file members were not party members. The U.S. Attorney General placed the IWO on its list of subversive organizations in 1947. (Source: Wikipedia)

3.  Boycott of junior high school to protest discrimination….those active in the New York City’s school integration battle of the 1950s and 1960 also exposed the limits of the city’s racial liberal image. The school integration movement exposed how those who ran the school system, those who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and many of the members of the city’s liberal community opposed attempts at city-wide integration. New York’s failure to respond to the problems of its minority populations revealed the limits of its liberal reputation. (Source: Clarence Taylor, Professor of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, http://www.nyc.gov/html/cchr/justice/downloads/pdf/civil_rights_movement_in_nyc.pdf)

4.   The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) was one of the organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It had projects in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Maryland, and played a major role in the sit-ins and freedom rides, a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the next few years. It organized voter registration drives all over the South.. In the later 1960s, led by fiery leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, SNCC focused on black power, and then protested against the Vietnam War. It passed out of existence in the 1970s. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

5.   Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered in Mississippi on June 21, 1964.  During the summer of 1964, they volunteered for Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive for African-Americans. On June 21, 1964, a County Deputy stopped the trio on traffic charges. They were jailed briefly and then released. But as they drove away, as many as 22 members of the Ku Klux Klan stopped the car, gunned down all three and buried their bodies, which were discovered 44 days later after an informant tipped off the FBI. (Source: Carl Ballard, PBS NEWSHOUR)

6.  Julius Lester is an American author of books for children and adults, and taught for 32 years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also a photographer, as well as a musician who recorded two albums of folk music and original songs. (Source: http://members.authorsguild.net/juliuslester/)

7.  The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. is an organization based in Beacon, New York that seeks to protect the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands and waterways. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

8.  Twin Link Camp.Twin Link Camp (later Camp Hurley) was a summer camp in the Catskills purchased In 1958 by the community center of a New York City public housing project. It closed in 1987. The center that purchased it was  loosely modeled on the settlement house concept; it networked with many of the large social movements of the era, exposing young people to numerous civil rights and peace marches. Its political motto was “Think globally, act locally.” [Source: Issues in Teaching and Learning, Volume IV, online]

9.  Sacco and Vanzetti were suspected anarchists who were convicted of murdering two men during a 1920 armed robbery of a shoe factory in Massachusetts. After a controversial trial and a series of appeals, the two Italian immigrants were executed on August 23, 1927. Since their deaths, critical opinion has overwhelmingly felt that the two men were convicted largely on their anarchist political beliefs and unjustly executed. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

 

Leather Mini-skirts, Shop-ins, and Prince No Good Schnook, By A.W.

4 Jun

A.W.  has a long history of activism in Los Angeles, including in civil rights, feminist, anti-war, and environmental  issues. She is currently especially interested in unionism and in the worker-cooperative movement, has been to Mondragon, Spain, and will soon visit cooperatives near Bologna, Italy.

 

Although politics were rarely discussed openly in my home, I later suspected that my parents had been left-wing activists in their youth during the ‘30s, because I absorbed anti-racist, anti-capitalist values, and a desire to work for social justice. Later I realized that they were so silent because of McCarthyism. In 1963 I graduated from UCLA. I was moved by the Civil Rights Movement, which was just getting started, but UCLA was quiet and I felt isolated there. I hung out with liberals but couldn’t find any activists. After college I taught second grade for a while. I hung out with “artsy” types. When the March on Washington took place in August of that year, I was eager to go to Washington D.C. but knew no one who was going. I couldn’t find anyone who was involved in civil rights support work although I was dying to participate. (It’s ironic how we on the left always say that we need to involve new people but I couldn’t find anyone to mentor me.)

I’d read about the sit-ins. In LA, there were “shop-ins”—coordinated by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—which were protests against grocery chains for not hiring black workers. People would pile their carts full and leave them at the checkout counter, yelling Hire blacks! as they walked out. As a teacher at that time you could be fired if arrested, even for civil disobedience. I agonized and decided to risk it. I had read about SNCC in the newspaper and decided I would volunteer, too.

SNCC

I walked into the SNCC office, my heart pounding, and said I wanted to help out. At the time I lived near the Sunset Strip; my mode of attire was a leather mini-skirt, boots, long straight hair, a purse that hung over my shoulder, and makeup. The man behind the SNCC desk stared at me. After a moment he said, “Well, nothing is happening right now but we’ll get in touch with you.” I felt embarrassed and awkward, as if I was walking into a world of which I knew nothing.

miniskirt-Jane-Fonda-lgn

Jane Fonda and mini-skirt in the 60s

For two or three years I continued teaching. In those days I was able to save half my salary. Then I quit teaching, which of course upset my parents, and decided to travel to Europe with a girlfriend.

