Sunday, September 1, 2013
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement
Most movements for social change are generated among the oppressed and aggrieved: women demonstrated for suffrage and workers for unions. Local homeowners get together to declare “not in my back yard” or to campaign for a stoplight. The student and youth movements of the 1960s are unusual in that those who took up the cause of African-Americans and of the Vietnamese people were relatively privileged members of the crest of the great American middle class, created largely by the labor movement of the thirties and the GI Bill of the forties. As white college students they enjoyed comforts and expectations rather greater than the norm even for their own affluent postwar country.
People speak loosely about “the sixties” as an era of psychedelics and political protest. As a ’67 graduate of the University of Illinois, I can testify that protestors (and dopers) were a marginal group throughout my undergraduate years. When I manned the Students Against the War table in the student union, I could count on arguing with fellow students all day long. My wife was called a dyke for marching in a demonstration against parietal hours for women. I felt I knew all the people in the small coterie involved with leftist protest.
The fact is that when I arrived at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1963 the Old Left groups had vanished. I believe the only progressive group on the Champaign-Urbana campus of tens of thousands of students was the NAACP, to be followed later by a Friends of SNCC chapter. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 inspired Students for Free Speech and Student Committee on Political Expression.
About this time several others and I – I believe it was perhaps six students that one needed to create an official organization – started an Independent Socialist Club. Like the Port Huron authors, we wanted to avoid the historic entanglements of the Stalinists, Trotskyites, and followers of Norman Thomas (who spoke at the U. of I. in the spring of ’65). We could be punctilious if we liked as there were so few of us and we did no organizing, no demonstrations, indeed, no political work at all. Our meetings were as good as private though a few drifters passed through.
Inconsequential as we were, we found we constituted a tempting bait for the very groups of which we had been wary. An older Communist, a YSA rep from miles away, and a local Socialist each in turn asked us to affiliate. Even as a discussion group we meandered. One of our original crew began pushing SWP tapes of Raya Dunayevskaya. Another thought we could best contribute to progress by intensive discussions of What is to be Done?
Mercifully, in the fall of 1965, Students for a Democratic Society organized. At that point SDS was a broad popular front organization with many Democratic Party activists as well as socialists, anarchists, and wholly non-ideological individualists, perhaps even a stray liberal Republican or two. The Independent Socialist Club disbanded after a scant year of existence.
The New Left Movement is often said to have begun with the February 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro and the subsequent founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but until SDS there was no large and inclusive student organization pressing for social justice and peace. Veterans of the Southern Movement, both white and black, were influential leaders in the years that followed as were the “red diaper” babies whose families had been socialist in earlier decades, but each of these groups was small in numbers. The increasingly massive numbers of people willing to stand up against the system arose from the “youth revolution” element which grew exponentially following the Haight-Ashbury Summer of 1967 and the continuing threat of the draft which affected most men (though virtually all those who sought to wiggle out of the military obligation were able to do so).
My second anecdote concerns a friend I will identify only as D-------- K------ as we have been out of touch for some time, and I have not discussed my account with him. It is, however, simple and sketchy enough that I am confident of its accuracy and, I hope, significant enough to warrant telling.
In the junior year of his studies at a prestigious private university K------, who had considerable personal charm, a gift for rabble-rousing, and a highly developed sense of the ridiculous, moved to establish a DuBois Club on his campus. The DuBois Clubs were in fact essentially the youth group of the American Communist Party, as the Young Communist League had been (and would again be – the old name came back in 1984). Universities often found such groups unpalatable, particularly schools with endowments that count on the continuing patronage of wealthy alumni. Many in higher education doubtless feared publicity arising from even the smallest of revolutionary contingents and tried to ban such clubs.
The membership of a DuBois Club might have been little larger and its impact little greater than my Independent Socialist Club had it been permitted, but it was not. Virtually all the students agreed that this decision was undemocratic, and they rallied energetically against it. My friend K------ had the opportunity to exercise his considerable abilities as a debater, entertainer, and wit in an ongoing series of demonstrations that attracted ever-increasing crowds. The celebrity he won in this cause led to his election as student body president the following year (1967-8). I doubt that the DuBois Club ever had a real meeting. K------‘s psychic jiu-jitsu had caused the university administration to defeat itself and elevate him to prominence. As a result of their bungling and the movement of history, the critical mass of participants for truly disruptive sit-ins and rallies had arrived. Though most of the students were simply believers in what K------ might have called bourgeois democracy, that alone was enough to set them on his side against the powers that be.
A revealing sequel occurred the following spring. As K------ tells it, he was delivering a rousing anti-war speech on campus when he was interrupted by cries of “Talk is bullshit!” We want action, not talk!” and eventually, “To the ROTC Building!” He was left standing at the podium with a mere remnant of his audience. When those who had left destroyed the ROTC Building, he was charged with having incited a riot, though the claim was sufficiently absurd that it was later dropped.
These experiences suggest, first, the simple truth that political protests of the sixties occurred, for the most part, during the last few years of that decade (and the first months of 1970). When students did become active, they were often moved by non-political motives. When political, their values were generally not radical and, indeed, rarely went beyond the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The most dramatic actions were generally not the result of traditional labor union-style organizing and careful planning, but rather were spontaneous, sharing as much of the character of post-football disorders as of sit-down strikes. When the draft no longer threatened most young men, they ceased protesting. There were from the start dedicated advocates for social justice who sought to question America’s foreign and domestic policies and to suggest radical alternatives, but their numbers were never great. Both those who would trivialize the movement of the sixties and those who would idealize it might well recall these home truths.