Intersectionality and Family Values: Different Criticism of the Women’s Movement from the Left and Right

This week’s readings stood out to me for a few reasons. First, they all seem to criticize the women’s movement and the social movements of the era, albeit in different ways. The documents in Takin’ it to the Streets all highlight the role of the intersectionality of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender. The conservative and religious authors of the documents in The Rise of Conservatism in America readings also criticized the women’s movement, but for them the issue was the movement’s attack on family values. Finally, these many of these documents stood out to me in that they describe issues that are still prevalent today.

As some of the documents highlighted, race, economic status, sexual orientation, and gender impacted a person’s specific experience; moreover, these aspects of identity influenced the focus of activists and their views of the women’s movement. For example, working-class women had struggles specific to them. In “The Mexican-American Woman,” Enriqueta Longauex y Vasquez highlights thins, noting that wives with husbands unable to support the family had to find some sort of work, as, “in order to find a way to feed and clothe her family, she must find a job… probably be sought only for survival… [and] she must find housing that she will be able to afford” (B&B, 461). The documents also highlighted the struggles specific to race, and the important differences in struggles that minority races faced within these movements. Frances Beal calls out white women in “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” saying “if the white groups do not realize that they are in fact fighting capitalism and racism… then we cannot unite with them around common grievances or even discuss these groups in a serious manner because they’re completely irrelevant to the black struggle” (B&B, 456). The authors of these documents also highlighted the role men must play to support women’s liberation. Vasquez notes that “the Mexican-American movement is not that of just adults fighting the social system, but it is a total commitment of a family unit living what it believes to be a better way of life in demanding social change for the benefit of humankind” (B&B, 462). Denise Oliver adds to this, saying in “The Young Lords Party,” that, “I don’t believe in the concept of just a liberated woman; I believe that there has to be a liberated man too” (B&B, 469). In “Lesbians and the Ultimate Liberation of Women,” the authors add the role of sexual orientation in this intersectionality. They say that “we are part of the revolution of all oppressed people, but we cannot allow the lesbian issue to be an afterthought” (B&B, 513).

Race, class, and sexual orientation influenced the loyalty and focus of women’s liberation activists during these years. Some of the authors took these different struggles to These documents highlight the role of intersectionality. In “What We Want, What We Believe,” for example, the authors note that, “we each organize our people about different issues, but our struggles are the same against oppression, and we will defeat it together” (509).

Unlike the documents cited above, the conservative authors of the documents in The Rise of Conservatism in America had issues with the women’s movement for what they interpreted as anti-family, religion, and tradition. The influence of the women’s movement and identity politics on the rise of the religious Right is interesting, as the authors note that the role of religion was “relatively minor… on the Right until the 1970s [brought] new challenges to their faith and families in the form of women’s rights, secular education, legalized abortion, and homosexuality” (Story and Laurie, 114). Perhaps the clearest example of this is Phyllis Schlafly’s interview with the Washington Star in which she explicitly denounces the women’s movement as “destructive and antifamilty” (Story and Laurie, 105). She argues that women had a God-given biological role as the housewife and child-raiser, saying “I think our laws are entitled to reflect the natural differences and the role assigned by God, in that women have babies and men don’t have babies” (Story and Laurie, 104). In this, she reinforces traditional gender roles and tries to portray women’s liberation activists as anti-family. Paul Weyrich adds to this in “Building the Moral Majority,” attacking pro-choice activists, “homosexual rights advocates, genetic engineers and militant secular humanists” and claiming they were out to destroy the American family (Story and Laurie, 116).

The documents this week also surprised me with how much the echoed issues today. Female stereotypes, for example, that the documents discuss still exist today. I was taken aback by the words in the “Asian Women as Leaders” document, which explains that “women who speak out loudly and strongly; who are authoritarian, who boss people around, and command some form of respect” were called Bitches, as this is still a commons stereotype (and double standard) today (B&B, 471). Moreover, issues outlined in the Third World Gay Liberation’s “What We Want, What We Believe,” still ring true today. Specifically, women today still “want the right of self-determination over the use of our bodies… free and safe birth control… truthful teaching of women’s history…” (B&B, 510). Gay people also face similar issues that the document “Lesbians and the Ultimate Liberation of Women” identifies when it says: “Sexuality is basic to all human beings, and homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality” and that we should “teach children from the earliest years about homosexuality without bias” (B&B, 515). The conservative documents we read also share similarities with conservatives today. The notion of “fake media,” for example, is present in the document.s The NRA’s “Act Before It Is Too Late,” for example, makes a note of the “misled news media” and the “untruths spread by anti-gun spokesmen” (Story and Laurie, 94-95). Additionally, Paul Weyrich argues that “the media often portrays the right-to-life movement as a tool of the Catholic bishops” which he says is a false notion (116).

