Re: [sixties-l] more .. generations

From: Michael Bibby (
Date: Wed Jun 07 2000 - 14:29:51 CUT

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    Hi, all--

    I'm also glad to have the list back, and I've been very interested in this thread,
    esp. Ted's insightful thoughts on a problem that's long bedeviled 60s studies. But
    I question the following proposal Ted makes in his latest post:

    TED MORGAN wrote:

    > So, I'd argue for three phases in the 60s era --one running from the early
    > civil rights awakening (Montgomery...) through 1963 (maybe stopping with JFK
    > assassination) [characterized by upbeat idealism, a pervasive belief in the
    > system's responsiveness & democratization, etc.[, a second phase mostly
    > concentrated in 1964 & 1965 [characterized by the beginnings of a
    > criticism-of-the-system, a more radical outlook, but sustained by a sense of
    > the movement's momentum itself (this latter carries on into the later 1960s to
    > a degree), and then a "late 60s" era from around 1966-7 through the end of the
    > Vietnam War [characterized by growing alienation from the system caused most
    > prominently by the war, along with a shifting sense of efficacy --the
    > beginnings of feeling that the movement wasn't going to bring about the full,
    > imagined democracy of the early 60s, that the 'only solutions' were to pull back
    > from engagement with the system (either to counterculture communal living, to
    > the new 'personal politics of feminism, or local politics of
    > ecology/neighborhod) or to 'tear it down' (or at least 'do whatever it takes'
    > to end the war.

    Most of the rest of Ted's post seems spot-on to me--but I find the phases he
    proposes here problematic, and the framework they erect seems indicative of a
    persistent blindness in 60s studies. The "upbeat idealism" of the first phase
    (which seems to echo "Camelot" tropes of other 60s histories) and the "pervasive
    belief in the system's responsiveness & democratization" seem relative primarily to
    particular social groups, esp. to the white, middle-class, and college-educated.
    For inner-city African Americans, for example, I think there was probably less
    idealism and faith in democracy. 60s histories often focus on the church-oriented
    Southern Civil Rights campaigns in this period and the attitudes of African
    Americans and their college-educated northern white compatriots working in these
    campaigns, which were admittedly--and partly by conscious effort--idealistic and
    upbeat. But the mood was quite different in, say, Detroit, Watts, Philly, or
    Harlem. And while I agree that it's in the mid-60s that we see a broader
    coalescence of radical-left ideologies, it's also important to consider how these
    ideologies had powerful influence and broad mobility prior to these years. Radical
    anti-imperialism had been flourishing among some urban black communities in the 50s;
    and--as many other list members have been noting--the old left and some pacifist
    groups had already established forms of radicalism prior to the V War era. From the
    perspective of most middle-class, white college kids, though, the aftermath of
    Freedom Summer and Free Speech is much more a turning point. To characterize the
    later 60s as a period of "growing alienation from the system caused most prominently
    by the war" again seems to take white, middle-class, college-educated perspectives
    as the explanatory norm. Black Liberation flourished in this period providing some
    unprecedented means of community and empowerment among urban African Americans--the
    mood was, in fact, quite upbeat and idealist in this social sphere, as many black
    activists truly believed that a revolution was at hand. Similarly this is the
    period of Stonewall and the blossoming of Gay Pride, the proliferation of feminist
    movements, the rise of AIM, Puerto Rican liberation, and the Chicano movement ("I Am
    Joaquin" came out in 1967). While I think it is true that there was more diversity
    in the struggles by the late 60s--and that this has often been interpreted as an
    alienated disengagement from the system--I think that many historians misread this
    diversity negatively. The classic narrative tropes of 60s histories follow a kind
    of Edenic fall: from the hopeful idealism of Camelot to the nihilistic balkanization
    of the post-Tet years and Black Power, Watergate, and the Weathermen--and this
    narrative, I think, threatens to undermine the real historical value of the
    proliferation of struggles in the period and serves to impose an essentially white,
    middle-class, college-educated disposition on our understanding of 60s politics.

    Michael Bibby
    Dept. of English
    Shippensburg University

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