Elders of the New Left

Neil deMause

It sounds wor­ry­ing­ly like the set­up for a punch line: What do you get when you put nine 60s rad­i­cals in a con­fer­ence room at the offices of the Nation mag­a­zine? Or maybe a the title for a real­i­ty series – you have the Chica­go Eight mem­ber, the anti-war vet­er­an, the fem­i­nist, the white civ­il-rights activist and the black civ­il-rights activist – That 60s Show,” perhaps.

'I think that America as a nation is perfectly happy to keep [the history of the '60s quiet], because they can't afford for young people -- black and white -- to follow their idealism.'

For­tu­nate­ly, this gath­er­ing is a less high-con­cept occa­sion: the pub­li­ca­tion of Gen­er­a­tion on Fire, the lat­est book by Jeff Kisseloff, whose pre­vi­ous oral his­to­ries brought to light turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Man­hat­tan (You Must Remem­ber This) and the ear­ly years of tele­vi­sion (The Box). A labor of love that took a decade to find its way to pub­li­ca­tion, his new book focus­es on the social move­ments that raged dur­ing Kisseloff’s for­ma­tive years. For the Nation Nine, who rep­re­sent about half of the book’s inter­view sub­jects, this lun­cheon will be their first meet­ing out­side of the print­ed page, aside from those who knew each oth­er back in the day.

The first joke flies about 15 min­utes after we’ve arrived. Bob Zell­ner, who came to fame as the only Stu­dent Non-Vio­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC) orga­niz­er whose dad­dy was a Klans­man, tries to gath­er the assem­bled to sit down and eat. Yet every­one mills around even more aggres­sive­ly. And the New York Times pho­tog­ra­ph­er quips: This is going to be true to the times, isn’t it?” 

Nobody minds. It’s a day for jok­ing, most­ly about lost hair and gained pounds, just like any reunion. Even­tu­al­ly, every­one sits down and begins swap­ping sto­ries. Kisseloff’s books are notable for includ­ing very few famous peo­ple, though a few do slip in (Daniel Berri­g­an is the ringer this time around): to make the cut, the only cri­te­ri­on is to be a great storyteller. 

Great sto­ries are on hand. Zell­ner, who joined SNCC as a col­lege stu­dent in his native Alaba­ma, tells of the seg­re­ga­tion­ist who tried to gouge out his eyes at a ral­ly on the city hall steps in McComb, Miss. Lat­er, as he sat in a ram­shackle jail not know­ing whether to fear more his jail­ers or the mob that wait­ed out­side, four men came in suits and ties to inter­view me and take pic­tures of my wounds – that was the FBI. They said, We were there, and we didn’t want you to think you were all alone. We wrote it all down.’ “

David Cline, an ear­ly activist with Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Against the War, tells how in 1967 he had bro­ken his leg in a car acci­dent, and it healed a half-inch short­er, some­thing he assumed would keep him out of the draft. But 67 was a pret­ty heavy year, and they were just look­ing for live bod­ies to replace dead bod­ies.” He end­ed up in com­bat for six months, get­ting shot twice and hit once by mor­tar shrap­nel. He recalls the moment of his rad­i­cal­iza­tion: his supe­ri­ors led him to the body of a young North Viet­namese sol­dier he’d shot, say­ing, You did a good job, son, here’s the gook you killed,” and all he could think of was how the man’s moth­er would react to the news.

Mar­i­lyn Salz­man Webb, who was active in the civ­il rights, anti-war and fem­i­nist move­ments, recounts the inci­dent that helped lead the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment to split from the broad­er New Left. After being jeered off the stage at a Nixon counter-inau­gur­al ral­ly for dar­ing to give a women’s rights speech, she says, she got a phone call. If you or any­body else ever gives a speech like that any­where in the coun­try,” said the voice on the oth­er end, we’ll beat the shit out of you.” Webb thought she rec­og­nized the dis­tinc­tive cadence as that of Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety activist Cathy Wilkerson.

In the book, the anec­dote ends there. But Webb adds a coda: Years lat­er, she ran into Wilk­er­son, and found out that she hadn’t even been at the ral­ly, let alone made the phone call. She lat­er dis­cov­ered that the FBI had been run­ning a COIN­TEL­PRO coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence oper­a­tion to infil­trate and dis­rupt the anti-war move­ment at the time. The call, she now assumes, came from some­one imi­tat­ing Wilkerson.

