I graduated from high school in 1963. I was in a big hurry to grow up and get out in the world and so I blasted through four years of college in three. I was walking down the hall after Freshman English the day that Kennedy was assassinated. The act was incomprehensible and unbelievable. This was America, not some third world dictatorship. How could it happen here?
It was the first of the three murders (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King being the other two) that effectively accomplished a governmental coup de tat and changed the political landscape in America forever. I remember watching Johnson being sworn in as the next president and wondering if he had been involved. Although born and raised a Democrat there was something about Johnson I distrusted.
My college was an urban commuter institution – state supported and catering to the lower middle class city kids who typically were working their way through school to become teachers and accountants and social workers and to make their working class families proud.
By the time I was fulfilling my last credits for graduation in 1966, the boys were going to Canada to avoid Vietnam. Birth control and panty hose were paving the way to the sexual revolution that would later peak in 1967 in the Summer of Love.
One of the ‘star’ actresses of our college theater crowd had announced she had joined something called the Peace Corp and would be going to an island in Micronesia. Others of the avant garde were smoking grass and wearing their hair long to the consternation and ridicule of others.
Frank Sinatra and Elvis were out and The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones were in. Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki were talking about oriental mysticism; meditation, yoga, health foods and the human potential movement became topics of discussion. Timothy Leary was urging everyone to tune in, turn on and drop out.
From the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, the conventionality and satisfaction of the 50’s were replaced by political activism, public protests, communes and the militant underground. Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, R.D. Laing, Rachel Carson, the American Indian Movement, Mother Teresa, Germaine Greer, the National Organization of Women and dozens of other groups and individuals stepped forward to become spokespersons for the forgotten, the overlooked or the left behind.
The counterculture collapsed around 1973. Many of its political goals – civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism and the end of the Vietnam War – had gained a foothold in the American consciousness. In addition, the Boomer generation settled into the mainstream to raise families. Idealism was replaced by consumerism.
Why these memories of forty or fifty years? Yesterday I attended the opening of The Intercommunal Institute for Research and Social Change in Vallejo, California, a project of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation and guided by former members of the Black Panther Party who are promoting the establishment of service-based community projects.
In general, the attendees comprised two generations: the elders who had been active participants in the social revolution of the 60’s, and the new generation – the grandchildren. The torch is being passed from one generation to the other. And this is a time when the experience and wisdom of the elders is needed to provide some guidance for those coming behind who have the energy to implement a new vision for America.
There is a beat being heard in the lifeblood of our country that was last sounded in the sixties. If it is not heeded it may mark the end of our republic. The politicians and bankers and CEO’s are living in a world of their own that does not include unemployment, hunger, illness, ignorance, crime and despair.
We now have leaders we cannot believe and we cannot respect. The people are hungry for guidance, willing to work for a greater good if only a vision can be shown that is worthy of sacrifice. The people are tired of arguments and positions and lies, and eager for hope and determination and compassion.
What will the America of the 21st century look like for our children’s children? What will be left of our Bill of Rights and Constitution? Who will take up the staff of responsibility and mentor the leaders of tomorrow? If not you, who?