Looking Back, Tom Hayden, 1988

Tom Hayden, “Epilogue”, in Reunion ( New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 501-507.

Looking back from life’s mid-passage, what did the generation of the sixties achieve? What does it mean today?By the most measurable standards, we accomplished more than we expected, more than most generations ever accomplish. Consider the most obvious:

Students led the civil rights movement, which destroyed a century-old segrega tion system and which politically enfranchised twenty million blacks.

Students were the backbone of the antiwar movement, which forced our gov ernment to abandon its policies in Vietnam and the nation to reconsider the Cold War.

Because of student criticism, most universities retreated from their traditional paternalism toward an acceptance of active student participation in decision making.

Movement activists were the key factor in making Lyndon Johnson withdraw from the presidency in 1968 and in transforming the political rules that permitted reformers to prevail in the Democratic party, which then endorsed “participatory democracy” in its 1972 platform.

The same movement was conceded the eighteen-year-old vote by the 1970s.

These movements were direct catalysts for the reemergence of the women’s movement, the birth of environmentalism, and other diverse causes.

In short, we opened up closed systems. From Georgia and Mississippi to the South as a whole, from Newark and Chicago to the cities of the North, from the 1965 Vietnam teach-ins to the 1973 War Powers Act, from the Democratic convention of 1968 to that of 1972, there was a steady evolution from patterns of exclusion toward greater citizen participation in basic decisions.

More generally, the New Left fostered a vision that gradually took hold throughout much of society. At the center of that vision was a moral view of human beings, “ordinary people” in the process of history, a view which held that systems should be designed for human beings and not the other way around. The dignity of the individual in this perspective could only be realized through active citizenship. That in turn required a society of citizens, or a democracy of participation, where individuals had a direct voice in the making of decisions about their own lives. We were expressing a rising dissatisfaction with all institutions, even liberal and expressly humane ones, that absorbed power into their hierarchies. Instead of “taking power,” we imagined creating the new power out of the raw material of apathy. At the same time, new measurements of excellence, such as the quality of life and personal relationships, were to take on greater significance than external status symbols and material monuments, in both our lives and the existence of our country.

These perceptions and values are an ongoing legacy of our generation. They do not always prevail in our culture or politics today, nor are they always recognized as arising from the sixties. Yet their enduring and widening impact can be seen in a variety of ways. Enlightened business and labor viewpoints now concur that humane treatment of the worker, including participation in decision making, is not only an ethical good, but a plus for productivity as well. More broadly, the survey researcher Daniel Yankelovich, in his book, New Rules concluded that the campus upheavals of the sixties gave us the first premonitory sign that the plates of American culture, after decades of stability, had begun to shift. . . . Then in the seventies the public as a whole began to experience them and the mass reappraisal of American life values was launched The Yankelovich study concluded that the mainstream American goal is “to build a more productive economy and at the same time a society in which the cravings of the spirit as well as material well-being can be satisfied.”

These findings were also reflected in an extraordinary work of social science, Habits of the Heart, published by a UC Berkeley team of researchers in 1985. One of their purposes was to review and revive the nineteenth-century French writer, Alexis de Toqueville[sic], whose observations in Democracy in America in some ways foreshadowed the theme of participatory democracy. De Toque ville celebrated the town meetings and voluntary associations that constituted the rich political core of early nineteenth-century American society and warned of the dangers of rampant individualism, under which participation could atrophy and be replaced by imperial forms of rule. The authors of Habits of the Heart, responding to the resurgent individualism of the religious right of the eighties, cited local chapters of the Campaign for Economic Democracy among the many representative efforts at restoring an emphasis on democracy at the community level, noting that “the morally concerned social movement, informed by republican and biblical sentiments, has stood us in good stead in the past and may still do so again.”

These conclusions and many others like them represent nothing less than the maturing of the awkward formulations of The Port Huron Statement into the cultural vocabulary of the mainstream of American life.

The logical question then is why the New Left did not succeed in building an organized and permanent leftist presence on the American political spectrum? Why did we produce so few political leaders? Why did we, who were so able to shake existing institutions, leave so little behind? Part of me inclines to the view of the New Left’s better administrative leaders, like Paul Booth and Richie Rothstein, that our profound distrust of leadership and structure doomed us to failure on the level of political organization.

But the American political system is inhospitable to third parties, isolating them before gradually absorbing their ideas and activists into the two-party system. The most that could have been organized out of the New Left might have been an “adult” SDS, a kind of American Civil Liberties Union for social justice. Of course, without the Kennedy assassinations the history of our generation would have been different, and I believe most of the New Left would have found itself politically involved as part of a new governing coalition by the end of the sixties, just as Millie Jeffrey’s generation became linked with the politics of the New Deal. But it was not to be. Instead, in Jack Newfield’s summary phrase, we became “might have beens.”. . .

