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Lecture: War and Activism


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Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

Civil Rights

Civil rights are those rights Americans possess under the Bill of Rights and other constitutional mechanisms designed to equalize our population. Between 1950 and 1980, many groups actively sought civil rights. Such movements are not easy to place within the "mainstream" focus on history.

Black vs. Female Rights

The Civil Rights movement represents an extraordinary outpouring of energy and determination in a righteous cause. The issue, in a political sense, was the defense of the Constitution. Brown v. Board of Education had set a precedent that separate facilities for blacks were not equal, and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. But it took the combined forces of the federal government (under Johnson and Kennedy, primarily) and civil rights activists to create real change.

As part of the Civil Rights movement, it was necessary to develop notions of equality, to proclaim why it was morally right to desegregate buses and lunch counters. These ideas could range from the very practical to the philosophically complex. Rosa Parks was scared but exhausted; she sat in the bus seat designated for whites because she had worked all day and refused to stand when she could sit. Ministers like those who organized the Bus Boycott, and Martin Luther King, Jr. used notions of the equality of all humans under God as a foundation. Much of the Civil Rights movement was organized by young people, who joined together for sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Many activists were women, and they gradually realized the contradiction between fighting for rights for black men, while females were still in many ways without rights.

"Sojourner Truth"

This conflict was not new, of course. Before the Civil War, when abolitionists were discussing freeing the slaves, women had noted the contradiction. The Seneca Falls Convention had met in 1848, proclaiming the independence of women as a goal in the Declaration of Sentiments. If slaves were freed and then permitted to vote, what would happen to white women? Could Congress really intend to give the vote to illiterate black men but not educated white women? They did, and that's what happened. It wasn't until 1919 that women won the right to vote, after continual pressuring by suffragists and suffragettes, and antipathy for pushing their goals during WWI.

"Rosa Parks"

As in the abolitionist movement, women were major participants in the Civil Rights movement, and were often treated with disregard or disrespect. Here the issue wasn't freedom (which arguably women had more of than slaves in the 19th century). It was equality. It's important to understand the difference. Believing that there should be no slavery is not the same as believing blacks should vote, which is not the same as believing they are equal to whites. Most people believed that AfricanAmericans were biologically different from white Americans, even if they didn't say so. And of course, many southern communities believed in segregation as a way of life. As women discussed these issues of equality in an effort to desegregate society, they could not help but notice that they were also segregated.

Rosa Parks may have taken the initial action in Montgomery, but organizing was limited to men. According to Howard Zinn, one Civil Rights organizer, Ella Baker, put it this way:

I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to have come into a leadership role.
In the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, the women working at a Freedom House (a civil rights organization headquarters) went on strike because they were cooking and making beds while the men did the organizing. It is ironic that some of the most progressive organizations (in terms of black rights) relegated women to secondary roles. SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), famous for its radical actions in favor of black equality, wouldn't listen to its women members. They made coffee and did phoning while men did the "real work". Mary King protested. I can't help but notice that in this document she had a man write it with her.

As you read the document, determine for yourself:

Document: Casey Haden and Mary King: Memo on Sexual Roles in SNCC (1965)

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You will read more about this conflict when we look at the women's movement of the 70's. Just know it has its roots in female dissatisfaction during the 60's.

King and Malcolm X: Perspectives on Black Equality

If belief in freedom for AfricanAmericans was different from believing they should vote, and that believing they should vote was different from believing in equality, there were also differences in what equality meant. Although I am simplifying the argument, I think it's instructive to compare the perspectives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in this regard.
"Martin Luther King Jr."

King was an integrationist. He believed that the ultimate representation of equality would be a completely integrated society, with the same rights and freedoms accorded to all. He also believed in non-violence as the method for attaining those rights and freedoms. The history of non-violence (also known as passive resistance) as a method goes back to Henry David Thoreau. During the Mexican War, which began in 1846, the government instituted a poll tax of $1 to support the war effort. Thoreau was against the war, believing that its purpose was to gain Southwestern territory in order to expand slavery, which he felt was immoral. So he refused to pay the $1, and was willing to take the consequences in order to publicize his cause. He was arrested. Much to his humiliation, his friends bailed him out after one night, and paid his $1. But Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience outlasted his publicity stunt.

