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Assessing the Old and New America

October 1, 2017

Movements can vanish as quickly as they sprout up. Despite their potentially short-life span, movements can leave a lasting impact on the people who witness them and the generations who come after. W.J. Rorabaugh’s Berkeley At War: The 1960s aimed to highlight these movements and measure their success or failure. The book covers the struggles of four groups: the students, the local black community, the radicals, and last, but certainly not least, the hippie movement. Though varied in their goals and tactics, all of them shared a distinct disdain for the conservative ideals that had thrived in Berkeley for many years up to that point. While it is true that the uphill battle against the archaic but revered ideology had several defeats, I believe Rorabaugh’s analysis of the sixties as a decade of change rings true.

The first group Rorabaugh covers are the students of the University of California, Berkeley. The university was tremendously successful due to extensive government research, including developing “the atomic bomb during World War II” (10). For all the school’s prestige, the author also notes that there was an air of neglect toward the undergraduate students (10). Chancellor Sproul unknowingly set a movement in motion in the 1930s when he barred all political activity from the campus (14). This was done to curb the spread of communism and the repercussions would not be felt until Professor Clark Kerr became chancellor in 1958 (11). He tried to alleviate the wounds left over from McCarthyism era censorship, but it proved impossible under the rules set in place long ago. With the students unable to express themselves as they pleased, tensions mounted. After all, what was freedom without freedom of censorship? Declaring the rules detrimental, the Free Speech Movement was born. It was led by activists such as Mario Savio, Sydney Stapleton, and Jack Weinberg. It was a movement that united philosophers, communist sympathizers, and civil rights organizers in standing up to the campus’ restrictive laws (24). The rallies and sit-ins often became the target of the police, and this is what activists like Savio were counting on. Aggressive police repression led to widespread sympathy for the FSM.

Their efforts drew larger and larger crowds and “fostered a questioning attitude that in the mid-sixties led many to challenge the status quo” (47). The years after the Second World War had ingrained a sense of victory in the American people. Propaganda propped up images of a conservative, god-fearing, nuclear family as the epitome of American culture. Conformity and compliance was the norm. The FSM displayed the vigor of a restless youth that were not satisfied by the postwar United States. Rorabaugh insists it was a time when a group challenged the traditional ideas regarding the nature of political expression. I wholeheartedly agree that the fight for the right to have these discussions was integral to reshaping America.

The next group the book covers is the black population of Berkeley. The city had a growing populace over the years and even saw some strides in progress as in Wilmont Sweeney’s case. He was the first black man to be elected to the position of councilman (53). Even so, the overall expanding population of Berkeley had led to a shortage in housing (54). In addition, the houses that were available were not made available to blacks seeking homes. Landlords would gladly pass up on dealing with a black family in favor of selling exclusively to whites (55). The liberals on the city council found this (often disguised) racism repugnant and proposed an ordinance to outlaw this form of discrimination (56). Naturally, the ordinance met heavy criticism from whites, fearing the thought of having blacks in their neighborhoods. Sur enough, when it came down to a vote the ordinance was struck down and Rorabaugh takes care to detail the impact of this defeat. Firstly, it removed all doubt that racism was not a problem in Berkeley, and second, it exemplified white liberals as inadequate at solving the issues facing blacks (58). Discrimination and de facto segregation was also highly prevalent in the Berkeley school system and job market (62). Unemployment rates for blacks remained disproportionately high. In the face of growing powerlessness, blacks became disillusioned with white liberals and to some extent figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (74). From this swelling anger arose the Black Panthers, the creation of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Influenced by Marxism and disenchanted with King’s strategy of turning the other cheek, this movement sought to empower the oppressed. The word “Negro” gave way as the term “black” took center stage (78). They also went toe-to-toe with police, making quite a statement, but their time of prominence was short-lived.

Rorabaugh is quite frank in this section, stating that other than “school desegregation, the liberal program failed” (86). In terms of housing, education, and jobs, they were sold incredibly short. Seeing the lack of progress regarding these very important issues makes it very hard to disagree with the author’s point. Tragically, the black population had come away with some victories in their pursuit for civil rights, but they were still left behind when it truly came down to the application of their rights.