Race, class, sexual orientation, and gender created different struggles for different people, and raised issue within social movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Additionally, conservatives increasingly raised issues with these social movements, calling their focuses anti-family. Finally, many of the issues raised by both activists in these social movements and by conservatives at the time are still present in today’s society.

An Ongoing Sexual (R)evolution: Parallels to Other 1960s Movements and Today

The readings this week pointed to significant parallels and connections between the sexual revolution and the other movements of the 1960s; moreover, they exposed parallels and ongoing struggles still present in today’s society.

Multiple documents echo rhetoric of the civil rights movement, and a few authors explicitly note the influence civil rights had on the sexual revolution. Gloria Steinem, for example, likens women’s issues to issues face by black Americans, saying in “What Would It Be Like If Women Win,” that, “men assume that women want to imitate them, which is just what white people assumed about blacks” (B&B, 419). Additionally, John D’Emilio lists the civil rights movement as having significant influence on the emergence of gay rights activism. Though both civil rights and gay rights date back to decades before the 1960s, gay liberation leaders of the 1960s became increasingly active, motivated by events like the lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1960s by civil rights leaders. D’Emilio states that “the African American students who initiated the southern sit-in movement in February 1960 launched a kind of political activism that was new to the era” and that “with the model of the civil rights movement before them, new voices emerged among gay activists (Bloom, 212-213). The oppression faced by black Americans and the response of civil rights activists motivated activists of the sexual revolution.

Activists in the sexual revolution also drew influence and had connections with the antiwar and student movements of the era. The increased political action of women, such as those who destroyed draft files to protest the war and American imperialism, makes this clear (B&B, 436). D’Emilio adds to this when he writes that “gay activists were also following the lead of other social movements of the Left in the effort to create ‘alternative institutions’ to replace what were seen as the corrupt oppressive institutions of liberal capitalism,” and the increasing popularity of antiwar and campus protests encouraged sexual activism (Bloom, 214). As with other movements of the era, the role of the college campus was relevant to activists of the sexual revolution. Beth Bailey notes that “the members of the generation that would be labeled “the sixties” were revolutionary in that they called fundamental principles of sexual morality and control into question… [and] rejected a system of sexual controls organized around concepts of difference and hierarchy” (Bailey, 245). She implies that the activists seeking out sexual progress were similar to, and largely a part of, the youths of this era that sought an honest society without such a huge gap between the reality of private life and the illusion of public expectations. Additionally, these documents suggest the similar role played by authenticity in the sexual revolution. This is perhaps most obvious in the Radicalesbians’ “The Woman-Identified Woman” document that calls for women working together to “find, reinforce and validate our authentic selves” (B&B, 448).

In addition to the parallels and connections to other movements of the “sixties” era, some of the major focuses of the sexual revolution parallel ongoing struggles faced today. The sexual double standard, for example, still exists today. Women may not be kicked out of school for getting pregnant, but they are still expected to be the primary caretaker and assumed to have maternal impulses. More people understand the sexual anatomy of women, but pornography and sexually-explicit advertisements are still aimed at men. Like Playboy, consumerism based in sexuality continues to largely exploit women and fetishize the idea of the sexual women (Bailey, 249). It is more widely accepted for women to be openly sexual, but it is still assumed that men are inherently sexual creatures. Non-heterosexual relationships and identities are stigmatized, misrepresented, or unrecognized. Sexual identities not fitting into this box, like asexuality, are rejected by many. People still mock those that identify with pronouns other than “he” or “she”. Transgender citizens continue to face violent discrimination. The perspective that feminism is anti-male or anti-stay-at-home-mom still exists. Conservative and religious institutions are still repressive to women and gay citizens. Demands of the “NOW Bill of Rights” echo demands of women today; specifically, “the right of women to control their own reproductive lives by removing from the penal code laws limiting access to contraceptive information and devices, and by repealing penal laws governing abortion” (B&B, 418). There is also still explicit and silent resistance to sexual identity progress. When D’Emilio notes that, “for political and religious conservatives the growth of the gay movement and the rise of visible gay communities are elements of moral decay… many liberals and progressives also experience varying levels of discomfort at the spread of sexual identity politics,” his words ring true to this day (Bloom, 225). When he says that the church was one of the major “pillars of cultural power, stigmatizing gay men and lesbians by rendering their sexual desires immoral or pathological,” the same can be said today (Bloom, 213).

