Our Century: The Sixties

Our Century: The Sixties


The Students Take Over

In talking about the Revolt of Youth we should never forget that we are dealing with a new concept. For thousands of years nobody cared what youth were doing. They weren’t news. They were minding.

They aren’t minding now. That isn’t news. They haven’t been minding since the days of…F. Scott Fitzgerald. In those days, they were cutting loose. In the thirties, they were joining up…. During the McCarthy Epoch and the Korean War, they were turning their backs and walking away. Today they are striking back. That is news. Nobody else is striking back.

–Kenneth Rexroth, July 2, 1960

Two Cheers for Kennedy

Vice President Nixon defends the record of the Administration in implementing cold-war policies and says he would do better; Senator Kennedy says he could do a lot, lot better….

…Both are opposed to the recognition of China;…neither has suggested that the Congressional inquisitorial committees should be curbed or abolished; neither acknowledges the existence of civil liberties as an issue. On civil rights…the Democratic nominee enjoy[s] a margin of preference….

Still a dilemma remains. New Nixon or old,…his consistent policy has been: never meet debate if you can stifle it…. In the past, his adherence to this method has not resulted in irreparable damage; in the future it might…. In the circumstances, there is only one way to cast an effective protest vote against Nixon and that is to mark a ballot for Senator Kennedy.

–Editorial, October 15, 1960

That torture became passé with the Inquisition is an illusion which the Algerian war has dispelled. In that gruesome conflict, the Algerians have specialized in assassination, the French in torture.

–Editorial, “The Efficacy of Terror,” November 12, 1960

Marilyn Monroe:

Marilyn Monroe was supposed to be the Sex Goddess, but somehow no one, including, or indeed first of all, herself, ever believed it. Rather, she was a comedienne impersonating the American idea of the Sex Goddess…. Her performances indicated that while sex is certainly fun, and often funny, it is only one of many games. Others include the use of the intelligence.

–Lincoln Kirstein, August 25, 1962

Pellet of Nihilism

An act of cynicism, because it is immoral rather than amoral, still carries the seeds of its own salvation; no matter how despicable, it is still the act of a man. The execution of [Caryl] Chessman, however, was an act of insect-morality, carried out in a moral vacuum; it seemed to lack even the possible medieval dignity of vengeance or the possible sick strength of sadism; in terms of cultural tragedy, it felt like the last twist of the knife.

–Terry Southern, May 21, 1960

America’s Black Supremacists

Malcolm X…speaks forcefully, yet with complete control:… “We are seeking a return to our own culture….Where’s Ralph Bunche? He isn’t in Harlem. He’s down at the Waldorf-Astoria. Where’s Roy Wilkins? When has he given a speech in Harlem, to the people of Harlem? I’m not talking about the black bourgeoisie.”

–Herbert Krosney, May 6, 1961

Are We Training Cuban Guerrillas?

The Nation was the only US publication to warn of the Bay of Pigs.

Fidel Castro may have a sounder basis for his expressed fears of a U.S.-financed “Guatemala-type” invasion than most of us realize. On a recent visit to Guatemala, Dr. Ronald Hilton, director of the Institute of Hispanic-American Studies at Stanford University, was told the Central Intelligence Agency has acquired a large tract of land, at an outlay in excess of $1,000,000…that is being used as a training ground for Cuban counter-revolutionaries who are preparing for an eventual landing in Cuba. It was also said that U.S. personnel and equipment are being used at the base.

–Editorial, November 19, 1960

In the Ring

Sonny Liston was the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under, for all the hurts white men have been able to inflict on his world. Sonny Liston was “the huge Negro,” the “bad nigger,” a heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world. He was the underdeveloped have-not (politically naive) backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.

The mock contest between Liston and Patterson was a “brushfire” limited war. Neo-Colonial policy to confuse the issue. Patterson was to represent the fruit of the missionary ethic; he had found God, reversed his underprivileged (uncontrolled) violence, and turned it to work for the democratic liberal imperialist state. The tardy black Horatio Alger offering the glad hand of integration to welcome 20 million into the lunatic asylum of white America….

…We always get to the bad niggers…either kill ’em or drive ’em out of the country. Jack Johnson, Henry Highland Garnet, Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Robert Williams, Richard Wright, Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker, Beauford Deloney, Chester Himes, so many others. The black neurotic beauties trailing dumbly through the “equal” streets of hopeless European cities. All the unclaimed fugitive corpses….

That leaves us with Cassius X. Back in the days when he was still Clay it was easy to see him as a toy manufactured by the Special Products Division of Madison Avenue…. [But] Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene.

–LeRoi Jones, June 29, 1964

Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.

–Alan Rinzler, “No Soul in Beatlesville,” March 2, 1964

The March

The March [on Washington for Jobs and Freedom]…should also establish what has been clear all along–at least to those who have had more than a nodding acquaintance with the so-called “Negro problem”–that the Negroes are probably the least alienated of America’s racial minorities and the least revolutionary in any ideological sense. The overwhelming drive of American Negroes, in all regions, at all levels, is for middle-class status; they want to participate, on terms of freedom and equality, in the Great American Barbecue.

