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Fifty Years Ago: A Turning Point in Civil Rights, the 1960s and US Politics

As we observe important 50-year anniversaries, we are also losing awareness of the power and potential of direct political action.

(Photo: Phillips Academy Archives and Special Collections)

The year 2014 has been one of highly significant 50-year anniversaries: the introduction of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; passage of the Civil Rights Act; the first of the nation’s urban riots; Mississippi Freedom Summer; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which escalated the US war in Vietnam; and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement.

In many circles, 1968 is seen as the crucial turning point in which the spread of tumultuous uprisings around the world not only wrought significant social change, but also helped to generate a backlash that ushered in the neoliberal era that currently dominates the globe. I would argue, however, that the seeds for that transformation were planted via the historic events occurring in 1964.

First, 1964 saw a critical shift beginning to take place in the civil rights movement. Passage of the Civil Rights Act was, of course, of great historic significance, as was the following year’s passage of the Voting Rights Act. Together, the two pieces of legislation began to dismantle the southern system of apartheid, bringing to fruition a decade of civil rights struggle.

Freedom Summer, the black voter registration drive in Mississippi that recruited northern students into the movement, brought about a different kind of change. In addition to the enormously risky efforts to organize and register black voters, one target of the summer’s efforts was the seating of an integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic national convention to nominate Lyndon Johnson. Unlike the strictly segregated regular Democratic delegation, the MFDP challenged party leaders to live up to their rhetoric.

The token “compromise” offered by President Johnson – effectively a rejection of MFDP’s efforts – was a profoundly bitter defeat for the delegates who had risked their lives and livelihoods in the voter drive. Leader Bob Moses later observed, “What happened in ’64 symbolized the situation we’re in now.” Noting the Democratic Party accepted the participation in “power-sharing” of the “professional people” from the summer drive, but not the “grassroots people,” Moses maintained that the “armed struggle and rioting and calling in the National Guard” that ensued led to a “polarization that we are not out of yet.” 1.

As Staughton Lynd, the director of Freedom Summer’s Freedom Schools, later put it, “The summer project was a tragedy because a strategy effective in winning the right to vote also disempowered blacks at the same time. . . . The casualties of the summer included not only the individuals who died, but the idea of an interracial movement for fundamental change.” 2.

The students who traveled South to aid in the cause were deeply affected by Freedom Summer. Shocked by the profound poverty and oppression experienced by black Mississippians and moved by their courage in the face of a system of totally arbitrary and violent domination by whites, students returned to their northern campuses deeply changed and committed to the cause. They provided the spark that generated Berkeley’s Free Speech movement and began the process of politicizing a number of other campuses, including Oberlin College, where I was then a first-year student.

The Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964 – an alleged “attack” by North Vietnamese PT boats on US destroyers that were involved in electronic surveillance of North Vietnam – was effectively manipulated by the Johnson administration to produce the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, by which Congress gave its approval for whatever “responses” the administration sought. The mass media, and all but two members of Congress, swallowed the administration line without question, providing the shield of legitimacy for the sharp escalation of the US war the following February.

The all-out American assault on both South and North Vietnam – the US dropped 6.6 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, more than twice the tonnage dropped by the Allies in all of World War II – produced the most powerful antiwar movement in American history. But it also produced a movement that grew increasingly frustrated over time as it was dismissed and suppressed by the very government that continued to escalate the war, and it was typically trivialized by the mass media. Some antiwar activists became increasingly militant, especially after being victimized by police violence, believing the only way to stop the war was to produce chaos in the streets at home.

The years that followed 1964 became increasingly turbulent. Inner cities exploded in black rage for four consecutive years. The carnage in Vietnam expanded steadily, to the horror of increasing numbers of Americans; eventually, a majority of Americans believed the US war was immoral. The media zeroed in on bohemian communities in places like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and New York’s East Village, thereby helping to spread images (and scare stories) that attracted legions of young teens to a growing “counterculture.” To some extent, the new women’s movement grew out of the very sexism of both the civil rights and antiwar movements. The United States, it seemed to many, was coming apart.

The media role in this trajectory has rarely been understood. During Freedom Summer, the mass media began to ask why young people seemed so courageously drawn to activism instead of fitting into the stereotypical 1950s’ mold of getting ahead. Thus began a fixation with seemingly deviant youth, leading to the media’s dominant frame for explaining the 1960s then and ever since: namely, the turmoil was caused by a baby boom generation that grew up in an era vastly different from their Depression-era parents. Rather than taking seriously movement voices that expressed fundamental critiques of American society, the media explained the turmoil in terms of the more flamboyant images their cameras captured. And these were largely dominated by younger, more expressive protesters.

Mass media coverage thus became enormously useful to those who sought to turn America in a different direction. From what were initially conservative but eventually corporate networks, a strategy evolved, beginning with Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. That strategy involved using the media images of the era’s turmoil to appeal to portions of the public who felt left out of the liberal gains of the ’60s era and/or were sharply alienated by what they were seeing.

Traditional conservatives were appalled by the sexual “freedom” of the counterculture, the lawlessness of riots, and the Viet Cong flags that appeared in antiwar protests. The corporate sector, moved by the loss of profitability in the 1970s, criticized what the Trilateral Commission called the “excess democracy” of the 60s era. 3. Both sides of the backlash campaign focused on a common target: the Great Society liberalism of the Kennedy-Johnson years, blaming it for the era’s excesses.

The backlash campaign sounded populist to the ears of the disenchanted. According to the dominant myth, a liberal elite – allegedly consisting of liberal politicians, liberal media, liberal university faculty and administrators, even liberal parents – caused the excesses and disorder people viewed on their televisions. By contrast, much of this liberal establishment was actually the target of ’60s’ protest movements. The real target of the backlash was the widely held New Deal belief that government could be used to meet the needs of the people and the nation’s common good. The propagandists maintained that the “market” was the remedy for what they selectively called “big government.”

Crucial to the nation’s right turn toward neoliberalism was the electoral shift these backlash forces produced. The previously all-Democratic white South was drawn swiftly into the Republican camp, starting with the Goldwater campaign of 1964, as were significant numbers of the Catholic working class, beginning in the later 1960s. The coalition that had fueled the long New Deal regime from 1932 to 1980 was replaced by the neoliberal coalition that dominates American politics to this day. Worried about their party’s electoral future, Democratic centrists pulled their party to the right. Corporate America was safely back in the driver’s seat.

The mythmaking propaganda of neoliberalism continues to shape American electoral politics, aided by mass media that echo rather than challenge the myths that dominate American politics. And as mass media culture spirals incessantly into the culture of narcissism, flattering with its attention to the latest forms of flamboyant expressiveness, it provides the mythmakers with the images they continue to use to keep their unhappy legions in line.

What is largely omitted from mass media accounts of the 1960s era is the powerful experience of people taking history into their own hands and bringing about substantial and much-needed changes in their society. The hopeful awareness that people can come together to shape their world through political action is, perhaps, the greatest loss produced by the dynamic that began back in 1964.

[1] Quoted from the film, Freedom on My Mind, directors Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford (VHS), San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1994).

[2] Staughton Lynd, Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 35.

[3] Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York, New York University Press, 1975).