In Europe we hitchhiked all over. I loved Tangier, Morocco. Then I  traveled around the world with a guy I later married. It cost $3000 for 13 months; hotels were only 50 cents a night. We hitchhiked except in Turkey and Afghanistan, where we told it was too dangerous. There we took buses instead, which were very cheap. I remember we were on a bus in Afghanistan; there were women who were fully draped from head to toe in their hijabs and burkas;  it was a long, hot drive. The bus stopped in the middle of the desert, the men all got off to pee, and in that moment all the women took off their burkas and fanned themselves.

Through Time Magazine I kept track of what was happening back home. I remember reading about the trial of the Chicago 7. There was a drawing of Bobby Seale, shackled and gagged, in the courtroom. I was shocked. What kind of country would do this? When we met European kids,  I felt that I had to apologize for my country. We often claimed to be Canadians.

In Copenhagen there was a big square with a TV. People filled the square to watch the first moon landing. Later on the train in India some men were having an agitated discussion, and someone translated for us that they were debating whether it was really possible for men to go to the moon. According to their religion, it would be impossible.

Between trips, back home in Los Angeles, I experienced the “flower power” culture. I lived in West Hollywood near Sunset Strip. There were “be-ins” at Griffith Park. I held myself aloof from the flower power culture; I considered it frivolous. My boyfriend had given  me a book by William Hinton called Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, and another one by John Reed called Ten Days that Shook the World, about the Russian Revolution. Both of these enhanced my political education. My boyfriend also knew Communist Party (CP) people in England. In London we stayed with squatters (who had managed to hook up free electricity).

We spent New Year’s Eve 1969 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We visited the Angkor Wat ruins. Everywhere were motor scooters vying for riders, but we learned that the guides had cooperated with each other and set common prices, then pooled their money—unlike in other countries where it was every man for himself. Many people supported the Khmer Rouge and hated Prince Sihanouk; they called him Prince No Good Schnook. (Of course, this was before the Khmer Rouge took power and committed so many atrocities.

Prince Sihanouk

When we met CP people in France we were underwhelmed. They seemed indistinguishable from the Democratic Party. One woman was wearing a power suit. The party had a glossy magazine with ads for French auto manufacturers. When asked about that, they said that corporations had no influence over them and that if they wanted to contribute to the party, then why not accept their money. I came away with little respect for the CP in France.

At one point my boyfriend and I went off in different directions for a while. I was in Indonesia on my way to meet him in Tokyo when I realized I could get a free stopover in Saigon. On the plane I met some Americans who lived there but had been back to the States to see their families. It turned out they were Friends (Quakers), who were there to oppose the war. Almost every week they held demonstrations at the American embassy. Now they were worried that they wouldn’t be let back into Vietnam. Informing me that the only places to stay were brothels, they invited me to stay with them.

At the Saigon airport when customs officials saw Eastern European stamps in my passport, they balked. They had a huge book with names of everyone who wasn’t allowed into the country. My name wasn’t there, but they were still suspicious. After questioning me, they told me they must call the assistant American ambassador. After a while I saw a guy walking towards me. He asked me still more questions but finally let me enter the country. I was still wearing my mini-skirt outfits.

I stayed with the Friends. We could hear bombs near the Quakers’ house but they weren’t concerned: “If the bombs are more than two blocks away, we don’t pay attention to them,” they said.

Through them I met South Vietnamese men—leftists and communists—who were resisting fighting for the South. Their goal was to hook up with the rebel National Liberation Front. The Quaker people would smuggle them in the backseat of their car. One time the Vietnamese men crouched on the backseat floor while I sat up straight on the seat, hoping we wouldn’t get stopped by the police or military. Later I wondered if one of the reasons they took me in was that they thought I would be a good cover for their smuggling trips.

Freedom Rider: My Heroic Older Brother Bob, by Michael Kaufman

30 May

Michael Kaufman is a grandfather doing child care for two twin eight year old boys and a computer programmer for the last 40 years. He’s also a part time activist on numerous issues including, health care for all, defending the 99% from the ravages of the 0.01% (400 families who control over half the wealth and almost all of the power), and fighting against the fossil fuel energy companies who are destroying our ecological niche on this earth.