None of this is meant to undermine progress that has been made politically and socially; rather, it is meant to point out the work that is left. As D’Emilio and Bailey point out, the sexual revolution was more of an evolution, with a long history of change and struggles that continue today. Though much progress has been made, issues still exist. The sexual revolution of the “sixties” was a part of an era of drastic social and political change, and its connections to other movements of the era highlights this. Beyond that, it is a part of a historic and ongoing struggle for sexual identity progress, as its parallels to issues today shows.

VT in April 1970

To assess the Virginia Tech campus in April of 1970, I looked at both the mainstream student paper, The Virginia Tech, as well as the underground newspaper, Alice. Comparing the content of both, I saw that the student population was becoming increasingly political and willing to discuss issues on the campus and in the nation. Looking at two articles from The Virginia Tech, and one article from Alice, it is clear that the underground paper is much more radical and uncensored, and it tends to focus on nationwide issues. While The Virginia Tech focuses more on campus-wide issues and is clearly less radical, the rhetoric its student writers use along with the campus issues it details makes it clear that, as a whole, students at Virginia Tech were more actively engaged in the issues that affected them.

One article in The Virginia Tech titled “Special SGA Executive Report on Honor Court” uses political rhetoric to call attention to the importance of having an honor court. It asks its readers questions like: “How can we condemn those who go to war for power or esteem when we condone the cheat who seeks the added praise a higher grade brings?” And: “How can we shout for honesty in personal and governmental relationships when we allow the thief and liar to travel in our midst?” This wording likens the campus issue of honor violations to larger issues that the nation was dealing with, suggesting the students felt that issues on their campus reflected these bigger issues.

Another noteworthy artifact from the newspaper is the article titled “Birth control clinic ok’d by Senate appropriation,” which details the “major accomplishment at Tuesday’s Senate meeting”  of the passage of a proposed budget by the SGA that appropriated $6000 to create a birth control clinic on campus. This clinic, that “would offer free service to all registered Tech students, both male and female,” suggests that students were concerned with increasingly progressive issues like access to birth control. This article also goes on to note that “the senate also lent its support to the so-called “peace strike” set for April 15… [which] is actually a teach-in concerning the war in Vietnam,” showing that the student body was actively concerned with nationwide issues like the war.

In addition to the mainstream student newspaper, I took a look at the April issue of Virginia Tech’s underground newspaper, Alice. Compared to the mainstream paper, Alice is much more political and uncensored. It is more radical, angry, and sarcastic. However, both papers talk about similar issues, such as environmental problems and proposed teach-ins. This shows that the Virginia Tech student population as a whole was becoming more political rather than just the radical Left.

I was also surprised by how uncensored articles in the underground paper are.  An interesting artifact from Alice, for example, details how to plant a garden of marijuana. Titled “Spring Planting,” this article calls on members of the Corps, writing: “Stimulate Vietnam better. Get stoned first!” Alice also seems to focus on nationwide issues more so than smaller-scale campus issues, suggesting a different motivation and target audience from The Virginia Tech.

Both the artifacts in The Virginia Tech as well as those in Alice suggest a much more political campus in 1970. The similarities the student writers make between issues on campus and issues in the country suggest students at Tech saw the campus as a miniature version of the nation. One in which they could express their opinions and frustrations, and one in which they could make real change. Calling for an honor court, appropriating funds for birth control, and participating in teach-ins happening on campus, these students were taking action. Though The Virginia Tech is obviously less radical and more censored than Alice, both still seem to suggest that students were frustrated with the country, were becoming more willing to express their opinions on campus issues, and were more inclined to support progressive issues like access to birth control.

Violent Misunderstandings

The increasingly tense division between the American people during the late 1960s led to a chain of violent actions and reactions. A fundamental component to this increasing polarization and hostility is a lack of understanding, especially on the part of those in positions of power. People looked at young activists and made generalizations about them, assuming all to be radical and violent. Beyond this, the unwillingness of people in power to understand these activists often resulted in an unawareness of the true demands the activists sought. Older, more moderate democrats, additionally, also misunderstood the more active youth, resulting in their failure to see the similar views they actually shared. During these years, the American people, activists or not, were questioning the intentions of their politicians, becoming increasingly aware of the existence of a “credibility gap”. Those in power – policy-makers and university administrations – as well as the older generation in general did not understand the much more politically active and frustrated student activists and civil rights organizers; moreover, they didn’t understand the Vietnamese people whose country they essentially invaded and overtook. The unwillingness to understand resulted in increased polarization and violent behavior within American society.

