Thinking About the Sixties: 1968
March 8, 1988
In these times what black folk need most is a lot of patience and a sense of irony.
— Junebug J. Jones, “White Folk’s Address,” Jackson, Mississippi, 1964
IT IS A BEAUTIFUL, unseasonably warm fall day in 1967 in Washington, D.C. The sunlight sparkles over acres of green lawn at the center of which is a government installation ringed by troops of the 101st paratrooper division recently rotated out of Vietnam. The troops are in full battle dress, carrying, as I recall, bayoneted rifles, and look both grim and nervous. They, in turn, are ringed by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of demonstrators. The demonstrators are white and young, very young. All day in this mass of white America I have seen no more than 50 blacks — except for the troops. There is a curious air of unreality as the ring of demonstrators, laughing, almost dancing, their faces flushed with excitement, advance steadily toward the bayonets. Their total unawareness of danger seems strange given the violence of their revolutionary slogans. When we are about 70 yards away I hear an order and the chilling, metallic rattle as the troops “load and lock.” The demonstrators do not even pause. I know it’s time to go and turn around. Two hundred yards down the line another solitary figure emerges, also heading back. Just a speck in the distance. We stand out dramatically from the vast crowd because we are the only two figures moving away. I listen for the first shots, which I know to be inevitable and watch the other figure curiously as our paths gradually converge. Soon I can see that it is a man. Then that he is black. Then, as we come together at the entrance, that we know each other. We greet each other with loud, nervous shouts of recognition and eyes flooded with apprehension and horror.
Shit man it’s gonna be awful.
I know it, man. Let’s get the hell outta here.
We were both veterans of the southern movement and remembered too many of our dead. Age set.
BECAUSE OF EXPLORATORIES from Voice editors, I was thinking about the “dreadful year” of 1968, which came hard on the heels of that Pentagon demonstration, and an institution of traditional African cultures known as “age set,” when my phone rang. I was thinking of how those white children had approached the waiting guns unhesitatingly. They were right, it turned out, and we were wrong. Not a shot was fired that day.
Today, as a consequence of an incident of racist violence on campus, the black students at the University of Massachussetts have occupied the building where I teach, called, not insignificantly, the New Africa House. A mildly ironic déja vu. Automatically, I call a member of my “age set” — one of the few left close by — and the result is predictable and satisfying. Our responses are almost identical — the same questions occur, the same concerns and hopes surface, the same references salt the conversation — in short, we assimilate the event and its meaning and resonances of meaning in much the same ways — “age set.”
In the traditional wisdom of our African forebears, this phenomenon is recognized, brought forward, and institutionalized in profound and consequential ways. The young men and young women of the clan who undergo together the various initiations that mark rites of passage are an age set. They are given appropriate names, reflective both of the group’s collective personality and their history — that is to say, experience. Members of an age set have at different times — as they mature — clearly graduated responsibilities toward their community. They are also invested by tradition and ceremony with a binding collective obligation to each other.
Chinua Achebe writes of a character — a venerable and tough elder — that in his fullness of years the only words that appeared capable of really entering his ear were those from the few surviving members of his age set. There is excellent reason for this: It is not merely that being of like age the members share historical experience — that’s the obvious part. What’s important is that in the context of the culture this reality is formally recognized, and their assimilation of a given historical event is mediated not only by their level of experience, therefore of understanding and capability, but by an awareness of collective responsibility.
For example, a plague of crop-destroying locusts creates the threat of famine. This catastrophe presents itself quite differently to the perceptions and memories of the 12- to 15-year-olds than it does to those of the 40- to 45-year-olds. The adolescents, as a formal entity, would also be expected to discuss and respond in a manner appropriate to their unique position, abilities, and awareness within the community. Thus, “We the age set called ‘Simbabwenna‘ believe that we can and must do the following … ” Or, “Can reach no decision and ask the elders to help us … ”
So what they share is not only going through life seeing events through eyes of similar age, but a formal responsibility to collectively address, assimilate, and respond to those events appropriately. Thus, after ancestral lineage, one’s next level of identity and loyalty resides in the age set. Nothing quite so anchoring, wise, and functional is to be found in the West. Old boy networks aren’t nearly the same thing.