The Essay explained that it was a moral imperative for an individual to act in accordance with his beliefs (I'm not going to use his/her here because I'm sure Thoreau was focused on men). If you believe a law is morally wrong, it is your moral duty to oppose it or not obey it. You must be willing to take the consequences of this opposition, but in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing. In India during the 20's and 30's, an English-educated lawyer named Mohandes Gandhi read Thoreau, and used his ideas to form a national passive resistance movement that freed India from British rule. Indian followers allowed themselves to be beaten and even killed in defiance of unfair British laws. Gandhi believed that this use of "soul-force" elevated the spirit of the individual, and degraded the spirit of the oppressor, until the oppressor's righteousness was so undermined that he could no longer bear to oppress. This mass resistance freed India in 1947.

With this background, Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the power of passive resistance. A large group of unarmed people could use their own righteousness to create change. And remember, non-violence is a technique used by the protestors, not those who persecute them. Civil rights protests in the King model were frequently broken up by police, with tear gas, firehoses, and clubs.

Document: Martin Luther King, Jr.: I Have a Dream (1965)

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"Malcolm X"
Listen to Malcolm X (1 minute excerpt)

There were other ways to fight. Malcolm X early on believed that the use of violence was appropriate in self-defense. To a certain extent, it was possible to justify any action against the oppressors of black freedom as self-defense, and some did. But more important to this discussion is the pervasiveness of Black Power and the creation of a pride, a self-identity for AfricanAmericans that Malcolm X represents. Passive resistance prevents you from asserting your pride as a human being; you have to tolerate the beatings and oppression. Fighting back restores the kind of power that Africans had before they were transported as slaves. Many slaves had been descended from African royalty, or proud African tribes. It was time to reassert that connection to African roots, and many believed non-violence could not accomplish that.

This branch of thought can become a different kind of segregationism, which I call separatism. Like Marcus Garvey before them, Black Power advocates believed that total equality could never be achieved within the American system. Instead, black schools, black churches, black communities (in short, self-government) was the only way to insure appropriate rights and freedoms.

In 1964, President Johnson assisted in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed through Congress. You can listen to his phone conversation with NAACP leader Roy Wilkins about getting it passed, and the favors they exchanged (Nixon wasn't the first who used tapes in the White House!)

I admit, I believed in the white liberal perspective for many years, the integrationist idea. Then I went to a lecture, here at MiraCosta, by James Meredith. Meredith was one of the black students escorted into the University of Mississippi under National Guard protection after Brown v. Board of Education. He claimed that white liberals had co-opted the civil rights movement, controlling it and turning it in a direction beneficial to them. Now I know that SNCC expelled its white membership, and that many Black Power folks felt that whites contaminated their enterprise. But Meredith was looking larger, looking at why AfricanAmericans were still subject to extreme racism, why they did not have better jobs and better communities. And he placed the blame on AfricanAmericans who would not move to create their own communities and take care of themselves, but rather permitted the white liberal institutions to take care of them. He slammed welfare and affirmative action, which I'd never heard done in any speech. I think much differently now about the whole thing.

The United Farm Workers

César Chávez (1927-1993) organized the migrant farm workers in the Central Valley, creating United Farm Workers. "UFW"

Chávez was born in Arizona to a family whose grocery store and land was repossessed during the Depression. They moved to California and became farm workers, and César had to quit school to work in the fields when his father was injured. In 1944, he refused to sit in the Mexican section in a movie theatre and was taken into police custody. After his discharge from Navy war service, he resumed farm work, joining the National Farm Labor Union in 1948. Work in unions and organizing committees, and participation in strikes of cotton and flower workers, ultimately led to his establishing the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 as a section of the AFL-CIO. He knew about Gandhi and passive resistance and adhered to principles of non-violence for the movement.

