What follows is about 3000 words of personal observations on this history as it applied to me as an observer and participant. I barely scratch the surface of it. Pulitzer winner Taylor Branch wrote three complete volumes on the Martin Luther King years. Robert Caro wrote three volumes on Lyndon Johnson, almost 2500 pages. If I had the time and energy, I could easily write three volumes of my life from 1962 through 1972. Someday maybe I will.
At any rate, I would encourage everyone to read this missive because observer/participant accounts of the 60s are dying out fast. Much political history of the period died with Hunter Thompson. The definitive history of the Vietnam Conflict died with Bernard Fall. The social history of the 60s and early 70s will die with Tom Wolfe. Soon the only accounts for you to read will be from partisan politicians.
A superficial scratch on the history of protest in a previous generation
“Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
Bob Dylan, “My back pages”, 1964
In order to put the Angela Davis issue into perspective, one must understand the temper of the times. That requires an exploration of the socio-political situation in the 60s and early 70s, a time of intense social and political unrest that will probably never be seen again in this country. The next revolution will be financial.
We understand the progress of the 60s generation play by watching the players. In modern times we are allowed to view the aftermath of this progression as astronomers view dying galaxies from a safe distance. An alternate universe of unconventional social mores passing through optimistic iterations to ultimately to end in a fatal mutation. An exploration of “no limits”, the price of admission for which a number of very talented players paid with their lives.
Music and revolution
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game?
You’re a little insane
The money, the fame, the public acclaim
Don’t forget what you are
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll star!
The Byrds, “So you want to be a Rock and Roll Star”, 1967
Parenthetically, this social upheaval was irrevocably intertwined with the music of the day. The medium of Rock has always been one of rebellion against conformity and conventionality, and accordingly fit like a hand in a glove with the 60s. Rock is the stuff of existential anti-heroism, inviting those seeking salvation by immersing their souls in cathartic rock media masquerading as social profundity. The high risk-high gain medium selects for those who actively live the dream. The musicality selects strains and chords evolved to selectively pull resonant strings of the human brain, abandoning order.
Those selected as the cast had no safety net and were drawn in at their peril. Normally composed hominids become temporarily irrational and start ripping out seats at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert. Jerry Lee lights a piano on fire and is carried out with it by firemen, still playing. A surging crowd trying to get prime seats at a Who concert trample and kill eleven people. Concertgoers assault the Rolling Stones on stage at Altamont resulting in one death at the hands of the Hell’s Angels. Dimebag Darrel of Pantera is assassinated on stage. Duane Allman thought he was immune to laws of traffic. Bonzo and Moonie thought they were immune to the toxicity of ethanol. Hendrix couldn’t sleep without escalating soporifics that ultimately put him to sleep forever. Cobain chose the brief pain of a shotgun blast to end the constant pain of his life. Jim Morrison died alone in a bathtub.
It’s also necessary to understand the influence of former President Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon Agonistes: The crisis of the self made man (Garry Wills, 1970)
“Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
Your big chance has come at last.
Now you can go out and get those reds
‘Cause the only good commie is the one that’s dead
And you know that peace can only be won
When we’ve blown ’em all to kingdom come”.
Country Joe & the Fish, “Feel like I’m fixin’ to die rag”, 1967.
The demonization of our current sitting president is a frolic compared to the bitter division Richard Nixon incited among a huge fraction of the population, mostly young people and students galvanized by his diffidence regarding the Vietnam conflict and his oppression of the American citizenry (using the IRA and FBI as political weapons against dissidence).
Richard Nixon has no peer in contemporary politics. Many remember him as one of the most nefarious humans that ever drew breath. He was so spectacularly evil he glowed in the dark. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said it eloquently in 1972:
“For years I’ve regarded his existence as a
monument to all the rancid genes and broken
chromosones that corrupt the possibilities of
the American Dream; he was a foul caricature
of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions,
with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a
Nixon permeated and exacerbated the revolution by injecting his own agenda into the irrepressible change and got squashed like a bug in the process, but not before he became identified as the compleat villain on virtually every level. There was no possibility of his survival. He was the ultimate sacrificial lamb necessary to complete the revolutionary process. If he hadn’t existed, he would have had to be invented.
Angela Davis and her part in 60s history
“Her brothers been a fallin’,
Fallin’ one by one.
For a judge they murdered
And a judge they stole,
Now de judge he gonna judge her
For all dat he’s worth”.
Rolling Stones “Sweet Black Angel”, 1973
Angela Davis rose through the ranks of professional protesters to become a polarizing figure making Sarah Palin look like Cinderella. At this point in my diatribe, you’ll have to endure a bit of dry history.
Angela came up through the School of Hard Knocks in 50s racial discrimination. She combined a lot of brain-power (PhD in Philosophy) and a serious head of advocational steam for the poor and downtrodden of society, particularly for persons of color and women. In order to set herself apart from her perception of societal oppression, she worked hard to alienate herself from mainstream white rank & file. She assumed a very ostentatious Afro hairstyle, membership in the Communist Party and a very cozy relationship with the Black Panther Party, an organization famous for frequent firefights with the local Federales.