There was a clear unwillingness of policy-makers during these years to understand activists. This is clear as these policy-makers escalated involvement in Vietnam with a blindness to Vietnamese culture and social structure. Robert McNamara admitted this ignorance of Vietnamese culture and society, but, as Appy and Bloom note, “this belated admission of ignorance is as accurate as it is appalling” (Bloom, 49). Additionally, University administrations dismissed student strikers’ demands, only fueling protesters frustration with the bigger structural issues they saw the university as symbolizing. Politicians also misunderstood youth activists and civil rights leaders. Politicians like Lyndon Johnson also make this clear. Johnson, for example, tried to dismiss civil rights issues after passing laws like the Voting Rights Act, not understanding that laws could not fully resolve systemic racism. Even McCarthy, despite being viewed in a much more positive light compared to Johnson during these years, made misguided assumptions about his younger supporters.  Because “he had deep misgivings about a group of young rebels using him as a battering-ram against his party,” he would not allow them to speak or be on stage with him during his campaign (B&B, 370). The older generation in general continued to misunderstand the younger, more politically active and frustrated youth, generalizing them all as radicals despite older democrats actually sharing many of the fundamental views that their younger counterparts did. When McCarthy canvassers, for example, questioned many citizens about issues at the time, they found that “whether or not people understood Vietnam, they knew that something had gone very wrong with this country…many, many connected their troubles with Lyndon Johnson, and some, amazingly, said just about what the kids were saying” (B&B, 371).

All of the people raising awareness to this unwillingness to understand or responding to these societal issues were “othered” in one way or another. Vietnamese citizens were seen as less than human, and their opinions were excluded in regard to the escalating war in their country. This encouraged U.S. policy-makers to continue the pursuit of a brutal war with no end in sight. Also, many assumed that all students involved in politics or protests were radicals, yet many were actually moderate and many shared views with older, non-student democrats. As Jeremy Larner argues in his memoir, “the majority who hated the cops should not be confused with the minority who actively provoked them, or the smaller minority who attacked them” (B&B, 385). And, despite McCarthy himself interpreting his young supporters as radicals, “the students enjoyed McCarthy’s respectability and wit as the outer signs of solidity, courage and wisdom… these were kids who reacted against the violent anti-Americanism of the New Left, whom they far outnumbered” (B&B, 370).

The consequences of these misunderstandings were increased polarization between many Americans and reoccurring, escalated violence. In the protest of the democratic convention in 1968, this resulted in police brutality on anyone, despite many of the protesters being “gentle college kids” (B&B, 385). In turn, those already frustrated with society became more open to violence, as the author makes clear when he describes his own personal rage resulting from this police brutality (B&B, 388). The response by civil rights activists and black power organizers to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. also makes this clear. As Eldridge Clear summarizes the feeling of the time, the “reaction to Dr. King’s murder has been unanimous: the war has begun… the violent phase of the black liberation struggle is here, and it will spread” (B&B, 381). In Vietnam, the consequence was continued escalation of the war and eventual awareness by the American people of the “credibility gap” of their policy-makers.

The lack of understanding in American society during the late 1960s, particularly on the part of policy-makers, university administrators, and the older generation led to increased frustration within these activists. In turn, activists were more polarized and willing to resort to violence in response to the injustices they faced.

The Role of Identity in the Black Power Movement


In discussing the growth of the Black Power Movement, many of the readings this week highlight the role of self-determination and identity in the movement. A few commonalities between this week’s readings include the notion of self-determination, the growing pride in being black, and the similarities between black Americans and colonized peoples across the world.

This assertion of self-determination called for black leadership of a black movement, concerning or angering many white Americans; however, the authors of this week’s readings repeatedly stress that the movement was not anti-white, but that there were multiple reasons for excluding whites from the movement. One of those reasons, as the SNCC “The Basis of Black Power” outlines, was the undeniable disconnect between the experiences of white and black people. As the SNCC authors note, “the white people coming into the movement cannot relate to the black experience” (B&B, 131). Along with this, white involvement in black movements served to reinforce negative stereotypes about black Americans, including that of the inability of black activists to organize without white help. Along with this was a constant issue of white paternalism. The SNCC writers assert that “whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing, and saying that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism,” reinforcing ideas of black inferiority (B&B, 132). Additionally, SNCC leaders felt that “a mystique must be created whereby Negroes can identify with the movement,” meaning that a black movement with black leadership would create an important sense of community (B&B, 133). The notion of self-determination did call for black leadership; however, this was to prevent the reinforcement of negative stereotypes and white paternalism, as well as to establish a stronger sense of community and collective understanding in the movement. As Malcolm X described, self-determination was not anti-white; rather, it only “means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community” (B&B, 121).

