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.