'60s History Revisited

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed asking my parents questions about their childhoods during the end of the Depression and through World War II. I just liked hearing stories -- I still do -- though

May 4, 2005 at 2:06 pm

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed asking my parents questions about their childhoods during the end of the Depression and through World War II. I just liked hearing stories — I still do — though their experiences had about as much relevance to my daily life as stories my grandfather told about growing up on a farm in Ireland.

Likewise I wonder if and how the experiences of the years of my childhood, the 1960s, relate to young people today.

As those who came of age in the '60s ascend to key corporate and government leadership positions, the turbulence of those days gets rehashed briefly in the news. Witness the debate over Sen. John Kerry's and President Bush's Vietnam War exploits in last year's campaign.

But did that fight mean anything to voters in their twenties and thirties who probably had a difficult time seeing beyond well-financed PR battles between aging military veterans and aging hippies?

And when Bobby Seale spoke in Cincinnati earlier this week (see "Freedom Fighter Forever," page 14), did anyone see beyond the iconic Black Panther beret, sunglasses and shotgun images associated with the '60s?

It's easy to focus on the cultural touchstones of that era — The Beatles, Motown, John and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Easy Rider, Woodstock. They've all been turned into products that sell nostalgia, irony, "freedom," cars and fast food.

What's much harder to do is take the '60s at face value and consider the incredible depth of social advances as well as the incredible waste of opportunity.

And so most of us fall back on the easy-to-digest icons.

Yet, as Seale told his Over-the-Rhine audience, we've come a long way as a society since the '60s. And, whether everyone wants to believe it or not, the credit goes to the thousands of mostly anonymous youth who turned the United States and much of the world in a new direction back then.

When the 1960s dawned, black Americans couldn't attend public schools with white kids in many states. They couldn't eat in the same restaurants or drink out of the same water fountains as whites. They weren't allowed to vote.

Social pressures confined most American women to traditional '50s roles as housewives or, if they worked outside the home, secretaries.

You could be drafted into the U.S. military at age 18, but you couldn't vote until you turned 21.

By the end of the decade, everything had changed — mostly for the better, some for the worse. And today we enjoy the fruits of the positive changes.

At Seale's talk, Victoria Straughn — the local activist whom I greatly respect — challenged his assertion that police brutality today was less prevalent than the '60s and pointed to recent police conduct in Cincinnati. Seale told her to look at the broader perspective and see the accomplishments.

What he's saying, I think, is that while you look ahead to constantly improving society don't forget to look back occasionally at how far we've come. What I'd add is that we have to resist the temptation to rewrite history to suit our current-day needs.

Consider the campaign issue of Kerry's anti-war activities after he returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. In these days of Bush's you're-either-with-me-or-you're-going-to-hell political posturing, people don't know how to deal with the growing anti-Iraq War movement. It seems so, well, unAmerican.

And so Bush's handlers projected the public uneasiness they created onto a war that ended 30 years ago, convincing voters that Kerry's anti-Vietnam activities were also somehow anti-American. And to a public that for the most part doesn't know the Vietnam War except through a few movies and TV shows, a shaggy-haired Kerry speaking at an anti-war rally became a loose cannon and a malcontent.

Here's the thing, though: Kerry was right. He was right to go to Vietnam in the first place, even when his peers George W. Bush and Dick Cheney pulled strings to stay out of harm's way. And he was right to come back home and tell everyone how misguided the U.S. war effort was.

History has proven that the youth who resisted our heightened involvement in Vietnam were right.

It's proven that the youth who fought and sometimes died for civil rights were right.

It's proven that the youth who pushed for rights for women, the poor, the disabled and all those disenfranchised by the status quo culture of the '50s and early '60s were right.

And no amount of "yeah but"s, covenient ignoring or revisionist history lessons can take away those accomplishments from the '60s generation. We owe them a debt of thanks, not our derision or dismissal.

In these incredibly cynical times, we'd do well to remember what I think is the key point of the 1960s — young people united in purpose can still change the world in small but meaningful ways.