In addition to self-determination, the movement encouraged an identity that included increased pride in being black. This was a rejection of assimilationist integration rhetoric, which, as Karen Miller explains, “employed a racially neutered lexicon of “disadvantaged,” “underprivileged,” and “less fortunate” to articulate a vision of “minority” absorption into the “American mainstream” and cast blackness as disability (Bloom, 124). This rhetoric is clear in the McCone Commission Report on Watts, which repeatedly describes issues faced by black Americans as ‘disadvantageous’ circumstances. Saying things like that there was “devastating spiral of failure that awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core,” the rhetoric of this report reinforces black inferiority, and describes blackness in a negative way (B&B, 125). The Black Power movement refused this notion of blackness as a handicap; instead, they asserted one should be proud to be black. Miller says, for example, that “the confrontational stage of organized black student activism treated concerns increasingly at odds with the concept of assimilationist integration,” as students were overtly proud to be black and more openly voiced their opposition to injustices (Bloom, 141). The Black Arts movement also highlighted the need for a proud black identity, noting that black Americans “are constantly forced to see ourselves through white eyes… [causing] spiritual and psychological harm” (B&B, 138).

One final part this assertion of identity involved the empathetic relationship felt by members of black nationalist and pride groups to colonized peoples across the world. SNCC, for example, states that “we feel that SNCC and the civil rights movement in general is in many aspects similar to the anticolonial situations in the African and Asian countries,” as both shared a white paternalism by the radical whites seeking to help disadvantaged minorities, reinforcing ideas of white superiority (B&B, 135). In relating to colonized peoples, the SNCC writers also call out American hypocrisy, noting that “it is very ironic… that aware whites in this country can champion anticolonialism in other countries… but when black people move toward similar goals of self-determination in this country they are viewed as racists and anti-white” (B&B, 136). 

The Black Power Movement focused on the right for self-determination. Additionally, the movement involved a growing identity marked by pride and a connection to people colonized by Western powers throughout the world. These notions of self-determination and identity are discussed by many of this week’s readings.

The “Authentically Expressive” Late 60s

Like youth movements of the early 1960s, the counterculture of the late 1960s was concerned with idealism and authenticity; however, this later movement had its own distinct qualities which set it far apart from the early 60s. As Richard Goldstein phrases it in “San Francisco Bray”, this movement was “authentically expressive” with a “psychedelic ethic” (B&B, 249 and 248). The key word here is expressive. The musical performances became shared experiences between musicians and the audience, physical styles boldly rebelled against mainstream norms, and drug use was a tool used in hopes to expand minds and reestablish human connections. The counterculture of the late 1960s was louder, more theatrical, and more focused on mind-expansion and physical expressions of going against the mainstream. The counterculture of the late 1960s was distinctly expressive, as is clear in the theatrical performances of musicians like Janis Joplin and the psychedelic lighting and style of bands like Jefferson Airplane. The counterculture was an attempt of the youth to establish community grounded in idealism and rebellion expressed through style, music, sexuality, and drug use.

The distinct focus on overt expression of authenticity in the late 1960s counterculture was a clear departure from the youth movements of the early 60s. The differences are clear in the music of the two times. The music of Joan Baez in the early 60s, for example, greatly contrasts the later music of Janis Joplin. Watching Baez perform “I Never Will Marry,” in the early 1960s, one sees a calm performance that the audience watches; on the other hand, videos of Janis Joplin performing “Ball and Chain,” in 1967 reveal a shared experience between Joplin and her audience. Joplin’s performance is soulful and emotional. She dances with the audience, blurring the line between performer and audience as they all express themselves through dance and shared experience. A huge part of this authentic expression revolved around the concert experience. Performer-audience connection and setting were key to creating a sense of community. Danny Sugerman’s description of Jim Morrison’s performance makes this point even clearer. Sugerman details Morrison’s style and theatrical expression: “In black leather, with long brown hair and angelic features, the singer was a phantom, staggering across the stage, about to fall but somehow keeping his balance… he dropped back, and leapt forward, throwing his face at ours… the audience, who were already on the edge of their seats, were bolted and locked in the Doors’ current” (B&B, 252).