–Editorial, September 14, 1963

Prison Notes of a Freedom Rider

We could see about two inches of the faces of our immediate neighbors and quickly learned the views of the “voices” which made up our little world. Views there were, of all sizes, shapes and intensities. The cell block–like Sartre’s No Exit–was a constant torment of argument, dogma, prayer and song…. After breakfast (grits, coffee, molasses, white bread) came devotions…. This was followed by special time set aside for debate and argument….

Votes were necessary to settle the never-ending debates that broke out over large matters or small…. Someone in cell No. 2 on the far side makes a motion which is ponderously passed from cell to cell, to our “pivot man” and down the thirteen cells on our side. Assuming the motion managed this precarious passage without distortion (or objection), the debate began. Each person’s remarks and interpolations had again to be passed around the block. After everyone had had his full say, the voting would begin. “How does cell No. 4 vote?” “One for, one against.” “O.K. Cell No. 5, what about you?” “Two abstentions. We want to explain our abstentions.” A series of low groans would break out. This democratic spirit was doggedly defended to the very end.

–Robert Martinson, January 6, 1962

‘Let Justice Roll Down’

With the maturation of the civil rights movement, growing out of the struggles of 1963 and 1964, new tactical devices will emerge. The most important single imperative is that we continue moving forward with the indomitable spirit of those two turbulent years. It is worth recalling the admonition of Napoleon (he was thinking of conquest, but what he said was true also of constructive movements): “In order to have good soldiers, a nation must always be at war.”

–Martin Luther King Jr., March 15, 1965

A Report From Occupied Territory

What [is true of] Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco–is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population…. They are, moreover–even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity–quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more sure-fire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm [one of the Harlem Six, falsely accused and convicted of murder], speaking–speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions: “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us–period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them–and that’s it.… They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming…. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam–wherever they come from–can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy–this “bad nigger”–is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there…. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets.

–James Baldwin, July 11, 1966

The American Condition

The “American character” is at best a nebulous notion–which is one of the reasons for setting up committees on “un-American” activities to enshrine and defend it. Thus it was inevitable, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, that our national make-up should be examined and found wanting by one set of diagnosticians, while another would focus on our ancient virtues and describe the act as one of isolated lunacy…. This is the stand taken by Senator Thurston B. Morton of Kentucky: “…What happened was not America’s fault.”

A comforting declaration–but we cannot wash our hands of Oswald so easily. Assuming that everything happened as the FBI says, he was still a product of Texas (and of New York City), of the American lower-middle class, of the U.S. Marines and so on. All those places and associations are as American as baseball…. There is violence in the American character, probably more than in any other national character…. Oswald expressed that violence in his own fashion.

–Editorial, December 21, 1963

Andy Warhol

It was not merely that Brillo pads were part of every household, as the Campbell’s Soup can was part of every kitchen–the one item most likely to be found in the barest cupboard,…beyond that, the cardboard container was ubiquitous, disposable and part of Americans’ itinerant mode of life…. It was what everyone threw away…. Warhol said, “The Pop artist did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second…all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.”

–Arthur C. Danto, writing on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Warhol’s sensational Brillo Box exhibition, April 3, 1989

Kremlin Diplomacy

The defeat of Indonesian communism has changed the political balance in Asia for quite a few years to come, even if the Communist party eventually recovers. In the whole history of international communism there are only two comparable defeats: one suffered by the Chinese party at Chiang Kai-shek’s hands in 1927, and the other inflicted upon the German party by Hitler in 1933.

–Isaac Deutscher, January 10, 1966

The vast majority of motorcycle outlaws are uneducated, unskilled men between 20 and 30, and most have no credentials except a police record…. They are out of the ballgame and they know it–and that is their meaning; for unlike most losers in today’s society, the Hell’s Angels not only know but spitefully proclaim exactly where they stand.

–Hunter S. Thompson

The Vietnamese David may have to give up all the ground he gained in the Tet offensive, but the war will never be the same again. Goliath is in a state of shock.

–Editorial,”Goliath Entrapped,” February 19, 1968

Paradise Reagan-ed

To understand the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California, it is important to grasp the idea of that state as “paradise.” The Eden image has led millions to move there; from the Okie migrations of the thirties to the present the state has swarmed with newcomers.

Thus, when an election came up during a time of rapid social change and increasing problems, the people of California fled reality…and brought in a totally inexperienced man who campaigned on the basis of being a political innocent. Now all is simple and wonderful in a land where “thinking makes it so.” There is no need for government and, led by an innocent, the Californians can look forward to eternities of joy, while the rest of America, in the land of Nod (East of Eden) must continue to struggle and sweat.

–Carey McWilliams, December 5, 1966

Out of the Blue

There are many kinds of revolution and for each kind one can find more than one theoretical explanation. But underlying the phenomenon in its major form there is always a radical shift or change in mass consciousness. Suddenly, it seems, people begin to perceive socio-economic situations in a new way. The perspective shifts, the shift is momentous, but it is not as abrupt as it appears on the surface. The change has been gestating over a period measured in years, not in weeks or days.