There are such strong feelings of nostalgia on the one hand and loss on the other among so many who went through those times because the sixties were about more than practical reforms. It was a decade not focused simply on specific goals, like the organization of American workers in the thirties or the issue agendas of the Populist and Socialist parties at the century’s beginning. The goal of the sixties was a larger transformation. Perhaps the only parallels might have been during the times of the American Revolution and Civil War, when individuals became caught up in remaking America itself. The goal of the sixties was, in a sense, the completion of the vision of the early revolutionaries and the abolitionists, for Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass wanted even more than the Bill of Rights or Emancipation Proclamation. True democrats, they wanted the fulfillment of the American promise through a different quality of relations between people, between government and governed, a participatory democracy within a genuinely human community. The sixties movements were inspired toward that loftier goal and were blocked in the quest by the intervention of fate.Like the American revolutionary period, the awakening of the early sixties was a unique ingathering of young people—many of them potential leaders -to proclaim and then try to carry out a total redemptive vision. This visionary quest is what bound each of us together in a community, from Gandhian Freedom Riders to disillusioned Marxists. The gods of our parents had failed or become idols. Then a new spiritual force came in 1960, to move in the world. We felt ourselves to be the prophets of that force. When we first used the term revolution, it was not about overthrowing power but about overcoming hypocrisy, through a faithfulness to a democratic and spiritual heritage. Then came rejection and both physical and spiritual martyrdom, and later a discovery that we ourselves were not pure. We faltered, lost our way, became disoriented above all by death upon death. What began on a soaring spirit suddenly was over, perhaps to be finished permanently. We who claimed to be masters of our future discovered that we were not.The sacrifices were many, and there were no distinguished service medals. In writing this book, I found it revealing that there is nowhere a factual summary of all the suffering that people went through—shootings, beatings, firings, expulsions, arrests, not to mention psychological pain—to achieve quite elementary goals in the sixties decade. It is as if the sacrifices were not worthy of record, but should be suppressed and forgotten. With the help of Eric Dey, a UCLA graduate student, I developed a minimal estimate of our untabulated sacrifices:

During the southern civil rights movement ( 1960-68), at least 28 activists were killed, and 31,000 people were arrested. There is no calculating the numbers who were beaten, fired, or expelled from schools.

In the black civil disorders of 1965-70, 188 people were killed, at least 7,612 were injured, and another 52,920 were arrested.

In the campus and antiwar protests of 1965-71, for which data are woefully unrecorded, at least 14 were killed, thousands were injured or expelled from colleges, and at least 26,358 were arrested.

It therefore would be safe to estimate that in a society priding itself on its openness, 100,000 arrests of protestors occurred in the decade of the sixties. They were prophets without honor in their time.

For all these reasons, the sixties leave a sense of troubling incompleteness and shortcoming alongside that of proud achievement. But if the time has remained difficult to capture, it is also possible that the sixties are not over. The decade itself was perhaps only the beginning of a time of vast change that is not yet fulfilled. Our generation, after all, has only lived into its middle years. Why conclude that life’s most powerful moments already are behind us? If the sixties are not over, it is up to the sixties generation to continue trying to heal our wounds, find our truth, and apply our ideals with a new maturity to our nation’s future.Since 1980, however, the official mood of the nation has been contrary to a spirit of reconciliation. Rather, the tone has been one of escape from bitter realities toward an immortalizing vision of nostalgia proposed by President Reagan. There has been a strong pressure to wipe out the “Vietnam syndrome,” which allegedly left us prostrate before our enemies. Thanks to greater military spending, we are told that America is “back,” is “standing tall,” that the “nay sayers” have been vanquished. I find this stance to be an armed reminder of the most rigid view of my parents’ generation when they wanted to impose the lessons of their experience on their children and grandchildren. But my personal experience gives me faith that this official obsession with restoring a mythic past will give way to wiser consciousness in the era ahead:

An emerging generation of voters-about eighty million born since 1945—will seek newer philosophies than those which led to constant government scandal these past two decades.

Those who experienced the inner reality of Vietnam—from the end of police clubs or in jungle darkness—will unite around a more mature foreign policy, based on the strength of democracy.

Americans will increasingly look to human merits, rather than color, class, or gender, in choosing those who represent them, even for the presidency.

The quality of life will replace the quantity of possessions as Americans’ standard of excellence in our lifetime.

A new generation of entrepreneurs will come to learn that human and natural resources require cultivation rather than depletion.

Democracy and human rights will grow more powerfully contagious in a world linked by satellites and television.

The assassinations of the sixties left a bleeding and broken connection in our personal lives and political culture; that connection must and will be restored by a new cycle of leadership.

Times filled with tragedy are also times of greatness and wonder, times that really matter, and times truly worth lviing through. Whatever the future holds, and as satisfying as my life is today, I miss the sixties and always will. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/25 at 08:27 PM






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