In addition to the emotional and expressive performances of musicians themselves, the backdrops to concerts were just as essential in creating the communal experience. Tom Robbins’ “To Dance” describes concerts as “multimedia sensual experiences…” noting that “lights, music, incense, and dancing… became liberating and expressive” (B&B, 255). The importance of psychedelic backdrops is clear in Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 “White Rabbit” music video, as the lighting seems just as essential as the music itself in creating the intended vibe. In “Everything Seemed Beautiful: A life in the Counterculture”, Barry Melton describes the counterculture as a vast, interconnected network “furthered by a talented community of young light-show and poster artists and musical promoters who all shared idealistic vision of a limitless future”, pointing to the importance of setting to create this shared expressive movement (B&B, 154).

Like the movements of the early 1960s, this later counterculture tried to create a community centered in idealism and rebellion; however, they did so through drug use, loud and colorful style, and theatrical music experience. Melton notes that “there was an incredible sense of community…” and that it was “a genuine attempt by a handful of young people to redefine much of what was taken for granted about the way human beings relate to one another” (Melton, 152). Goldstein adds that “hip has passed the point where it signifies a commitment to rebellion… it has become the style of youth”, pointing to the importance of physical expression (B&B, 249).

Another component among this youth movement was the tool of music in revolution and its relation to politics. In class, some students pointed out the videos we watched were less politically motivated lyrically in the late 60s; however, a few of the readings this week suggest that was not necessarily the case in the more general sense. Melton, for example, describes his continual involvement in politics, noting that his “first tour… was sponsored by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)” (Melton, 152). John Sinclair’s cry in “Rock and Roll is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution” is perhaps the reading that most clearly tries to connect the music of the time to political rebellion. Sinclair writes that the experiential quality of music makes it “the model of the revolutionary future” (B&B, 254). He argues this by explaining that bands are communities in themselves, and that they promote communal experience. Surprisingly, he calls for increased organization and decreased idle drug use, telling the reader to “get your thing together so you’ll be able to have a better time than just sitting around smoking bogus dope, dropping bogus speed-filled acid…” and to “organize… around some form of popular cultural activity like a rock and roll band… It’s time to turn on, tune in, and take over” (B&B, 254-255).

These readings suggest an interesting narrative of the late 1960s counterculture. Some may interpret the psychedelic ethic, drug use, and loud music in a negative way. Indeed, Melton himself says that “what began as unbridled idealism [was] swallowed up by an uncontrolled hedonism in just a few short years” (B&B, 156), but people like Melton still assert the positives of the immense sense of community, saying “we didn’t end discrimination, hunger, or war… but we did some really good things” (B&B, 156). Regardless, this counterculture was rebelling and creating community in its own distinct way.

Defining Freedom: Issues in the Conservative and Liberal Approaches

This week’s readings highlight the stark contrast between how conservative and liberal Americans viewed the role of government in the 1960s. A shared theme on both sides was the idea of freedom. For conservatives, states’ rights was an essential aspect of maintaining this freedom. They were concerned with limiting the control of the federal government and letting the smaller levels of government establish what will best maintain individual freedom. On the Left, racial and class equality were the core objectives to achieving freedom for all, and to do this required action in the federal government. The Right and the Left were at odds over the affects the federal government had on freedom, and both approaches had good points and significant issues. Here, I will look at how both ideological perspectives defined freedom, considering the issues of each respective interpretation.

One major component of freedom to conservatives in the 1960s was the maintenance of states’ rights. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater discusses his discontent with the federal government interfering with this, specifically regarding the issue of desegregation. Goldwater goes as far as to say there is “an imagined conflict between states’ rights… and what are called “civil rights””, claiming integration and other acts to establish racial equality were not actually civil rights, as they were not rights already incorporated by common, local, or Constitutional law (Goldwater, 60). He says that, regardless of his view that schools should actually integrate, he is “not prepared, however, to impose that judgement of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal…” (Goldwater, 61). The basis of this argument is that actions of the federal government to do things such as integrate schools impeded on states’ rights and, in turn, individual freedom. The issue is that this seems to imply that black Americans were not individuals, as the refusal of states to grant them the right to equal educational opportunities impeded on their individual freedom. Relying on the states to desegregate and take other measures to ensure freedom for different races would lead to prolonged inequality in many of them, especially in the South.