Now, 1968 may not really have been so malevolent a year after all. It may simply have been unlucky, the hapless victim of bad timing (or, in the argot of the time, a year with bad karma, a burden of sins committed in previous incarnations in earlier centuries; surely by now some magus will have checked 1768, 1868 or other of the year’s ancestors for indications of past moral failure). What is clear is that the seeds of all the villainy for which the poor wretch stands convicted were planted without fanfare earlier in the decade, or even before. Had causes worked their effects out at a more leisurely pace, 1969 or, if history were neater, 1970, the year that formally ended the decade, would more appropriately have taken the rap.
Seedings: A big one in Washington in 1960 when military “advisers” are dispatched by Camelot’s best and brightest to an obscure Southeast Asian country few Americans could identify. Another in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. In 1964 at two locations: first, Neshoba County, Mississippi, then Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. The list could go on. But the seeds germinated, quietly grew, and lurched into fruition in ’68, consecrating in that year a terrible, resounding, summarizing coda. A hostage-taking, score-settling, ass-kicking, head-whipping, dues-taking, hypocrisy-exposing, innocence-destroying, delusion-ending coda of a year. In that year the seeds of the ’60s burst into grotesque and poisonous flower, then perished. only to be replaced by something else more toxic if less clearly exotic. A thing ended and something else definitely began, though, of course, neither was immediately clear. Different sides of the same coin, mirror images of something distorted in the pathology of the American body politic, and a profound crisis of values and identity in white American culture.
What ended? The smug Western technological arrogance represented by the Vietnam intervention ended. Small brown men in black pajamas demonstrated to the greatest military force in history that in their own country, they could go where they wanted, when they wanted, and that no power on earth, not even death, could prevent them. So on the eve of Tet, at the break of day, they materialized, as if by magic, in hundreds of locations across the length and breadth of the country. Everywhere and anywhere — inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy and within the perimeters of military bases, on airport tarmacs — in a sudden, dramatic, bloody, vicious firefight that took not an inch of territory, yet was the most final of statements.
It was literally impossible; the painstaking, pinpoint coordination of planning, movement, timing, and concealment. Yet, the massively deployed machinery of U.S. intelligence had not a ghost of an inkling. The surprise was utter and complete. The day before, compounding insult with injury, the North Korean navy had seized an American warship on the high seas, and would hold both ship and crew for months. Not a shot was fired in resistance. Psychologically the war was over — all the rest was bombast, compensation, and saving face.
The nonviolent direct action movement had earlier stirred up the entire process within the country, and had quietly passed from the scene. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. crudely punctuated that reality with the gratuitous and tragic excess for which the year is remembered. Another ending, another beginning. “We have to ask ourselves,” a visibly horrified Bobby Kennedy challenged the nation, “just what kind of people we are?” Not three months later, apparently en route to his party’s nomination after a crucial victory in the California primary, and in the full glare of national television, he received an answer, final and unambiguous in its fatal and irrational brutality. Kennedy had become the American politician most changed by and responsive to the issues of the decade. With those shots something else ended. Something else began. And still the bag of tricks of this improbable year was not exhausted.
That May, thousands of French students mobilized in Paris in demonstrations that would eventually topple a government. In Mexico, another government would call out the army on its students, killing scores. Across this nation, students incensed by the major escalation in reply to Tut would close universities and take buildings. The “youth movement” changed from the hippies — the gently bemused, peaceful flower-bearing love children of the “counterculture” to the frenzied, confrontational yippies of the Youth International Party. A militant “vanguard” faction of SDS calling themselves “weathermen,” geared up for their announced “Days of Rage” in response to the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Mayor Daley’s police obliged them. The nomination Hubert Humphrey received there was of debased coinage, the election of Richard Milhous Nixon being assured. The mean-spirited age of Reagan and the lunatic right lurked in the wings, slouching toward Washington, stalking a chance to be born. Something had ended, another thing had begun.
Americans want to believe many things about themselves that are not true. Negroes want to believe a great deal about themselves that isn’t true too. Part of the dilemma, I think, of being an American Negro is that the Negro has been forced for a long long time in many many ways to mantle himself on a society that is essentially incoherent … that is to say mantling himself on someone who doesn’t know who he himself is … and in this very strange confusion, … the writer is trying to find out where the truth is, and how this truth relates to the American myth, how it relates to the situation of young people — black and white — who are lost in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present in the republic …
These prophetic words are James Baldwin’s. He was speaking very early in the decade to a group of us at Howard University — mostly black but with some good white allies present. Most of the group were already in the “movement,” some would achieve great, if transitory, prominence therein. Mercifully, the long gray winter of the Eisenhower years had passed and was it not springtime in Camelot? “Ask not what your country can do for you …” (They promised the Peace Corps but gave us the Mekong Delta, where some 50,000 of the age set would learn what they indeed could do … ) We applauded Baldwin’s words but felt them perhaps unduly pessimistic — that we were not “lost in despair” but rather locked in struggle, and hoped that there were values in the republic, even within the White House itself, that could be evoked in changing the nation into a society more closely approximate to its lofty self-description.