Because of her brainpower, she was recruited for an assistant professorship at UCLA in 1969 and promptly fired for her social views at the behest of then Governor Ronald Reagan. The cry immediately went up that she was a victim of race discrimination. Later that year, a federal judge ruled the university could not fire Davis because of her affiliations with the Communist Party, and she briefly resumed her post, followed quickly by another dismissal because of the inflammatory language of she media speeches.
In 1970, Davis became a full time social activist, plying the media expertly. In August of 1970, a black student took hostages in a courtroom and affected an escape by car, following which the police fired on the vehicle killing the judge, a hostage and three accomplices. It turned out that Davis had purchased the firearms used in the melee, she was prosecuted for “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” as an accomplice and she vanished into the social activist underground to avoid arrest. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made Angela Davis the third woman and the 309th person to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
She was, of course, ultimately found and jailed in January 1971. A splashy, racially saturated movement to “Free Angela” followed, the subject of this film. After spending 18 months behind bars, Davis was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury. The fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged not sufficient to establish her responsibility for the plot.
The incarceration of Angela Davis stands as a monument to the evolution of racial discrimination in the 70s post Selma, Alabama. She was selected for this honor pretty much because of her visibility in the social activist movement, that ostentatious females were a relative rarity within those groups and because of her eloquent articulation to the media. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a song “Angela” on their 1972 album some time in New York City in support of her. The Rolling Stones song: “Sweet Black Angel released in 1972 on their seminal album “Exile on Main Street” is dedicated to Davis.
I think that the Angela Davis situation was one of the seminal events that gelled 70s political activism.
Welcome to the evolution, revolution
“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world”
Beatles, “Revolution”, 1968
Although difficult to imagine for most of you, the years 1970-71 were a straight up revolution, exacerbated by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 and nurtured by the violent Democratic National Convention of 1968. Much but not all of it related to an intensely polarizing President and the unpopular Vietnam conflict that remained in full swing while the “peace accords” spent months arguing about the seating.
Virtually every city in the country brimmed with firebombs, looting and the crackle of small arms fire. Business owners sat in shifts with shotguns propped on their toes outside their storefronts nightly. You kind of had to be there to appreciate the frightening enormity of it.
On the nature of protest
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan, 1964
In the middle and late 60s, protest against racial discrimination, an established and entrenched culture in the South (and equally so but more occult in the Northern cities) took the form of “nonviolence” (passive resistance) after the late Martin Luther King. The working theory was that if enough resisters brought media attention to racial inequality, it would eventually collapse under it’s own weight. To meet violence with more violence would be contra-productive and also violate the strong religious undercurrent of the movement. It was just a matter of time and MLK protesters were willing to wait it out.
However, the forces of social and racial culture continued full steam ahead with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the violence at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, acerbically chronicled by Dr. Thompson in his formative work: “Fear and Loathing on the campaign trail, 1972”. The spectacle of cops on horseback busting kids heads with nightsticks in Chicago and kids shot dead at Kent State by National Guardsmen in 1970. It suddenly dawned that non-violence and simply pointing out evil and waiting for a logical response wasn’t working. Every kid clocked by a nightstick became an instant radical.
It was only a matter of time before a selection of the protesters escalated their visibility to make the establishment take notice. If violence were the answer to protest, then protest would meet that challenge by becoming more violent. Accordingly, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), previously a leftist student group advocating participatory democracy evolved to a radical revolutionary unit. The earlier iteration of the SDS was oriented along the lines of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee headed by Stokely Carmicheal. The next SDS iteration, Weather Underground (WU) rose because of the failure of passive resistance to accomplish its goal. Bernadine Dohrn articulated the manifesto: “You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, a line taken from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Any way the wind blows
“Blood on the rocks
Blood on the streets
Blood in the sky
Blood on the sheets
If you want blood – you got it…”
AC/DC, “If you want blood”, 1978
The Weather Underground consisted of mostly upper crust students dedicated to reforming what was considered to be a thorough corrupt and morally bankrupt government. Two of the prime movers of the WU were BiIl Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn, both of whom flashed across the underground activism sky briefly but brightly, and both of whom I will discuss later.
The SDS considered Nixon to be a politician so aggressively evil he glowed in the dark and an administration that needed to be brought down by an escalation of protest to that more physical. To quote Malcolm X: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary (1964).”
This was to be accomplished by selective property damage associated with the government, specifically to bring media attention to the problem. Violent demonstrations raising public consciousness and civil disobedience used to generate publicity pointing out the evils of mainly the Nixon administration. The express purpose of the Weather faction was to get attention via property damage they knew would attract media coverage, and this was the goal. With media coverage came visibility of the protest. So for a time, small bombs were planted in strategic areas like the Pentagon, with the express purpose of doing damage and generating publicity by which the message could be disseminated. If they got busted for property damage, so much the better. Martin Luther King became more famous for his sojourns in jail, not marching.