The issue with these statements and the understanding that freedom comes from states’ rights is that it excludes the historic oppression that prevents people of different races, classes, and genders from enjoying this same freedom that the Right is concerned with preserving. John F. Kennedy evoked this sentiment in his 1963 “Report to the American People on Civil Rights”, saying that the black population “are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice… from social and economic oppression” and that freedom is derived from equality, from the possibility “for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race” (Kennedy, 58). Lyndon B. Johnson echoed JFK’s words in his “And We Shall Overcome” speech, saying that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote… [but] men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes” (Johnson, 94). And again in “To Fulfill These Rights” he says that “in far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope… Negroes are trapped – as many whites are trapped – in inherited, gateless poverty” (Johnson, 95). Kennedy and Johnson highlight the major issue with the conservative emphasis on State’s rights: it failed to address the ongoing oppression that many states imposed on their black citizens.

Despite the validity of the Left’s claim that total freedom would not exist until equality is shared among all races and classes, the Right’s concerns over the federal government’s influence on freedom was also justified. There were issues at the federal level in the implementation of many of their programs and regulations intended to help achieve more widespread freedom. LBJ’s Title I, for example, tried to address the  “local control [that] not only created vast inequities between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods but perpetuated them, because without good schools residents of poor areas were unlikely to break free of poverty” (Shulman, 101). However, as Robert Kennedy raised concern over, perhaps it was not wise “to trust the very people who created the inequities with the funds to remedy them…” as with the government’s allocated money, “the districts selected which schools, students, and programs received the funds”; many pocketed the money or spent it in ways that did not benefit the poor population (Shulman, 99). Despite good intentions, as in the case with Title I, some federal government actions were ineffective in spreading equality and freedom; instead, some led to further corruption.

Both the Left and the Right oversimplified the role of the different levels of government in maintaining and achieving freedom. To the Right, states’ rights were crucial, but this ‘leave it as it is’ mentality allowed for oppression and inequality to continue; thus, federal government regulation and action was necessary. Conversely, the Left overestimated the ability of federal government programs, coming up with good plans that they failed to effectively execute.

Dreaming and Doing: the Role of Idealism in the New Left

Idealism increasingly became a central concept in the movements of the 1960s. This week’s readings and viewings highlight this, specifically in the New Left movement. At first, the idealistic ideas and Utopian visions in these excerpts made me think back to how Anne Moody’s experience during the March on Washington in Coming of Age in Mississippi. Hearing speakers like Martin Luther King Jr., Moody says she discovered “we had “dreamers instead of leaders leading us… in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream” (335). Keeping this in mind as I read this week, I wondered if the idealism of the New Left encouraged unrealistic pursuits primarily by middle-class college kids. The focus of Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory on poets and barefoot artists who paint their feet gold and riot for their right to yodel, for example, added to this thought. However, I reconsidered my initial skepticism after reading Casey Hayden’s “Raising the Question of Who Decides,” as I realized that I was misunderstanding the use of idealism. The movements of this era used idealism as a tool to challenge the reality, but they did not forget the reality. And this idealism really helped these activists organize and create a community, giving voices to people who were previously barred off due to wealth disparity and discrimination. Sources like Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory, Bob Dylan’s song “Blowing in the Wind”, Casey Hayden’s “Raising the Question of Who Decides”, and Connie Brown’s “Cleveland: Conference of the Poor” make this clear.

Though idealistic, the characters in Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory do not disregard the real threats of their society, as Sanders mentions their fear of police brutality, nuclear war, the FBI (Sanders, 89, 223, and 227). Sanders also notes that these unorthodox lifestyles and new movements centered themselves around idealistic concepts out of a “desperate search for some indication that the universe was more than a berserk sewer” (Sanders, 80). He also highlights that idealism was a tool used to help the new generation in their fight to be accepted for their authentic selves. Similarly, the music of Bob Dylan highlights both this desire for complete authenticity, as well as the acknowledgement of real-life threats. His style and demeanor in the video we watched this week oozes realness – he is not putting on a show but sharing his personal (and political) art. The lyrics of “Blowing in the Wind” ask questions like: “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Dylan calls for a better society without ignore the reality. His sobering questions help us better understand the use of idealism as a tool, not to be misunderstood as unrealistic.

This is something other key activists remind us, as well. In “Raising the Question of Who Decides,” Casey Hayden brings up a point that stuck with me while reading the other excerpts. Hayden stresses that people should not misunderstand the new movements as calling for outlandish change, noting “some of these ideas in articles about the New Left… always sound very mystical… they’re not” (Hayden, 78). Rather, idealistic concepts like participatory democracy called for fundamental equality, and it helped the various movements of this era to organize and establish a sense of solidarity and community. Participatory democracy itself seems idealistic, but the push for it encouraged increasing participation and organization with people beyond middle-class students and intellectuals. Describing her experience at the 1964 “Conference of the Poor” in Cleveland, Connie Brown shows the organization and participation idealist concepts like participatory democracy enabled. During this conference, she notes, “barriers of fear and distrust were dissolved… people were able to feel the idea of an interracial movement of the poor as an emotional reality” (Brown, 87).

