Wissot: Today is tame compared to the ’60s
It is much easier to appreciate the history I lived through than the history I read about in books written before I was born. I was a 15-year-old teenager when the 1960s began and a 25-year-old married man with an infant daughter when they ended. Those 10 years shaped my later adult views on the politics of race and war.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat weren’t around when I turned 15. Neither were cellphone cameras. But television was, and it played a crucial role in chronicling the changes in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The vivid images of the decade are still streaming in my mind today. The first set encompass the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, and the second encompass the Vietnam War protests, which grew more volatile as the decade unfolded.
On Sept. 15, 1963, the country was shocked by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that claimed the lives of four little black girls. The city earlier that year had employed police dogs and fire hoses at the behest of Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety, to disband black teenagers protesting against segregation. On March 7, 1965, I watched in real time the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march to Montgomery, Alabama, which began on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The late civil rights icon John Lewis and his fellow marchers were stopped by a phalanx of Alabama state troopers on horseback who first trampled them to the ground and then beat them silly with their billy clubs.
I thought back on the courage of those civil rights stalwarts in Alabama when Black Lives Matter demonstrators took to the streets in my downtown Denver neighborhood for two solid weeks in early June of 2020 to express their intense anger over the murder of George Floyd.
I so wanted to tell those young brothers and sisters, some who were protesting and some who were rioting, to channel their rage into acts of civil disobedience. I wanted them to engage in what John Lewis famously described as “good trouble.” I didn’t want them to become the focus of a right wing backlash.
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If they had held a sit-in on the downtown streets which blocked traffic, violated curfews and precipitated mass arrests, it would have sent a more powerful message about racial injustice than randomly yelling epithets at cops or wantonly destroying property. I wanted Derek Chauvin, the killer cop who murdered George Floyd, to remain the object of public contempt, just as Bull Connor’s gestapo in Birmingham and the Alabama state troopers were back in the day.
I opposed the Vietnam War for selfish reasons: I didn’t want to be drafted and die in a war that the most trusted man in the country, Walter Cronkite, had concluded by early 1968 was certain “to end in a stalemate.” I watched on the nightly news the body bags filled with dead American soldiers being lifted from aircraft onto the tarmac at Dover Air Force base outside Washington, D.C.
I imagined being drafted and winding up in one of those body bags, another senseless statistic from a military mission founded on quicksand. I hated President Lyndon Johnson for sacrificing the lives of young men and women because he didn’t want to be remembered as the first president to lose a war. We later learned that he knew the war was a lost cause and yet continued to send troops into battle.
Still, I planned to go if I got drafted. I had no other choice since I wasn’t a conscientious objector or a pacifist, and I didn’t want to seek asylum in Canada or go to jail for refusing to serve. I received my draft notification, passed my physical and waited to be inducted into the military.
By a quirk of fate, my local Selective Service Board, after consulting with the principal at the high school where I taught, gave me an occupational deferment. I was classified as “an essential worker” because of the shortage of teachers in the subject I was teaching, English As A Second Language, to foreign-born students.
Young men opposed to our involvement in Vietnam took to the streets to rail against both the draft and the war. The burning of draft cards, clashes with police at anti-war rallies, and “Love it or Leave It” signs shoved in the face of protesters by proponents of the war were regular occurrences. The music of a highly polarized country reached a schizophrenic coda when Barry Sandler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” were both played on the same radio stations.
Two highly traumatic events punctuated the chaotic close to the decade. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of mass mayhem when an estimated 10,000 anti-war protesters gathered on the city’s streets and taunted the police into dispersing them.
The cops responded with unbridled force, and the city was transformed into a war zone. Many were injured. Many were arrested. The only person who benefited was Richard Nixon, who used the riot to get elected president on a “law and order” platform that fall.
On May 4, 1970, college campus anti-war protests took a deadly turn at Kent State University when young national guardsman, some no older than Kyle Rittenhouse, opened fire on a crowd of student protesters, killing four of them.
I have no idea where our toxic and uncivil politics is going to take us in the future. Your guess is as good as mine. We survived the helter-skelter ’60s without going to hell in a hand basket. Here’s hoping we can manage to do that again.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.