Thursday, April 03, 2008

As I keep noting, I am reading Tom Brokaw's Boom about events and impact of the sixties movements as experienced by those of us of the generation who came of age at that time - and a few older and younger. It's just a super, super book - really makes patterns fall together for me about the connection of Viet Nam and Iraq, the hedonism of some of the student protests and the moral rigidity of the neocons, the end of Jim Crow but increasing classism. I could quote something from almost every page. This book is the first in a long time that makes me wish I had a photographic memory. I don't want to let any of it go, but I won't be able to remember it all. It's just too thick and too rich with content and nuance.

Right now I'm just going to throw together a very meager quote salad, and tie some of the quotes to some of my memories and feelings.

"Vernon Jordan, former head of the Urban League and one of America's best-known establishment figures, black or white, tells the story of returning to Mississippi in the Nineties and seeing a black highway patrolman writing out a speeding ticket to give to a white woman. He says, "I almost cried, and I thought, If only Medgar could see this.'" Tom Brokaw

I remember the murder of Medger Evers in 1963, for civil rights activism so strongly. It was my first experience (through the media coverage) of the violence and murder that could occur when black people worked for basic Bill of Rights freedoms. I was twelve and I'd been sheltered. I'd peaked through the window in the door between the white and colored waiting rooms in the Greyhound bus station in Houston and been shocked by the difference in the quality of the facilities and totally confused about why there even were two waiting rooms. But that's as far as my awareness of racism had developed. Then I saw Medger Ever's picture on the cover of Life Magazine after his death. I read the account of his murder on his driveway as he went home to have dinner with his small children. I saw the pictures of his children. I cried a long evening in my pink princess bedroom in the snooty all white California hills and puzzled over the very different world portrayed in the article. And that was when the struggle against racism and oppression began to be real to me - though absolutely at a distance, through a glass.

"We had a classmate (at Fort Benning) Joe Diduardo, who received notice that one of his best buddies had been killed in Vietnam a few days before King's assassination. So Joe flew to San Francisco to meet the body and escort it hoe to Baltimore. Joe takes his friend's body to a funeral home in a black section of Baltimore, and when King is killed Baltimore goes up in a riot.
"Joe is the only white guy around, so the funeral home folks hide him for three or four days----and then finally smuggle him to the airport in a hearse so he can get back to Benning. When he arrives, Joe, a Vietnam vet, says, "You'll never believe where I've been." General Wayne Downing

The day after Martin Luther King Junior was shot, I went to class numb. I was a high school senior and my first class was American government. A test had been scheduled for that day. Our advanced placement section, usually cloistered away for exciting discussions, met with the whole senior class that day, for the test. I sat, waiting for some acknowledgement of the nation's loss - for something appropriate to be said or done. The teacher continued handing out test papers. It seemed completely wrong to go on as if nothing had happened, nothing had changed. I looked atmy friend Jimmy, class president, Eagle Scout, and he looked straight back at me. It was one of those moments of perfect harmony. We rose as one and walked out of the classroom to the courtyard where the flag pole stood. Together we brought the flag down to half mast. We stood in silence and a crowd began to grow around us, all silent, respectful, students, teachers, administrators, all. After a while someone started singing "We Shall Overcome." and the group joined her in the song. I cried then. I don't know how long we stood there, but I'm glad we stood. It didn't really change anything, didn't bring the man back to life, didn't prevent future acts of violence - but it let me know I can do the right thing even when others don't think to. that was my first, completely spontaneous, act of civil disobedience.

"Referring to Ruth Benedict's classic book Patterns of Culture, in which she says there are basically two sides to human culture - Dionysian and Apollonian - Pope sees the Sixties as Dionysian. "It was about freedom, and it was about liberation-sex drugs and rock and roll, having a good time. It was kind of reckless."
"But the environmental movement, he says, 'is quite Apollonian. It's about control. It's about restraint. It's fundamentally a conservative movement in the traditional, old-fashioned sense. You're conserving things. You're not trying to turn people loose. So in that sense the environmental movement is not like the sixties.'" Tom Brokaw

Thank you Tom Brokaw and Ruth Benedict. This is the thought thread I've been trying to crystallize for decades. I was so uncomfortable with the littering, the partying, the "Let's do what we want because we can." attitudes that accompanied protests for causes I fully embraced during the sixties. The conflict between supporting the causes and disapproving and being frightened by the self serving behaviors tore me apart. Now I have the words. I am clearly more comfortable (most of the time at least) with the Apollonian than with the Dionysian." I want change but I want change that involves impulse control, introspection, restraint, conversion of the energy of ethical outrage into results that really help people change their lives.