 

When I was very young, 17 or 18, I aspired to follow my older brother (six years my senior) into politics. I was a member of a youth contingent of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) and wanted to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

CORE emblem

At the time, police brutality in a Los Angeles suburb called Torrance was a hot issue. I very badly wanted to be arrested (for reasons indicated below) so I went down to the picket line in front of the Torrance police building. Those were the days before the hippy rebellion, so we were on our best behavior; I dressed up in a suit and tie. I must have looked ridiculous, a callow youth dressed up despite the southern California hot weather. Anyway, as it turned out, I was not arrested that day, much to my regret.

Why did I want to be arrested? Because of my brother and mother. You see, the call had gone out for Freedom Riders from Los Angeles to go South. I wanted to go along with my brother Bob Kaufman and his fellow Riders very badly. But I was only seventeen, while the group was made up of people in their twenties and thirties.

I was all ready to stow away on the train, but my mother and my brother forbade me to go. So, resigned, my mom and I saw my brother and the other fifteen Riders off from Union Station in Los Angeles. We were very worried for them. Finally, two days later, we got a call from the Houston NAACP lawyer telling us that the Riders had been arrested while trying to integrate a restaurant in the Houston Train Station.

CORE2

Naturally the men and women were separated in jail, and the black and white Riders were also separated. Bob and the three other white men from the group had been thrown into a tank with racist prisoners, who were egged on by racist jailers. Bob was repeatedly attacked throughout the afternoon and evening and late into the night. It took until 2 am before the NAACP could bail him out and take him to a hospital in the black community, where his severe scalp wound, heavy bleeding and concussion were treated.

He finally got back to L.A. three weeks later, and after several months was fully recovered. Ever since, I’ve been trying to emulate my heroic older brother Bob.

I went on to play a role in the L.A. chapter of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], a support group that mostly raised money. I helped organize a SNCC singers concert tour, where the precursor to “Sweet Honey in the Rock” performed at the Ash Grove, a world-famous folk venue in Los Angeles.

But that kind of support work never satisfied my longing to be on the “front lines” like my brother, even though he almost lost his life.

“What Were the Sixties Like?” by W. Roger Scott, Part 2

2 May

To the World War II generation, protesting the Vietnam War was equivalent to blasphemy.  They had fought the “Good War!”  They had saved the world!  (And I do believe that.)  World War II waflowerpower_69_iwo_jimas black and white.  Few wars are like that but many of that generation believed that about Vietnam.  Thus, to them, protesting the Vietnam War was like supporting Joseph Stalin.  There was also a sometimes unspoken belief that the United States had won World War II all by itself.  (One wonders how things would have turned out if Hitler hadn’t been arrogant, dumb or both enough to invade Russia.)  If we could defeat Hitler, why can’t we defeat these Orientals in pajamas?  It must be because these protesters give them hope that we will give up.  (Of course, Vietnam was a guerrilla war, very different from World War II, as we were to learn, or should have learned, in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  Finally, the World War II generation was also the Depression generation.  They could not understand why those whom they thought had everything grew long hair and beards and protested against the country that they believed gave it to them.

Although my friend’s father went to Yale after the War, he was no WASP.  He was of Lithuanian descent, a member of a family active in Democratic politics and lived in a little apartment over a small auto dealership his wife’s father had established.  “Yale is 90% bums!” he said.  “The SDS is worse than communists!”

Northeastern Pennsylvania was not a hotbed of anti-war protest.  I wrote a letter to the school newspaper complaining about the abuse given to a small group of anti-war protesters on Public Square.  The school used a small community newspaper company to print the school newspaper.  The community newspaper inserted “(sic)” throughout the letter, although there were no typos.  “I liked your letter, but why did you put all those “(sics”)s in it?” one of my classmates asked.

My friend and I went to hear Hubert Humphrey at the airport during the 1968 presidential campaign.  As he spoke, a small group of protesters chanted against the war.  An old World War I veteran wearing a VFW cap screamed over and over at them, “You fuckin’ sons of bitches!  You fuckin’ sons of bitches!”  His entire body was shaking with rage.

I went to Kenyon College in rural Ohio.  There were only two Vietnam veterans in my class.  Such was the class divide during that war that Vietnam veterans rarely attended exclusive liberal arts colleges.  Most men who attended such institutions had deferments.  One of the veterans had been a medic; he seemed to have survived the experience okay.  The other had not; he looked like he had been through hell over there and he probably had. I can still picture him a solitary figure with a hard, angry look on his face.  To be honest he was frightening; I am sure he was terrified inside.  As I look back, I wish I could have said something to him, but at eighteen and in that era, I didn’t know how to deal with it.  It was not that he had served in a war of which I disapproved; he did not start that war.  It was more that there was a denial from both the government and the media of what war, any war, does to those who fight.  (I think the government thought that denying the cost of Vietnam would make the war more palatable.)  One of my favorite television programs of that era was Gomer Pyle USMC.  Here was a program about a marine during the height of the Vietnam war and I do not recall Vietnam ever being mentioned.  Today, whatever one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least we have an idea what war really does.