When I was growing up, several of the UFW boycotts occurred. Subjected to grueling working conditions and no job security, the UFW called for people to boycott table grapes. The first was in 1967 and lasted five years, forcing growers to sign contracts with the newly named United Farm Workers. Along with many other California families, we stopped buying grapes during the boycott. There were other boycotts during the 70's, including lettuce and wine, and many UFW picketers were shot and killed on picket lines in the Central Valley. There were attempts to outlaw farm boycotts and farm unions; one came before the voters in 1972 and was defeated. Chávez was arrested several times for his activities. Later, in 1984, another grape boycott emphasized high levels of pesticides, and in 1988 Chávez fasted in protest because the farm workers were being subjected to high levels of pesticide exposure without protection. I still cringe when I see grapes in fruit salad, and I buy organic. On the way home from Bakersfield last August, I saw the grape pickers working under big striped umbrellas and thought, "the UFW must have done that."

Farm workers have not been seen as laborers in the same sense as factory workers or mine workers or any of the skilled trades of the AFL-CIO. Farming used to be family enterprises, but now it's "agribusiness" which uses cheap labor. Because the work is often seasonal, and workers migrated from place to place depending on where they were needed, organizing these workers was a major task. Chávez himself attended over 20 elementary schools, and his career took him throughout California and Arizona, and as far away as Florida. But his historical importance is that César Chávez created a way for farm workers to bargain with agribusiness. "Cesar Chavez"

He said,

Our opponents in the agricultural industry are very powerful and farm workers are still weak in money and influence. But we have another kind of power that comes from the justice of our cause. So long as we are willing to sacrifice for that cause, so long as we persist in non-violence and work to spread the message of our struggle, then millions of people around the world will respond from their heart, will support our efforts...and in the end we will overcome.

(Quote used by permission of the César E. Chávez Foundation)

Today, I look at our tertiary economy, and wonder why workers at Wal-mart aren't unionized. And it's for many of the same reasons. Work in tertiary industry is often part-time and insecure. People are hired and fired at the will of management, or hired as temporary for holidays or peak periods. And yet recent evidence has surfaced that they have been subject to abuses, such as being threatened with firing if they don't work extra hours every week without pay. Who will organize the Retail Workers (or Fast Food Workers, for that matter) of America?


War in Vietnam

Time for a little history in the history class.

Vietnam is a nation in Southeast Asia. Often dominated by China, its three regions (Tongking in the north, Annam in the center, and Cochin-China or Champa in the south) united as an empire in 1802. The French took over the area and colonized it during the mid-19th century, forming a union with Cambodia and Laos in what they called Indo-China. During World War II, the Japanese took advantage of French concerns in Europe (i.e. Hitler's occupation of France) to take over the region as part of the new Japanese Empire. "Ho Chi Minh"

During World War II, a Vietnamese resistance formed against Japan. It was led by Ho Chi-Minh, a Vietnamese communist. This resistance was naturally supported in faith by Americans and Europeans. But after the war, the French wanted their colony back. Ho Chi-Minh's resistance group, now called the Viet Minh League, determined to fight against the French for the independence of Vietnam. After the long Indo-Chinese War (1946-54), the French withdrew, but the peace agreement divided the country between the Democratic Republic in the north (communist) and the State of Vietnam in the south (republican). peace sign

This dividing line might not make sense politically, but it did culturally. For many generations, north Vietnam had been much closer to China, practicing Confucianism and, after 1949, communism. Both Confucianism and modern communism rely heavily on a centralized state, and on a hierarchy of duties. The south tended to be closer to India and Indonesia, and many people there practiced Buddhism. Buddhism tends to encourage decentralization, since its philosophy encourages individual salvation. "Vietnam Map"