For that was all we intended then. To take all the liberal pieties, the high-minded platitudes and rhetoric of the American Dream as articulated by whites — freedom and justice for all, popular democracy, economic opportunity if not justice, racial tolerance and cultural respect, equal protection, and due process — and turn them into living reality.
The motion begun with the black community once more taking America at its word. But with a cautious optimism mixed with skepticism — a sense of irony — our fingers, so to speak, crossed behind our backs.
Not so however, for Dick and Jane, those clear-eyed, apple-cheeked heirs and beneficiaries of the whole schmear. The baby-boomers had imbibed almost with their mother’s milk — or, more likely, Gerber formulas — the great myths of the mainstream. The cops were their friends; the Marines brave and decent soldiers of freedom, defenders of the world’s weak. America — the last great hope … So, everything being exposed by the agitation — from domestic poverty, racial oppression, military adventurism, to economic imperialism — while shocking, had to be mere lapses, aberrations, accidental blemishes rather than lethal cancers on the body politic. They were, therefore, easily correctable.
So they came to the movement, America’s children — in ways we never presumed to be — from the embalmment of suburban calm, convinced that with their involvement the nobility of the myth would be restored to social reality within months, a year at most. America, the beautiful once more. How could they have dreamt that when they confronted their elders with their own homilies and platitudes of American self-delusion, they would be received as though implying a totally new, threateriing, and revolutionary conception of the universe?
The early years of the resurgent student movement were marked by a disciplined idealism and pragmatic political activism within the framework of a radical critique that was respectful of evidence and firmly rooted in the possible. I thought that the early SDS had some of the most realistically intelligent, morally responsible, articulate, and impressive young white Americans I had met. So it was with SNCC, but with one important difference — a much broader spectrum of race and class; and operating as we did, in the rural South, we had the immense benefit of the traditional black culture, which at once inspired, educated, instructed, and civilized us in values no longer evident in the industrial/technological mass culture of the mainstream.
After the Cuban missile crisis, Norman Mailer observed that American youth had no domestic heroes, and had to import them from the Third World. Hence Fidel, Che, Lumumba, Fanon, Chairman Mao, Uncle Ho. He might have added Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
With its insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation, the media proceeded to identify and proclaim a bewildering succession of “revolutions,” “cultures,” and “movements,” each more insubstantial and faddist than the last. We had drug, hippie, rock, youth, and counter “cultures,” sexual, youth, moral, green, and spiritual “revolutions,” and speech movements — both free and filthy — as well as the peace, ecology, and generic youth movements, and I’m sure I must have forgotten some. The truth of the matter is that none were revolutions nor could they have been, nor were they in any sense cultures, and only a few were movements. In the media’s projection they were instant and disposable, the stuff of packaging and consumerism, and the media’s pernicious and promiscuous debasement of language. See Dick run. See Jane run. Run Jane, run Dick!
They ran because America’s children were disillusioned, and this disillusionment was profound: the noble illusions and comforting myths on which their entire identity was conditioned during the warm cocoon of avoidance of the Eisenhower years were brutally demolished one by one. The social defects and moral excesses being exposed were proving not aberrant at all but fundamental and intransigent. National leadership seemed arrogant, manipulative, and insensitive; institutions inflexible, bureaucratic, and exploitative. Their flamboyant rejection of the culture was an exact measure of the depth of their previous condition of innocence, idealism, and ignorance. Feeling themselves deceived by America, they now abandoned her. “Young people … in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present …”
Some retreated into spiritualism, but even this had to be foreign. Adorned with feathers, beads, flowers, and face paint; wearing saffron robes, shorn skulls, exotic vestments of prayer and meditation, they sought gurus, shamans, prophets, adepts, mystics, and patriarchs to help them form sects, cults, ashrams, communes, families, and tribes. In a curious way it recapitulated their elders’ predatory consumerism and casual arrogance toward non-Western cultures. The Third World was no more than a giant “spiritual” supermarket in which to shop for whatever brand of exotic mysticism afforded an instant new identity. A naïve arrogance, but harmless to few save themselves. The overwhelming irony was, of course, that the self-indulgence of “counterculture” spiritual withdrawal is quite impossible in the scarcity economies of the cultures they aped. It was subsidized by the production surpluses of American affluence and a consumer society’s waste … a society essentially incoherent, a very strange confusion, indeed.