Earlier the era of McCarthyism was mentioned and for good reason. Many assumed it had died out in the 1950s. Still, the message of the ‘reds’ as the enemy of freedom still seemed very plausible to most American people. Berkeley was an outlier in this matter since the communist scare had never fully manifested there. In fact, the “open atmosphere attracted leftists from all over the country” (89). Thus, the Bay area was a refuge for a group of individuals known as radicals. They were farther left than traditional liberal democrats who often supported ideals that radicals critiqued. Prominent examples were people like Jerry Rubin and Stephen Senale who were “hostile to industrial capitalism, to liberals, and especially to the anticommunist crusade” (90). The Vietnam War was the latest in these crusades and was initially a popular war with the public. The deceitful propaganda of the U.S. government had led to the massive support, but the Berkeley radicals were not convinced. They formed the Vietnam Day Committee to launch their anti-war efforts (91). The VDC employed various strategies: sit-ins, teach-ins, marches galore, and the infamous burning of draft cards. They wanted to emulate the success of the FSM and like it they were met with fierce police opposition. The VDC also had internal fragmentations. One side “advocated militant action to radicalize young people and those who advanced political organizing to elect radicals to public office” (98). Robert Scheer left the VDC along with other radicals to pursue this goal. Ultimately, he loss in the primary of 1964, but his speeches galvanized those against the Vietnam War (104). The election alternative gone to them, the radicals turned to defiance of the government as a solution. Riots became the norm as rhetoric transformed into direction action.

These people represented the New Left, trying to discard the ways of old. However, the passive but passionate protestors who had “followed police orders and stopped their march at Oakland city limits” were now an angry tidal wave more than willing to resort to shows of force (123). Rorabaugh explained this as a bid for power that was inevitable as the war continued to not only escalate, but also begin to lose its support (123). Following the narrative of the how the events unfolded, I see Rorabaugh’s point of how the New Left evolved rapidly. If a peaceful method fails, people often resort to more forceful tactics. It truly was a clash for power, without one side pursuing a means to peace while the other tried to maintain order.

Rorabaugh begins his last segment by speaking of the rigid conformism that plagued America after 1945. Speaking openly about certain topics, especially those regarding those concerning sexuality, religion, and politics, made one susceptible to ostracization. He talks about a group of people who felt constricted by these restrictions, akin to the Lost Generation of the 1920s. This niche came to be known as the beats, ranging from “writers, poets, artists, jazz musicians, and hanger-ons” (124). The 1960s saw a resurgence of leftist ideology that took all forms, including in art where the ‘perfect’ suburban lifestyle was mocked (127). From the older and more cynical beats came the hippie. Being born after the war was a prime distinction, but more importantly they differed from the beats in that they wanted to change society (133). Hippies such as Charlie Brown Artman was a shining example. He looked down on materialism, participated in the FSM, and made frequent use of drugs such as peyote and LSD (133). LSD in particular had the purpose of enhancing the experience of the new music style, rock (138). Bands such as The Doors and Jefferson Airplane sang of a new generation taking over, one unrestrained by previous notions of sexuality and drug usage (138). As the number of hippie surged, so did the resentment of conservatives (145). Police took action such as enforcing nonexistent curfews and hunted incessantly for drug arrests. One of the fiercest battles was over People’s Park which led to a violent and destructive confrontation between protestors and law enforcement (163).

The sixties had seen the rise of an ever-growing counterculture of radicals and hippies. Unlike the left of old, no amount of legal action could convince them their course was wrong. Rorabaugh claims that the real victory of the vast counterculture movement was that, as opposed to the civil rights movement, it survived beyond the sixties and became a part of the mainstream. The hippies had taken the taboo topics and brought them into the light.

All in all, I very much stand by W.J. Rorabaugh’s assessment of the sixties. Staring out, I didn’t believe Berkeley could truly be representative of an entire decade, but it certainly was. It was a time where bold ideas were being openly expressed. The fifties lacked a large body that would critique and defy the system they lived in. Most important of all, the sixties told the American people they could change the system as long as they put up a fight.

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