It became obvious fairly quickly that the north, under Ho Chi Minh's leadership, was organized and had created effective communist government, but the southern republic (with no history of republican institutions) was floundering. Since Kennedy felt that Vietnam was the blocking post against Asian communism, he sent so many "advisors" that I can't even call them that and keep a straight face (23,000 by 1964). flower

North Vietnam began extensive military action to unite the country between 1963 and 1965. It's funny: the encyclopedia I'm looking at calls what happened a "civil war", which is definitely the communist perspective, right? We considered what occcurred an attempt by North Vietnam to invade South Vietnam, and after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, we entered the war officially in 1965 on the side of the South. You've read about the result. The last of the troops were evacuated in 1975.

Responses to Vietnam

Television had a lot to do with how Americans responded to the Indochina "conflict" (as it was called at the time). It was our first televised war, and the last where the government didn't use censorship to control what was broadcast. We watched the war from our dinner tables, watching entire villages of civilians being destroyed and Buddhist monks burning themselves alive. peace sign

The war itself was a disorganized shambles. The branches of the armed forces didn't work together, which sometimes led to American deaths by "friendly fire". In one operation, ground troops from Company C were told to move to an area for helicopter pickup, but were not told that the area was to be bombed within minutes. The bombing raid was cancelled at the last minute, when it was discovered the men were still on the ground. happy feet

The American military was unprepared for either a jungle war or guerilla warfare. We had never actually fought communists one-on-one. Chinese-style or peasant communism relies on winning over the "hearts and minds" of the people, making civilians a branch of the military. There were no uniforms. The North Vietnamese Army supplied the Viet Cong (northern supporters working in South Vietnam) along a trail that led through Cambodia (hence the decision to bomb Cambodia, a neutral country). It was impossible to tell who the enemy was. If you saw a Vietnamese person in the jungle, was it a southern civilian? a VC with a body bomb? "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it," General Westmoreland is reputed to have said. Entire villages were wiped out in a desperate attempt to dig out the VC. flower

Ordinary soldiers were ordered to, or permitted to, commit acts which in World War II would have been considered atrocities. As they returned from the war, they reported on their experiences. As you read the document, think to yourself:

Document: John Kerry: Statement on Vietnam (1971)

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Many, like Kerry, became anti-war activists.

Others, who felt they did their best for American democracy, found themselves spit on and jeered at by anti-war protestors. This, unfortunately, has led to the belief on the part of many Americans that to be anti-war is to be anti-soldier, against "our brave boys". This became an aspect of the later war over Kuwait. peace sign

Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors used the peaceful methods advocated by the civil rights integrationists, there were some (like the suffragettes in the 1890s) who used violence to make their point. The Weathermen was one of these radical groups. They specialized in bombs, in office buildings and sent through the mail. Their intention was to "bring the war home". They believed that the people making decisions in Washington had no conception of what war was like, and if they had they would stop the war. They brought the war home by causing the injury and death of officials' loved ones. I bring this up only because there is a tendency to romanticize the anti-war movement; not everyone was putting flowers in gun barrels.

Document: Stephen Klinkhammer: The Evacuation of Saigon (1975)

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College Campuses

College campuses were bee-hives of activity during the war for one main reason: they were over-crowded. The baby boom kids were all in college, and the system did not know how to handle it. This was true not only in the U.S. but in Europe, where the universities of Paris similarly became centers of protest. marijuana leaf

The young people of the sixties who were in college had never known depression or war. They had come of age during a time of prosperity, and their parents had worked hard to give them everything they needed. This gave them a different perspective. It is only possible to contemplate the role of the self, and the role of society and government, when you are freed from survival tasks like gathering food and finding shelter. Having never known want, these kids were focused on the needs of others and the complexities of "finding" themselves and their way. They existed in the Progressive tradition of a middle class trying to make the system more fair.

