Remembering the 1960s – Part 2 of 3

Posted December 17, 2009

[This is the second of a three-section remembrance of the youth radicalization of the 1960s. Read part one here.]

The Civil Rights movement got a major initial impetus when the U.S. Armed Forces were integrated in 1947. This was followed seven years later by the Brown v. the (Topeka, Kansas) Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in U.S. public schools. The motor force of the Civil Rights movement was the effort of African Americans to bring into synchronization the de facto economic gains that African Americans had made during the post-war prosperity with their de jure legal and political rights, which in the South remained those of second-class citizens.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., and other southern African-American ministers provided the leadership for the Civil Rights movement, the “ground troops” of the movement were in the main African-American college students, the first generation of African Americans to attend college in significant numbers. But the Civil Rights movement also included a sizable number of white students from the north who went south to participate in the movement. These white students had been taught in grade school and high school the sacred American values of freedom, equality and democracy, and when they saw that none of these values prevailed in the segregated, racist South, they decided to do something about this travesty.

Young people entering college in the 1960s had grown up in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War and a pervasive fear of the atomic bomb that the political climate of the Cold War had created. Few would forget the constant “duck and cover” drills of their grade school days when they were forced to dive under their school desks seeking protection from a Russian atomic bomb that could at any moment be dropped on them. It was therefore quite natural for a number of them to become involved in the “Ban the Bomb” movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Many of those involved in the “Ban the Bomb” movement moved quite easily from abstract opposition to a hypothetical nuclear war to specific opposition to a real war as the movement against the war in Vietnam began in February 1965. Ironically, the pacifist-dominated “Ban the Bomb” movement initially refused to allow banners and placards protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam to be carried in the “Ban the Bomb” marches.

No radicalization, including the youth radicalization of the 1960s, simply springs spontaneously from a void. The Left in the U.S. had been severely battered by McCarthyism and the Cold War in the 1950s and further weakened by the post-war prosperity. But it had survived. The Communist Party had survived, although greatly reduced in size. The Socialist Workers Party, which adhered to the views and political legacy of Leon Trotsky, the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, and its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, had also survived, although with only about 300 members. A split-off from the Communist Party, the Progressive Labor Party, which adhered to the teachings of Mao Zedong, the leader of China, also existed.

In the mid-1960s another small group of Trotskyists, some of whom had once been members of the Socialist Workers Party, formed the International Socialist Club in Berkeley. The Socialist Party had split into a number of small groups, one of which included Bayard Ruskin, who had a major influence on the young African-American student leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Another small socialist group, the League for Industrial Democracy, had transformed its youth group, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, into the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.

And on northern college campuses there were many thousands of what were called “Red Diaper babies.” These were the children of parents who had been members of or supporters of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. The Communist Party had a membership of approximately 100,000 members in 1940 and historians have speculated that perhaps as many as one million people had at one time or another been members or supporters of the Communist Party between 1936 and 1946. These people of course produced a lot of children who came of college age in the 1960s. Having grown up in progressive families, attended progressive summer camps and having been imbued with progressive values, it was quite natural that many of these youth, once they entered college, would become active in the Civil Rights, “Ban the Bomb,” and anti-Vietnam war movements. Some, despite the fact that their parents had been supporters of Joseph Stalin, joined Trotskyist groups, including the Young Socialist Alliance and the International Socialists, instead of the Communist Party’s youth group.

During the early 1960s the state of New York did not yet have a state university system. New York state instead provided its college students with “Regents” scholarships, which paid for their education at colleges and universities outside the state of New York as well as at private college and universities in New York state. This allowed thousands of “Red Diaper babies” to attend such universities as Wisconsin, Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, Cornell University and Columbia University. It was not surprising, consequently, that these universities were among the early “hot beds” of the youth radicalization of the 1960s.

If one were to date the beginning of the radicalization of the 1960s, one would have to identify February 1965 as pivotal. Following the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam in February 1965 (a war which had been going on for over five years), the organized anti-war movement began. Three political currents played a key role in getting the anti-war movement off the ground—the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and a loose grouping of radical pacifists led by A .J. Muste, who had once been a member of an earlier incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party. Held in Washington, D.C. in 1965, the first national march against the war in Vietnam was called by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but most of the work in building the march was done by members of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party.

By 1965 the Civil Rights movement had begun to lose much of its steam. In part this was due to the fact that many of the movement’s original objectives had been at least nominally met when the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The radical African-American militant leader Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about to turn his attention to confronting racist housing segregation in Chicago. While African Americans had achieved a measure of legal rights and political democracy, they had not been able to attain economic democracy. Many of the whites active in the Civil Rights movement had shifted their activism to the embryonic anti-war movement.

To be continued…

Patrick M. Quinn was a member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South, became a founding member and eventually one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, and was an active member of the Madison trade union movement and the leader of the Young Socialist Alliance in Madison.