There were few protests at Kenyon, perhaps because there was no one to see them.  However, the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, and the subsequent killing of four students at Kent State, caused outrage at Kenyon, just as it did on college campuses across the country.  Kenyon is about one hundred miles from Kent State.  Whatever one’s opinion about the protesters against the invasion of Cambodia burning an old ROTC building at Kent State, the protesters were not going to destroy the country.  To hear Ohio governor James Rhodes talk at the time, one would think they were.  At the time I blamed him for creating an atmosphere in which poorly-led National Guardsmen fired wildly at students, many who were just going to class, killing four.  I still do.

Governor Rhodes was following a trail blazed by Richard Nixon: Pour gasoline on the flames to fire up your base against a real or imagined enemy.  My Uncle Chuck was an executive with the Mobil Oil Company.  He lived for many years outside of Chicago, but he traveled all over the country on business.  I am sure he was a Republican. He was in California during Richard Nixon’s campaign for governor in 1962.  He emphatically related to us how “disgusting” Nixon’s campaign had been.  When Nixon was running for president, a little girl held up a sign that said: “Bring us together.”  Nixon spotted the sign and vowed that was what he was going to do.  Instead he did the opposite and so have politicians who have followed in his footsteps for the last fifty years.  Maybe the Millennials will do better.

In the 1960s I felt that I was living on the edge of the Apocalypse.  We were on “The Eve of Destruction” or standing at the Gates of Paradise.  Instead, as the Sixties slouched into the hangover of the 1970s, I often thought of the words of the man who has probably done more than anyone else to destroy contemporary interest in poetry, T.S. Eliot.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

   Not with a bang but a whimper.

“What Were the Sixties Like?” by W. Roger Scott, Part I

28 Apr

W. Roger Scott was born and raised in the Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania and is today an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of a memoir about his Polish-American mother’s family, a history of his primarily Pennsylvania Dutch father’s family (which keeps on expanding), and other short historical monographs. He is most at peace milling through dusty archives.

 

Not long ago, a girl in her early twenties asked me, “What were the Sixties like?”  I had to think about that.  How do you describe the Sixties in twenty-five words or less?  I concluded that, from my perspective, growing up in ethnic, working class Northeastern Pennsylvania, the television program All In The Family would best communicate to that girl what the Sixties were like for me.

Today, the expression “the N-Word” is used to convey a term not to be spoken.  I know what that “N” stands for and I heard that word uttered many times in the North.  I also engaged in or observed many arguments over race and politics as occurred between Mike Stivic and Archie Bunker over race and the war in Viet Nam.  (For the record, my parents never used the N-Word.) As for the South, my father had to explain to me why there were signs for “Colored Rest Room” on our first visit to Virginia when I was ten in 1961.

Vietnam War Helicopter Crash

When the war in Viet Nam escalated in 1965, I was fourteen.  I believed what our government and most of the media told us.  I remember a disc jockey on the rock and roll radio station in Scranton, WARM, stating, “If we don’t stop them in Viet Nam, we’ll be fighting them in Hawaii.”  At that time it was believed that Communism was a monolithic movement intent on taking over the world.  There was a commercial on television, showing a map of the world with a red tide enveloping country after country.  (At least it would have been red if we had a color television.)  In reality, as soon as the Viet Nam war ended, Viet Nam became involved in a war with communist China (or “Red China” as it was called in the Sixties), and communist Viet Nam overthrew Pol Pot, causing the Reagan Administration to give aid to the Khmer Rouge.

It was not reading left-wing literature that turned me against the Viet Nam War; it was the minister at the First Methodist Church of Kingston, Pennsylvania, Robert Lukens.  Reverend Lukens had long preached fervently about Civil Rights.  He was a 1960s liberal, uninfected with the cynicism that I saw develop in the 1970s.  He often quoted in his sermons The Arrogance of Power, a book written by a conservative Arkansas senator, J. William Fulbright.  Reverend Lukens often decried the morality of the killing in Viet Nam.  However, what first got me thinking was Reverend Lukens noting Senator Fulbright’s observation that Mexico was very anti-American during the Mexican Revolution, but that ardor cooled and there were now peaceful relations between our countries.  I began to believe that the Viet Cong would not always be intrinsically anti-American and would some day no more want to take over America than did Mexico in 1967.