Document: Students for a Democratic Society: Port Huron Statement (1962)

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College protests focused not only on the war and domestic issues like poverty, but also on college curriculum. Many students did not see the relevance of the courses they were made to take to get a degree. They protested for "relevant" courses, which eventually led to the creation of women's and ethnic studies, and reevaluations of the history (Dead White Men) that was being taught. University rules were also changed in response to protest, although some of this protest was extreme. Although most college students were legal adults, dormitories had early curfews; at some schools students protested such rules with sit-down strikes and takeovers of administrators' offices. Such techniques evolved from and with the civil rights movement.

Kent State

Four students died at Kent State in 1970 as a result of a peaceful anti-war protest because the National Guard "panicked". Kent State was not a particularly radical campus; no more than 300 of the 19,000 students ever showed up for anti-war rallies. Four days earlier, some drunk students angry about the bombing of Cambodia, had thrown bottles at police cars, and a riot had ensued, with several hundred students sacking the local town. The next night, after police claimed to see previously jailed militants among the looters, the Kent state ROTC building was fire bombed. The mayor called for the National Guard as the community panicked.

Governor James Rhodes of Ohio had made campus disorder an issue in his campaign, and ordered in men, declared martial law, and pledged to eradicate the violence, which he claimed was worse than the fascists or communists could create. He apparently ordered all protests and assemblies broken up, without consulting Guard commanders. The guards arrived tired after five days of duty at a Teamsters strike in Cleveland; many were young and some were attending Kent State. When noon rallies commenced on the second Monday in May, the campus police ordered dispersal. They used tear gas to move the students, and the students responded by throwing rocks and pieces of cement. Guards fired into the crowd, 35 rounds. According to the report in Newsweek magazine, "not one of the four dead had been closer than 75 feet to the troops who had killed them". They may have not even been part of the protest; one was apparently looking for a lost dog, two others were watching the march.

The Guards involved claimed they were afraid the students were going to grab their guns and fire; the situation was out of control and the troops felt they were in danger. But one said, "It's about time we showed the bastards who's in charge".

The Hippy Lifestyle

In many ways it was a continuation from the past. "Hippies on Steps"

Communes are a good example. During the 60s, the 50's ideal family (a heterosexual couple living in their own home with their kids) was questioned. Living in ones separate home can be very isolating, especially in a nuclear family with the husband gone working all day. Communes made it possible for many single people, or multiple families, to share all chores, including child-rearing. In a commune, each person was assigned the work they most enjoyed doing; some went off to work during the day, others did housework and tended gardens, others raised children and did chores. Similar patterns of life existed before the Victorian age, and even in western pioneer houses, urban settlement houses, and rural homes during the Depression. mushroom

In some communes during the 60's and 70's, sex was also shared among all members, but even this wasn't new. During the 1820s and 1830s, several attempts had been made at utopian communities, and at least one permitted any heterosexual pairings to take place. Which brings up another point: as radical as the sexuality was in the 60s, homosexuality was still considered a no-no in most communes and collectives. The gay community formed its own communes and collectives. happy feet

Another aspect of hippy life that wasn't new was drugs. Narcotics and pharmaceuticals have been used recreationally, or to discover universal perceptions, throughout history and throughout cultures. In fact, it was anthropological and religious studies into these cultures that introduced the idea of drug-induced spirituality into the 60's middle class mindset. Shamans in many tribes use hallucinogens to tap into spiritual power. It made sense that, if you were seeking your own place in the cosmic order, you might consider oneself your own shaman. Drugs were not only taken to relax with friends; hallucinogens were often taken as a pathway to a more ancient or spiritual truth. I'm not sure I'd even call that recreational usage. marijuana leaf

But ordinary recreational use and abuse of drugs isn't new either. Cocaine was popular during the 20s and 30s (for the wealthy), alcohol has been used in enormous quantities throughout American history, tobacco founded the original colonies, and heroin was a part of the jazz set for decades.

