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).