"I think a lot of the New Right (her phrase) energy comes from the freedoms and activism of the Sixties. Some people did take that all to excess, as people do...but because the baby boomer numbers were so large, if you had 10% of the people who went to excess, that's a lot of people. Everyone could see the lessons of drugs, sex, and rock and roll taking you to a place that wasn't healthy. It was self-destructive, or whatever.
But the larger message of the Sixties was really liberating. African-Americans, by God, you could stand up and demand your rights like Dr. king inspired you to do. Women, you don't have to stay two steps behind. Choose your own life, make your own decisions. I thnk that was great for America. Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don't have much to say about Hillary Clinton's remarks except that they ring true.

"An ever larger number of young voters consider the Internet their political sustem, and with every election cycle, the universe of voters who consider themselves independent and unattached to either party continues to expand. They're interested in answers for their lives not in the feuds of forty years ago.

For them, the Sixties? Wasn't that when Momand Dad wore those weird outfits, when the Beatles were still a group and you had to use pay phones?"Tom Brokaw

This both makes me feel old and makes it seem important to write these reflections and connections, to emphasize the human needs that continue rather than the differences, to work against the incursion of that Sixties term "generation gap". Odd to be on the far rather than the near side of same.
"The awful ruin of the Sixties was that such overwhelming hopes were raised and then so cruelly dashed." Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis

And this is what I fear now, with the new wave of youthful involvement in politics. We have to deliver this time - not disappoint, or the crash will be horrific.


Dixi said...

As I read your comments about the book Boom, It seems such a very important book, one that I definitely should read.

Interesting that I don't remember anything about Medger Evers at all. His name is not familiar to me. I wonder if this is a difference between living in the North and living in the South.

You mentioned being in the Greyhound bus station and peaking into the colored waiting room there and seeing the difference. This is another thing I never witnessed....only heard about and read about. Hard to believe. As a young person I didn't travel far out of my state. However, we did go to Milwaukee or Chicago; and I am wondering now if there were these different facilities in northern cities. I didn't see them there. And if not, why the difference?

Your experience the day after Martin Luther King was shot was stunning. I cannot imagine the teacher just handing out test papers without acknowledgement of what had happened. Good for you and male friend for taking the initiative to put the flag down at half mast & then witnessing so many people gathering to sing "We Shall Overcome." This is an important story, one which it is good that your grandchildren know.

Your words made me reflect this morning. Thank you.

Peggy said...

I love the sound of this book and will definitely look for it. So many good books to read and so little time!

I want to comment on a few of the things you mentioned—and I do remember all of them. What a time that was to live in.

I remember Medger Evers’ murder very well. My parents were ardent believers in the Civil Rights movement and were out raged at this murder. I remember the other Civil Rights murders as well. It was all discussed a lot in our home.

My mother’s family all still lived in the Deep South. Her parents were in central Mississippi. When we visited there in the 50s I remember the white and black drinking fountains and restrooms and remember noting the city pool was for whites only. I remember that blacks had to go to the back door. Even modestly middleclass whites had black “help.” My grandmother had always had a cook—a reason my mother did not really learn how to cook. This was all of great concern to my parents and I suspect it was part of the reason that I can only remember one trip where Dad went with us to visit Mom’s family. Also Mom would kind of prep us kids for what it would be like in Mississippi and we were told not to make a big fuss about it as it was just the way it had always been for my grandparents.

I also remember the hedonism of the 60s. I remember feeling like those just along for a fun ride had kind of taken over the sincere issues. I felt they were there for the parties and the freedom and the fun costumes and that they really couldn’t make a rational argument on the issues and that made me irritated. I remember noticing when so many egos seemed to get involved.

This sounds like a really interesting book. A must read!

Ruth said...

I've always loved your MLK/flagpole story I'm glad you are sharing more of your reflections here. I remember, as a kid, thinking how very old you must be to remember ALL THE WAY back to "colored" water fountains and waiting rooms. It makes me happy now to think the world had changed enough for me to think it all so alien.

I'd love to borrow Boom when you are done with it (if you can bear to part with it).