There are know­ing nods around the table. Jim Fouratt, a founder of the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front and one of the Yip­pies who tossed dol­lar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the war (the result­ing mad scram­ble shut down trad­ing), chimes in that he spent three months in a Texas jail on a trumped-up drug charge, emerg­ing to hear rumors that he was an FBI infor­mant, some­thing he says has haunt­ed him” the rest of his life. 

It came, I believe, from this pro­gram,” he says. The goal was to take poten­tial lead­ers and destroy them.”

All those assem­bled still con­sid­er them­selves activists, in one way or anoth­er. On the Gen­er­a­tion on Fire Web site (http://​www​.gen​er​a​tionon​fire​.com/), which fea­tures inter­views (includ­ing Fouratt’s) that were cut from the book, Kisseloff notes that this con­tin­ued engage­ment didn’t sit well with agents or pub­lish­ers: I think that ran­kled a lot of peo­ple who would have pre­ferred that the peo­ple in the book all end­ed up as sellouts.” 

Cline works with both VVAW and Vet­er­ans for Peace, and has advised the nascent Iraq Vet­er­ans Against the War. Veran­dah Porche, co-founder of the Ver­mont com­mune that inspired Kisseloff to begin this project, stages Voic­es of the Unin­sured” poet­ry read­ings to pro­mote uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age. And Bar­ry Melton, for­mer lead gui­tarist of anti­war heroes Coun­try Joe and the Fish, is now a pub­lic defend­er in Cal­i­for­nia – where, he says, he now com­mon­ly has to shoo mil­i­tary recruiters who accom­pa­ny defen­dants to court, hop­ing to get them off so they can be shipped to Iraq.

All present hope that the sto­ries in Gen­er­a­tion on Fire will cut through the haze of leg­end to inspire young activists today. Glo­ria Richard­son, a civ­il-rights vet­er­an whose bat­tle­ground was not the Deep South but her home­town of Cam­bridge, Md. – when JFK ordered locals to halt their protests against whites-only restau­rants after the gov­er­nor declared mar­tial law, Richard­son famous­ly replied that the pres­i­dent could go to hell – is most peev­ed that the civ­il-rights move­ment has been paint­ed as a col­lec­tion of Kings and Aber­nathys, with an occa­sion­al fed-up Rosa Parks added for every-per­son flavor. 

This was a sec­u­lar move­ment,” she says. Almost every­body was a church mem­ber, but it was not led by preach­ers.” It was only after the first wave of demon­stra­tors had been jailed repeat­ed­ly, she says, that she and oth­er par­ents went to SNCC to demand train­ing to pick up where their chil­dren had left off.

I think young peo­ple today are always look­ing up to this Mar­tin fig­ure,” she says. Nobody talks about who went to jail. Pre­dom­i­nant­ly, those hun­dreds of cities in the South that were orga­nized were most­ly by high school and gram­mar school stu­dents putting their bod­ies on the line.” It’s a good mod­el for orga­niz­ing, says Richard­son, because they can’t con­trol those young peo­ple. They can’t fire them, they can’t stop them from get­ting a loan at a bank.”

Richard­son, now in her 80s, has no patience for lis­ten to your elders” talk. I think that Amer­i­ca as a nation is per­fect­ly hap­py to keep that qui­et, because they can’t afford for young peo­ple – black and white – to fol­low their idealism.

A lot of times peo­ple empathize with an issue, but they don’t real­ly know what to do – I know that hap­pened to us at first in the move­ment,” she says, as the Nation interns fin­ish their free sand­wich­es and the guests of hon­or take turns clean­ing up the remains of the meal. You stand there and watch and you hope they suc­ceed, but you don’t real­ly real­ize that you too can go in and do it.” 

Neil deMause is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to In These Times, and the edi­tor of heremagazine​.com. His arti­cle Bad to Worse: Wel­fare Reform Is Up for Reau­tho­riza­tion, But It’s Only Going to Get Mean­er” (ITT, Sept. 2, 2002) was select­ed by Project Cen­sored as one of its Top 25 Cen­sored Media Sto­ries of 2002-03.
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