Briefly paraphrased, this faction figured out that the only way to get the attention of the public was break the machine. Mario Savio at Berkeley: “place your bodies upon the gears.” Bernadine Dohrn: “There’s no way to be committed to non-violence in one of the most violent societies that history has ever created.” Mark Rudd: “The weather is changing for this government and we’ll be forecasting it. We’re the Weathermen!”
Domestic terror redux
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away”
Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter”, 1969
In recent years, would-be meta-politician Sarah Palin has referred to the Weather Underground and those associated with it as “Domestic Terrorists.” She has no idea what she’s talking about since she wasn’t there and everything she says is scripted by partisans. Whether you believe the “domestic terrorist” theory depends on which acts of “terror” you’re looking at.
Never at any time did anyone in the Weather faction intend for death or injury, as this was, of course, totally opposite to their protest message against random death and injury. There were actually very few of these bombs set, fewer actually went off and each was loudly advertised in advance to insure no one was in the area. If Ayres et al, were guilty of anything, it was property damage, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and probation.
Tim McVeigh set off a bomb calculated to kill as many innocents as possible. No one knew it was going to go off and there was no “protest” of anything. It was a random killing. McVeigh turned tail and tried to get out of town, never intending to tell anyone who did it and why. There was no protest message and no responsibility by anyone. Tell me again how McVeigh’s bomb relates to the Weather Underground?
Did we matter?
“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again”
The Who,”Won’t be fooled again”, 1971
It was arguably the first time in history that a major youth uprising against a political regime occurred with such singularly coordinated organization. I was at the Vietnam Vets against the War rally in Washington DC, April 1972, wearing my LRRP tiger stripes along with then President of the VVAW (now Secretary of State) John Kerry. I bumped into him at least once in a To Do Street Saigon bar as I recall. He wouldn’t remember me but Kerry has a face you don’t forget. We stood by as Vietnam veterans lined up around the block in crutches and wheelchairs to toss their Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, and Purple Hearts over the White House wall. I wept openly. I have never been so moved before or since. In character, Nixon ignored it all, setting the stage for what was to come next.
Did a bunch of scruffy, longhaired kids bring down a President of the United States? What is “morally acceptable” in bringing down a nasty, repressive, oppressive regime? Was MLK’s passive resistance the “right” thing to do as these regimes burn themselves out under their own weight? Or was Bill Ayres right: “There is no way to be committed to non-violence in the middle of the most violent society history has ever created”.
In retrospect, I think history shows that we were an association to the fall of Richard Nixon and the end of the Vietnam War, not necessarily a cause. Nixon ignored anything and everything that occurred in the way of early 70s protest, walked away scot-free in 1974 and dying peacefully of old age in 1994. The Vietnam conflict simply burned out in 1975. If we were primary movers and shakers, it didn’t show up in the time line. By a stretch, we may have hastened it just a little.
Looking back now 40 plus years later to issue a blanket condemnation of the SDS and Weather faction demonstrates a lack of understanding as to the way things were then. Few if any of you can fully appreciate the passions of youth in the late 60s unless you were there and you were a part of it. There was no road map. No one knew what was right or wrong. We didn’t know what a “terrorist” was. We were on a mission from God. There was only the passion. Were we Domestic Terrorists or righteous protestors against unfair government? It will be for history to decide.
Urban Warriors: Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn
“Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection
Send my credentials to the House of Detention
I got some friends inside”
The Doors, “When the music’s over”, 1967
Bill Ayres and his wife Bernadine Dohrn are in perfect positions to teach modem youth what the politics of the 60s and early 70s was all about, and how the Students for Democratic Society and the Weather faction fit into it. This is history that needs to be preserved, and what better teacher than someone that was a part of it. His political positions are a matter of public record. Both Ayres and Dohrn grew up and out of the 60s as most of us did, and now reside quietly in Chicago where Bill is retired Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Education. He is active in community activities. Dohrn became a lawyer and espoused this as an example of a person’s ability to “make a difference in the legal system.” Dohrn said of her political beliefs: “I still see myself as a radical.
If I were a graduate student studying history or sociology, I would drool to take a course with Ayres and pick his brain extensively. I don’t have to share any of his views but I certainly can learn from them. He, like Israel, has a “right to exist” because we are a pluralistic society.
For those interested in serious study, you cannot begin to understand the era without reading:
* The Sixties: Years of hope, Days of rage. Todd Gitlin. (1987). 0-553-27212-2
* SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society. Kirkpatrick Sale. (1973). 0-394-71965-4
* Fear and Loathing: On the campaign trail, 1972. Hunter S. Thompson. (1973) 0-446-31364-5