The political element was different. The only revolutionary tradition they were truly heir to had been bestowed on them by the pronouncements of the media. And perhaps by the nervous overreaction of the establishment, which invested modest demands for implementing their own social rhetoric with dangerous revolutionary implications. So, having been pronounced “revolutionaries,” they, like their mystic counterparts, also went shopping about the Third World, and imported revolutionary ideologies that had no roots in domestic social experience, and strategies without reference or relevance to concrete political conditions. But the rhetoric was militant, the posturing theatrical, and the implications negligible.
What had been a coherent and very effective student movement was transformed into a parade of “instant” revolutionaries, projecting their fantasies in a kind of guerrilla theater aimed at the media. They appeared to have no stomach for hard, tedious, daily organizing, no respect for and little contact with the people in whose name they claimed to be acting. Therefore, they adopted a language proclaiming “vanguard parties” and espoused that contradiction in terms known as “revolutionary suicide.” Naturally, the people avoided them. Just in case they really meant it.
AMERICA’S CHILDREN could indeed gambol merrily over the green toward the waiting guns, confident in the knowledge that the system has vastly different rules for Dick and Jane than for Leon and Leroy. Kent State was yet to come. The general commanding the troops at the Pentagon said later, if memory serves, that no live ammunition had been issued to the troops.
All this presented itself to the black community quite differently than to the white community. We knew — except for the Panthers — that we were not afforded the luxury of that kind of acting out.
Exotic Eastern religions, fine! Romantic solidarity with distant revolution, cool! One could now even make a fashionably revolutionary statement, with clothes, designer accessories — fatigues, berets, jungle boots, bandolier belts. But still something closer, more immediate and satisfying, was needed.
The Panther leadership — if that is the right term — allowed the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary vanguard, and their followers predictably paid a terrible price. They had style, their black leather jackets — a variation of youth gang colors — black berets, and fire-arms either visible or implied. An expression of ghetto youth culture, their leadership had a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle. They were creatures of the media and the radical chic of the sentimental left-but exactly who was hustling whom?
The Panthers appeared, as if on cue, out of America’s Third World. Homegrown surrogates for the Viet Cong. The black, virile, menacing, hip guerrilla, a white American fantasy incarnate. Revolution no longer needed to be distant, alien, or remote; it could be brought home to the nearest ghetto in all the immediacy of full color. The revolutionary of the mass culture: instant and disposable. Conjured up, it seemed, out of the voyeuristic mission of the media catering to the vicarious impulses of the audience.
Would it had been only theater; then it would have mattered not a whit that they had neither precedent, roots, connection, base, nor support in the political traditions of the black community. To dress the role and act the part would have sufficed.
Bul America has different rules for Leon and Leroy … The police were issued live ammunition. Curtain. Lights.
And some very good people got badly hurt, some lives even were changed, but what is odd is that so few were, despite the rantings about revolution.
IT IS EARLY 1962, I think. It is one of the collegiate editor’s conferences that the Reader’s Digest used to have. The workshop is on national politics. I particularly remember the editor of the Michigan Daily and the managing editor of the Yale Daily News. The Michigan editor is very articulate, political, and informed; so am I. We lead the charge from the left, talk about poverty, racism, foreign policy, and support each other’s arguments. The Yalie is an engaging young man, clean-cut, clear-eyed, earnest, intelligent, and very preppie, from a politically prominent Republican background. He is astounded at our criticism of America, seems genuinely upset. Tries to argue but we have the facts. After the session we talk for a long time. The Yale man keeps saying, “That can’t be … I can’t believe …”
“It really is, man, check it out!”
We shake hands and part; he walks away troubled, but promising to check it all out.
”I kinda like him. What do you think?” I ask Tom Hayden, the Michigan editor.
“He’s very decent,” Tom says, “but very innocent.”
It’s now 1964, SNCC office in Washington. A group of volunteers for the Mississippi Summer project from the Ohio orientation stop in on their way south. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney have already disappeared. I recognize among the volunteers the tall, handsome Yalie. He seems no longer troubled. It is a very brief, unexpected, but emotional reunion, in especially emotional circumstances. We are genuinely glad to see each other there.