Returning to Moody’s comments on dreamers, it seems that the idealist concepts of the New Left and the activists of this newer generation actually made it more possible for those previously barred from dreaming about a better society (due to racism, wealth disparity, etc.) to not only dream, but work within these movements to create a better reality.

American Hypocrisy during the Civil Rights Era

America has always associated itself with the concepts of freedom and equality; however, the racism embedded in its history pokes holes in this relationship. This hypocrisy is very clear in the years of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as dangerous as the blatant discrimination and violence of this era is the overwhelming lack of action to limit this discrimination. This inaction is highlighted in Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi as well as the documents in the first chapter of Takin’ It to the Streets. These readings share a theme of inaction, especially within the government. These readings discussed blatant inaction and seeming indifference within the federal government, the FBI, and local law enforcement, revealing the huge level of hypocrisy within the American government.

Moody describes the lack of action by the FBI multiple times in Coming of Age in Mississippi. After the burning down of the Taplin house, for example, no one really did anything despite the general understanding that someone burned it down intentionally. Moody tells us that “finally FBI agents arrived on the scene and quietly conducted an investigation… but as usual in this sort of case, the investigation was dropped as soon as public interest died down” (145). Later, Moody describes the same lack of action after five kids are shot in Canton. When the FBI visit her, she says they conducted an “investigation” that lasts just a few hours, and “the same afternoon they left town and we never saw or heard from them again” (322). This repeated behavior of the FBI reveals their seemingly indifferent reaction to hate crimes, even those as extreme as murder. Authoritative sectors like the FBI exist to enforce the law and protect the public. That they did nothing to help these situations shows a level of indifference so great they were willing to essentially not do their job.

Inaction also occurred at the local level of law enforcement. Moody points out this lack of response by law enforcement to violence against the black community and Civil Rights activists. During her first experience sitting-in, for example, Moody notes “about ninety policemen were standing outside the store; they had been watching the whole thing through the windows, but had not come in to stop the mob or do anything” (290). In terms of law enforcement, however, it went beyond inaction, as these documents highlight the amount of police brutality and unfair treatment. So much so that Moody relates it to Nazi Germany, saying that even Nazi soldiers “couldn’t have been any rougher than these cops… yet this was America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”” (305). Here she not only points out the inhumane treatment by law enforcement, but the hypocrisy such treatment shows. Such behavior by people in these positions of power goes directly against the American mentality of freedom and equality.

This inaction reveals the government as complicit in the discrimination and violence during the Civil Rights Era. Medgar Evans calls out this hypocrisy, specifically targeting the Mayor of his community for completely ignoring the amount of intolerance that was going on. He explains the hypocrisy of the Mayor’s claim that his community is progressive and safe when its African American citizens are discriminated against on a daily basis, being refused service in restaurants, admittance in theaters, use of public facilities, denied privileges and experiencing brutality by police and white members of the community. Similarly, in “Wake Up America,” John Lewis calls out the inaction of the government and the need for activists to demand more and not accept the lack of action, ultimately asking people to consider: “Which side is the Federal Government on” (30)?

In reading these documents, I thought back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he explains the dangers of inaction. As these readings point out, allowing discrimination to go on is just as dangerous as the discrimination itself. That the government and authorities did not act to help African American citizens undermines what they claim their nation stands for.

And it is not even the inaction of government authorities that is so surprising; rather, it is how blatant their indifference way and the hypocrisy that stems from that inaction. Especially when we consider the context of this post-war era. A war in which we fought against intolerance and discrimination. Moody summarizes the significance of such blatant indifference when she says: “The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the federal government was directly or indirectly responsible for most of the segregation, discrimination, and poverty in the South” (313).

An Introduction


My name is Delanie, and I’m a senior studying history and philosophy. After this year, I’m hoping to pursue a graduate degree in something, though I’m not sure what that something is yet. While I’m figuring that out, I plan to get certified to teach English as a foreign language, and hopefully find a job somewhere outside of the US.


I have various interests and hobbies, but I’m going to avoid listing those out and just mention the most important part of my life, and that’s this little guy right here:

That’s my dog. He’s really cool. He loves food.

As far as this class goes, I’m hoping to learn a more accurate account of US history during the 1960s. I’d like to have a more honest and in-depth understanding of the major historical events and actors of the time, as I’m sure much of my knowledge – a lot of which comes from high school – barely scratches the surface or leaves out some of the story.