Duff: Societal wounds still bleed from war, violence and hatred 50 years ago (column)
Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
My generation came of age in the late 1960s and ’70s, at the apogee of that tumultuous time in history. As it relates to the turnings of history, VJ Day and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy bracket this era of high ideals. We lived then in a time of a scout-like high, as depicted in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The turning point to ignite the high era of our youth was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which set in motion a relentless series of challenges to white racism. Our entire nation was suddenly caught in the intersection of two images, black and white, where it was always thought there was only one.
Word War II did not destroy the values represented by fascism: racism, nationalism, militarism, bureaucracy, secret police, the violence of war abroad and the repression of freedoms at home, the supremacy of things over the individual.
That high era of utopian experimentation came to an abrupt end with the assassination of our president on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. The horror of the murder of JFK has been an open wound on our collective psyches ever since. The moral purity of our youth had been silenced. Less than three months later, a delightful group from Liverpool, England, came to America, and Beatlemania overtook us, plunging us into entertainment and carnal oblivion, a flight from memory and grief. We let go, for a time, of the shock and sorrow for the butchered president, his family and the fall of Camelot.
Then came 1968, the year we graduated from high school. At 6:01 p.m. Central Standard Time, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was speaking in support of striking city sanitation workers. Several sanitation workers had been killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions, and black workers received no pay if they refused to work in bad weather or were sick.
MLK had recently come out against the Vietnam War, stating that we all needed to become protestors against war, apostles for peace, in a world gone mad with violence. In a different speech, he said, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” While the military was ready for aggressive military action 10,000 miles away in Vietnam, it was not ready to defend blacks against violence at home.
Then, on June 5, 1968, the day we graduated from high school, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel. Once again, an apostle for peace had been silenced. The scars of the open wounds of history had been viciously reopened, and our commitment to social reform and our quest for a more perfect society, an exceptional American heaven on earth, born of the 17th century European Enlightenment, had again been stymied.
In 1954, Hollywood was making the animated film version of George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian classic “Animal Farm.” The book’s ending, in which the animals realize that both groups are equally corrupt, is a trenchant rejection of the binary worldview. Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, along with the help of CIA operative Howard Hunt, arranged for Hollywood to script that only the pigs were corrupt and had ultimately patriotic rebels overthrow them. The Dulles brothers realized that the message in the book “Animal Farm” contradicted all of what the United States was saying about the Cold War.
History is not just an investigation or illumination of some distant past, but also an intervention in the present for the sake of our collective future. We must anticipate the possible future without denying the past. The answer is always the same: the right thing, not the safe thing.
We must construct the Manichean narrative of the American past. We must be historians who reject objectivity and be activists who refuse to sit down and shut up, citizens who hate war and violence and dare to criticize the country. We must embrace a different moral ethos in hopes of creating a world where war and violence are no longer the default options for American affairs throughout the world.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, we graduated from high school, and two apostles for peace were destroyed before our eyes. But our education never stopped, not halted by the evils of history. The more widespread education is in a society, the more mystification is required to conceal what is wrong.
The 1960s and ’70s were heady times in our youthful drive to change the world. And now our children, because of their own eyewitness to violence, have joined us in the fight we have seemed to have lost against war, violence and hatred. We must not fail them, but join them in our collective zeal to transform the world.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” — John F. Kennedy.
Tim Duff is a resident of Vail and Tonka Bay, Minnesota.