I have never seen Stephen Mitchell Bingham again, but was deeply saddened when his name surfaced as the radical lawyer being sought by the FBI in the George Jackson shoot-out. He came back from 13 years of exile in July 1984. I’m glad he beat the rap. Age set.
And extraordinary young people got hurt.
Feather was a young black man from the inner city. He came one day early in 1974 to the SNCC Washington office and volunteered to help “in any way I can.” He was different from the other volunteers — spirited, mouthy kids from the suburbs. A little older, he was a beginning high school teacher. Calm, serious, disciplined, he showed up every afternoon after school, still dressed in a white shirt and tie. He had a lean, wiry frame that hinted of the explosive, yet controlled grace of the all-metropolitan point guard he had been in school, still a legend of the D.C. playgrounds. There was a quiet, understated authority in his bearing.
Easygoing too, without ego or bombast, he had a gift for friendship, willingness to work, and a talent for organization. He was soon in charge of the volunteers. He led by example, and inspired confidence. That spring, Feather and his troops gathered, packaged, and moved an unbelievable quantity of food and clothes to Mississippi. Not glamorous work or “revolutionary,” but whatever be did, he did well.
I’ll never forget the day that spring when he said, in his usual quiet way, “I want to go to Mississippi on the Summer Project.” The office was noisy so we sat outside on the pavement, looking across at the FBI agents wasting taxpayers’ money in the car that was always parked across the street, and talked. I painted as fearsome a picture as I could.
“I’ve thought it out, man,” he said soberly. “I know we not all coming back. But it’s our people, our struggle. I’m not married, no responsibilities, so … I can afford to go, it’s as if it’s my duty.”
After the orientation he passed through the D.C. office on his way south. He was the most ebullient I’d ever seen him. His eyes shone with banked excitement and happiness. In less than a week of orientation, the Mississippi staff had recognized the same qualities we had. Bob Moses had named him assistant coordinator of the freedom schools.
That summer, from time to time, folk passing through from Neshoba County talked about Feather with awe: The night he talked the pistol away from the drunken and homicidal cracker who busted into the Freedom House. The Freedomday at the courthouse when he faced down the murderous deputy Cecil Price in front of his Klan cronies. How Sheriff Rainey and Price could not conceal the grudging respect they developed for this young “Northern” nigger. “In every crisis it was ‘Where’s Feather? We don’t talk to no one but Feather.’ ”
The local folk — the church ladies and old men loved him. They called him their son. When I saw him at meetings it was clear that as his spirit and devotion enhanced the movement, so had the movement brought him a deep inner fulfillment.
But things change. There are hidden costs.
In 1965, before I left the movement, I saw him. He’d moved back to D.C. and was living in a little spartan room, a monk’s cell. His frame was very spare and his gaunt face almost luminous. He exuded a quality of extreme asceticism. He was now talking about revolution, but in the same quiet voice.
Before I left he reached under the narrow bed. “I wanna show you something,” he said with suppressed excitement. The “something,” he said, was an AK-47 attack rifle, ugly, ominous, lethal, cradled like a baby on his lap. I begged my brother to get rid of it. I don’t know if he did. Not long after he was blown to pieces by a car bomb in ambiguous circumstances, the truth of which has never been satisfactorily explained. Of the age set, Feather was certainly among the very finest, the best among us.
MY PHONE RINGS, a very senior white administrator, a friend, an ally even. Age set? We talk about New Africa House. I express certain reservations about organization and discipline. “Come on, Mike, they can be a little irrational. You were once. We all were.”
“No,” I snap. “Not all of us.” Some of us could afford it less than others …
But Amherst is a civilized enclave. I know nothing bad will happen. And I need not have worried; the young people pull the action together beautifully, show seriousness, determination, and an encouragingly pragmatic political sophistication. They compel the institution’s respect.
The phone rings again. This reporter seems disgruntled, puzzled but also vaguely aggrieved. He keeps saying, with an edge of complaint in his tone, “It’s just not like when I was in college.”
“How so? What’s like out there?” I ask.
“It’s so goddamned neat. I’ve never seen such nice young people. It’s like a parliament over there. They are discussing issues. You know what they told me? ‘We’re not revolutionaries. We’re reasonable people, with reasonable demands who intend to be taken seriously!’ They actually said that!”
“Now ain’t that a bitch,” I sympathize, “It’s sure not like 1968, is it?” But like the medium he serves, this reporter has little sense of irony. ■