But I reject feeling nostalgic for the bittersweet struggles of the past.
It is clear that the Sixties, which was never really The Sixties, is being wielded as a bludgeon against today’s young risktakers; a barrier, a legendary era which can never be equaled today. In fact, the Sixties was annually declared “dead” by the pundits of Time magazine and Newsweek beginning in 1963 and throughout the mid-seventies. During the subsequent three and a half decades, there has been a relentless campaign to promote four myths about those radical social upheavals. These legends about the so-called Sixties must be on the table to be scrutinized by today’s young activists.
First, the ’60s is enshrined as a heroic time of huge demonstrations, militancy and organizing. It was never all that.
Sixties activism was almost always small, isolated, surrounded by hostile, angry crowds. The groundbreaking actions of the students who joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the women who stood for an end to patriarchy, and the veterans, draft resisters and deserters who defied the military machine are legendary now because they were right about history and morality. Overwhelmingly, their courage was the quiet kind, the inventive sort, often unrecognized, not showy. Millions took a step away from the path well traveled, left the career track, lived on subsistence pay, learned to talk to strangers about politics, went to the point of production, invented communes, built schools, dug into communities, revived midwifery, seized and exposed the universities, were arrested, broke with family expectations and tradition. Black Panthers, GI organizers, environmentalists, Young Lords, gays and lesbians — the anarchy, the imagination, the gravity, the invisibility to the media, especially the failures are familiar to today’s young activists. So is the sense of isolation, the inadequacy to the task, the frustration with not being heard, the drowning in the la la machine. The inability to stop the relentless escalation of war and occupation each and every day for a decade. The enormity of the hold of white supremacy on American life, North and South, inside and out. Divisions among ourselves, worst of all. The unhappiness of not being able to meet the high bar set by the May Day events in France, where workers and students brought the government to the brink. The challenge now, as then, is living as a radical organizer in your own time, your own place, simultaneously acting and doubting.
Today’s episodic massive organizing achievements can similarly be followed by eerie calm, business-as-usual, invisibility, the sense of never having been. The consciousness of today is both ahead of and behind the peaks of the past. That was prelude. Now is where we stand.
Second, and paradoxically in counterpoint to romanticization, there has been a relentless thirty-year campaign to demonize and criminalize the Sixties. Militant resistance is portrayed as criminal, mass rebellion transformed into mob action, courageous choices derided as self-serving, moderately outrageous comments in the heat of the moment seized upon and repeated ad naseum as if they were the whole story or true. Fine leaders are degraded and their contributions dismissed due to personal limitations and all-too-real flaws. This demonization of activists was the pretext for physical assassination and character assassination. It finds us still with scores of political prisoners unjustly incarcerated from that time. The Sixties was, in short, neither that good nor that bad.
Third, the struggle has been commodified, sold back to us as clothing, music, drugs, and film. It is trivialized, sucked of content, leaving only the husks of oldies, tattoos and faded murals. What remains invisible is surviving for decades on the dole, living communally, doing what had to be done without funding from foundations or the approval of program grants, stepping off the career track, risking exile or courts martial, turning Left off the interstate. These were and still are choices made by both the privileged as well as the modest — first-generation college students, working-class youth, and immigrants who comprised the movement.
Fourth is the lethal, deceptive telling of Sixties’ history as if it were predictable and known, smoothing out the turmoil, the turbulence, the anarchy, and the ethical choices. The pat illusions that “we” all opposed the Vietnam War, “we” all were relieved that civil rights were granted to African Americans, and the “media” helped end the Vietnam war.
But history is seized, not given, change wrenched as a result of struggles from below. The youth on the freedom rides, the lunch counters, the voter registration drives, urban insurrections, demonstrations against police brutality, struggles for minorities independence, land back to Natives, resources and dignity — no one knew how it would turn out. The young men who resisted the draft, who deserted the military, who fought in Vietnam and returned to join the anti-war movement and threw their medals back at the Government, the veterans who today warn and educate about the dread of real war — they did not know how it would turn out. Marting Luther King himself was an angry, developing radical — a constant work in progress, not an airbrushed saint.
When we think about historical moments, of course, we each read ourselves into it in heroic ways. It’s so obvious now. We all imagine that if we had lived during slavery, we would have been a catalyst for emancipation, we know what we would risk. Similarly, in our hearts we believe that had we been alive in Europe at the time of Nazi Germany, we would have been part of the Resistance, we would have hidden refugees, we would surely have stepped up to the historic challenge.
What are today’s crises of human rights and how will we be remembered? For what we did and for what we failed to do? How do we narrate and act in this historical moment? Let me begin then with those home truths about the Sixties...
[The above essay is adapted from the introduction by Bernardine Dohrn to Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out by Chesa Boudin, Kenyon Farrow, and Dan Berger, from Nation Books.]