Music: Peace, Protest, Pop and That Motown Sound

flower The sixties saw several new developments in music, among them psychedelic rock, which was influenced by the use of drugs like LSD. This type of music seemed counter to the trends in pop represented by the Beatles, who had become popular in this country in 1964. But the Beatles evolved with the times, producing hits influenced by drugs and the war and protest of the times as early as 1966.


Motown Records (named after Detroit, "motor-town") came into its own during this era, producing a musical combination of jazz, gospel and popular music that came to be called soul. One of the earliest and most popular Motown groups was The Supremes, who recorded sixteen Top Ten records between 1964 and 1969. "Baby Love" is from 1964, and epitomizes the "Motown Sound". Lyrics


Many popular songs protested the Vietnam War. The theme spread to soul music; one of the best known songs was by Freda Payne, a Motown singer: "Bring the Boys Home".  Lyrics


Janis Joplin was one of the greatest rock singers; like others before her, she was influenced by the blues. This is "A Piece of My Heart". It is almost a torch song in its intensity. Although Joplin considered herself to be an independent woman, the age for female independence in music was still emerging. I'll be considering this as a theme in the Seventies lecture. Lyrics


One of the most influential American bands of the late 60s and early 70s was the Grateful Dead, who still have a substantial following, even after the death of Jerry Garcia. "Deadheads" created one of the first cyberspace communities. In one of their earlier concerts, the Dead played a Beatles song, "Hey, Jude". Lyrics


In 1971, John Lennon (formerly of the Beatles) recorded "Imagine", which has become the ultimate song for peace.   Lyrics


During this era, romantic pop songs were being produced with a different sound, thanks to the talents of composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. Many of their numbers were made famous by singer Dionne Warwick, who was raised in gospel music. "Walk on By" was one of these pop tunes.   Lyrics

Movies and Social Commentary

Not surprisingly, activism extended into motion pictures as well. 1960s movies often tackle the social issues of the day.

In this clip from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", a young woman has brought home her future husband. She has met him very recently. As she explains her love for the man to her mother, he enters the room.

The Moon Landing The Soviets had been winning the space race since they had begun it with the launching of Sputnik in 1957. Everything the U.S. had launched to compete with this had failed; many rockets exploded on the platform. In May 1961, John F. Kennedy made a speech to Congress promising that by the time the decade was out, the U.S. would send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth. This statement was made to show we were a "space-faring" nation, a Cold War move that followed the Soviet launching of their first manned space craft, containing Yuri Gagarin, in April. peace sign

The Mercury program was launched (no pun intended) to achieve the sending of a single man into space, orbiting the earth. "Man on Moon"

The first manned flight (sub-orbital) was achieved by Alan Shepard in 1961, duplicating Gagarin's mission. John Glenn achieved orbit in the spacecraft Friendship Seven in February 1962. The goal of the subsequent Gemini program was two-man teams working in space. During the mid-60s, the first two-man orbital flight, the first American spacewalk, the first rendezvous (docking to another Gemini) were all achieved by 1966.

The Apollo program, which had been created years before, had the goal of taking a man to the moon. But the Mercury and Gemini projects had been needed first to work out the problems of space flight and functions. The pressure to make a moon landing by the end of the decade led to technical shortcuts that cost lives. Apollo 1 had a fire in the cockpit that killed all three astronauts, which forced a reevaluation of the design of the spacecraft and the bureaucracy of the space program. The next few missions were unmanned, and it wasn't until Apollo 7 that the Saturn 1 spacecraft (intended for moon landing with capsule, command unit, live TV feed from space, and spacesuits) went up. At the end of 1968, Apollo 8, though originally intended just to orbit earth, ended up orbiting the moon instead, despite the lack of a lunar module. The purpose of the next two missions was to improve scouting and docking procedures.

Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 19, 1969. The crew (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins) arrived, with Armstrong and Aldrin walking the moon's surface. Now, you can see and hear the moon landing on the Internet.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.