I started to read up on Viet Nam and discovered that Ho Chi Minh wanted to be allied with the United States against the French and that our government knew he would have won the promised elections in 1956 so it caused them to be cancelled.  (I confronted a nervous young Foreign Service officer who was giving a talk in Wilkes-Barre with this latter fact.  He said it was not an election against South Vietnamese president Diem that Ho Chi Minh would have won, but an election against Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai.)

1967 was the Summer of Love in San Francisco.  It might as well have been on another planet.  (As also was Mainland China.  China seemed more exotic and I was more curious about it when President Nixon visited it in 1971, as it had been shrouded in mystery all of my life of twenty years, than the moon.  I was more fascinated with what China was like than I was with the moon when Neil Armstrong walked on it.)  Marijuana was something I read about, except for hushed voices about the class radical, Jeff. I hear he smokes marijuana! I also remember the proud tone in Jeff’s voice when a photograph of two African-American (or Black as we would have said then) Cornell students with automatic weapons held above their heads was published in a national magazine. Pointing to one of the students, Jeff gushed, “He went to school here!”   Today, National Rifle Association members argue we should have the right to automatic weapons to protect ourselves against government tyranny.  The Black students felt the same way; although I don’t think the government tyranny they feared is the same tyranny the white NRA members now fear.

“My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans” by Margery Prickett

25 Apr

I attended my first demonstration, picketing the downtown San Diego branch of the Bank of America in 1962, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I was in high school, watching the news with my parents; police and firemen in Florida were spraying black people on the beach with huge fire hoses.

In those days in the South there were still black beaches and white beaches, black drinking fountains and white ones. Buses were integrated, but black people still sat in the back. Segregation existed throughout the South and de facto segregation existed in the North. I was seventeen and had never seen a black person up close. We lived in El Cajon, an all-white suburb of San Diego, and I had never visited the urban neighborhoods where other ethnic groups lived.

My dad got angry and said, “My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans, sitting here doing nothing. Let’s go to a CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] meeting.” There for the first time, I met people who were involved in political action. They were registering voters, working on ending de facto segregation in housing, and pressuring the Bank of America to hire black people.

I became involved in the Bank of America project. We picketed the main branch in downtown San Diego and gave out leaflets to passers-by. People’s responses were as varied as are people themselves. Some threw old vegetables at us and called us communists and worse. Others asked questions and read the leaflets. Some joined us on the picket line.

We were a small group in a military town—where conformity was rewarded and dissenters were dismissed as “weirdos”—but there arose increasingly more small groups like ours in other cities and small towns. Then in 1963 Martin Luther King led the historic March on Washington. Laws were finally passed ending Jim Crow.

The summer after my graduation from high school, I joined a community organizing project in West Oakland. We lived in an old house in a black neighborhood, registering people to vote, and talking to them about the Vietnam War. It was quite humbling to meet sons and daughters of slaves and hear about their struggles. What they taught me was never to judge others because you never know what they have endured.

Despite its good intentions, our project was not well organized or defined. My main contribution was listening to the heart-wrenching and inspiring stories of the residents, who appreciated an empathetic audience.

Demonstrating against the war was very immediate for us. It wasn’t just to help the Vietnamese. (I’d never even heard of Vietnam before the war, which reminds me of a sign I saw at a demonstration: “WAR—How Americans Learn Geography”). Boys my age—friends—were in danger of being drafted into a war they didn’t believe in. One boy I knew shot off his toe so he wouldn’t be called on to shoot others. It was a horrible time. Like now, the government had the attitude, If you don’t support our troops, then you are against us. You are Other. You are the enemy.

Many were arrested just for demonstrating. Police came on college campuses. They even shot into crowds at Kent State in Ohio, killing several students. Democracy was threatened once again—the Bill of Rights, the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the press.

It was a sad time, seeing the wounded boys return—some lost their sanity. Some didn’t return. Others formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was moving to see them “marching” in their wheelchairs and on crutches—their bodies hurt, but their spirits high.

Spirit. Maybe that’s what it’s about. Why do people gather together in churches? There seems to be a renewal of the spirit when people have a common goal. When people come together to show their concern, their love of peace, their anger at being manipulated and lied to. They no longer feel helpless, isolated.

People’s spirits are renewed and then they have the courage and optimism to return to their everyday lives, whatever they may be, with more consciousness, more heart, and more soul—and more energy to make a difference—whether they build houses with Habitat for Humanity or with a church group, or teach literacy, or just live more peacefully in their everyday interactions.