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Radicals RECALL the '60s


Candid Conversations With Those Who Shaped an Era

By Ron Chepesiuk

McFarland & Co., $29

Reviewed by Ron Lowe

The 1960s exploded like a time bomb in an unsuspecting America. The postwar economic boom of the '50s, the baby boom, tail fins and TV dinners had combined to create a self-satisfied sense of well-being in the heartland. Sure, there was the specter of nuclear attack to disturb the dreams of Americans, but that threat came from outside our borders. Inside the domestic cocoon, Norman Rockwell defined cultural values, pop music sang safely of romance, and on college campuses the bland led the bland into a future of success and ever-escalating prosperity.

How did that seemingly pastoral scene dissolve into protest, riots, rage, bombings and the slaughter of innocents on American campuses by U.S. troops? And more to the point, whence came the people who would see their own country so differently; not as the good guys of the globe but as a death machine that must be stopped even if it meant throwing their bodies into its cruel cogs?

These are among the principal questions author Ron Chepesiuk seeks to answer in Sixties Radicals, Then and Now, a compilation of interviews with 18 of the activists who helped shape the era.

Many of the familiar names are here: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bernardine Dohrn, Timothy Leary. Others Chepesiuk interviews never became household names, but they emerge here as serious thinkers and activists well worth hearing out.

Chepesiuk, who occasionally contributes freelance articles to the Times, provides many details of the political movements of the 1960s and their effect on participants, but his chronicle of the birthing of one movement into the next is his greatest contribution to understanding the era. The big names weren't necessarily the key players.

The mother of all the movements that came of age in the '60s was the black-led civil rights movement. Its roots as a mass movement dated to 1955 and Rosa Parks' simple act of dignity on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

In 1963 at 19, Cleveland Sellers dropped out of Howard University, became a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) organizer and went to the 1964 Democratic Convention as member of the breakaway Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1968 he was a victim of police gunfire and was jailed for "incitement to riot" during a confrontation with police at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Three black college students died in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

"My contention is _ and I will go to my grave believing this _ if somebody had paid attention to what happened at Orangeburg, we might have been able to avoid Kent State," says Sellers. But, he adds, "As similar as Orangeburg was to Kent State, the students involved were not white and the lives lost were not white."

In the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 students, black and white, answered SNCC's call to come to Mississippi for what would enter history as Freedom Summer. Among them was a white 21-year-old Antioch College anthropology student named Jane Adams. During that summer, six people were killed and 80 beaten, and 65 buildings were burned or bombed, 35 of them churches. She recalls, "I very quickly came to see the world through black eyes. That perspective permanently changed how I saw the world." In 1965 SNCC purged whites from the organization. Adams wasn't offended. "For me it was liberating and made perfect sense. You have to have your own space. That's part of undoing oppression.

"By October 1965, I left Mississippi to go back north and do Vietnam. That's what it was all about for white activists. I joined the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the spring of 1965." Jane Adams offers one of the most insightful observations in Sixties Radicals: "Without a draft, there might have been just a small movement, not the large movement that eventually resulted. The fact was that everybody's life was on the line." The oppression of blacks had not been sufficient to move the masses of white youth toward radical action, nor would the immorality of the Vietnam War have been enough. The draft directly affected young men, their parents, siblings, lovers and friends. Oppression had come home to white America.

Just as her civil rights experience had opened her eyes to other contradictions, the anti-war movement's rampant sexism led her to feminism. In SDS, she says, "Men virtually ran the organizationIt was a totally male environment. That's when I started to write stuff about women's liberation."

Bernardine Dohrn had much the same experience. "At an SDS meeting in the fall of 1967 in Michigan, a group of women tried to make a presentation about women's issues and were hooted downthe women present were outraged."

Jim Fouratt was a Vietnam War organizer, an ardent member of the counterculture and friends with many of the day's "leaders," including Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. He was also gay. "I was depersonalized in the New Left. The moment someone found out I was gay, I didn't become a fully dimensional person with a point of view. I became a person who did something different in bedwhat does that have to do with what I say?"

Once again, learning to deal with contradictions at one level had made other contradictions manifest. On June 27, 1969, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall, was raided by police with the usual roughing up of patrons. This time they didn't submissively endure the harassment, but fought back with a rain of debris, bricks and even parking meters. The Gay Liberation movement had been born. Fouratt was there. He says it's the most dynamic movement alive today because gay people are under the kind of attack blacks were under in the '60s.

Just as the women's movement grew out of consciousness raised in the civil rights and anti-war movements, Gay Liberation drew on the work of the women's movement: "You couldn't have had gay liberation without the women's movement," says Fouratt. "The women's movement opened the door by teaching us that the personal is political. That is the key. That is the gift of the women's movement to all of uswhat goes on with you is political. How you feel is political."

Though "The Movement" passed into history after the early '70s, says Dohrn, its influence is everywhere today _ in the women's movement, in gay pride, in untold kinds of environmental movements, children's advocacy, legal reform, health care and educational reform.

Abbie Hoffman sums up the youth phenomenon of the '60s with a laugh. "We were young, foolish, reckless, wild, daring... and right."

Ron Lowe is a writer living in St. Petersburg.