The happenings in Paris are a case in point….

…It was a wildcat strike on a national scale,…a revolution less against the state as state, than against the current form of society, against the whole technological-bureaucratic pattern of civilization.

–Editorial, on May ’68 revolt of students and workers, June 3, 1968

The Fear of Violence

“If an election were held today,” says [Nelson] Algren, “[Mayor] Daley would win out of fear–out of the fear of violence. He is the guy who will get the police out…. He is a big property man, and the city is full of little property people.” They don’t mind violence–as long as they aren’t the victims.

–Editorial, following Chicago police riot, September 16, 1968

A Strategy to End Poverty

The theory here, to force change through chaos, was among the most provocative of the 1960s.

It is widely known…that nearly 8 million persons (half of them white) now subsist on welfare, but it is not generally known that for every person on the rolls at least one more probably meets existing criteria of eligibility but is not obtaining assistance.

The discrepancy…is an integral feature of the welfare system which, if challenged, would precipitate a profound financial and political crisis. The force for that challenge, and the strategy we propose, is a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls.

–Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, May 2, 1966

Individually, the hippies are beautiful. They know a lot the squares don’t. They know that marijuana is mildly pleasant and doesn’t give you lung cancer.

–Jack Newfield, “One Cheer for the Hippies,” June 26, 1967

Beale Street and Points North

His movement, his life were Southern; but Memphis, where he died, symbolized more than the South. Its racial crisis of 1968 and its murderous failure were those of all America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went there during the fifth week of a garbage workers’ strike that had built into a civil rights movement…. The issues of the strike were broadened to a protest against general conditions for Negroes, not unlike those in cities across the land–police brutality, unfit housing, lack of jobs, low wages, discrimination in schools. These, as Dr. King later noted, were the new national issues of Negro protest, economic at base, the focal point of the Poor People’s Campaign. But the main issue in Memphis was dignity. Again and again, preachers, union leaders and others demanded dignity.

–Pat Watters, April 22, 1968

It is becoming increasingly apparent that a campaign of repression and assassination is being carried out against the Black Panthers, and that a continuance of this course will see the entire leadership behind bars, or dead…. So far twenty-eight Panther leaders have been assassinated.

–Editorial, “Marked for Extinction,” December 22, 1969

Vietnam: This Is Guernica

What is the point of attacking a leper hospital? And of doing it thirty-nine times? What have we possibly got against public education for Vietnamese children that we should seek out and destroy their schools? Was the leprosarium really a supply dump? Was the cathedral really a barracks?…

Our Air Force does not simply bomb the north. Using conventional explosives, pellets, napalm, white phosphor, thermite, magnesium or rockets, depending on the mission, it bombs this or that sector of the city of Vinh because, this Thanh Hoa cathedral instead of that pagoda because, this central irrigation system instead of that Northern canal because…because why?

The ROTC manual begins to give us a sense of the answer….

Psychosocial structure…. “The objectives of these attacks in the past have been to dispel the people’s belief in the invincibility of their forces,…to cause strikes, sabotage, riots, fear, panic, hunger, and passive resistance to the government….

“If we were to search for the single type of target whose destruction would have the greatest adverse effect on the morale of a population today, we would have to conclude that the destruction of an enemy’s major cities with high yield nuclear weapons would produce the most telling results, not only on morale, but on every other component of the nation’s structure.”

All this from a soldier’s primer.

–Carl Ogelsby, on the occasion of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm, June 5, 1967

Whitey’s on the Moon Now

I had a Papago Indian intellectual friend over to watch the first man on the moon.

The Papago Indian intellectual brought over a Papago Indian cowboy to watch too.

“They are about to land,” I said.

“You said something about beer.”


“What for?”

“Till they get on the moon.”

“Are they on the moon yet?”


“Can I have the beer?”

“The white man on the moon said one small step for a man and one giant step for mankind.”

“That’s nice,” the Papago cowboy said. “Can I have the beer now?”

–William Eastlake, September 15, 1969

A Feast for Open Eyes

Flaming Creatures is much more about intersexuality than about homosexuality. [Director Jack] Smith’s vision is akin to the vision in Bosch’s paintings of a paradise and a hell of writhing, shameless, ingenious bodies…. [T]he important fact about the figures in Smith’s film is that one cannot easily tell which are men and which are women. These are “creatures,” flaming out in intersexual, polymorphous joy. The film is built out of a complex web of ambiguities and ambivalences, whose primary image is the confusion of male and female flesh. The shaken breast and the shaken penis are interchangeable with each other.

–Susan Sontag, writing after the film was seized by New York City police on grounds of obscenity, April 13, 1964

After Stonewall

The Nation did not comment on the Stonewall riot in 1969. The following was written to commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Craig Rodwell, a witness to the war in the streets, said in an interview for the documentary Before Stonewall that “everything came together that night.” Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the anti-war marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts. Not only that, but the years of gay men and lesbians locking themselves inside windowless, unnamed bars; writing dangerous, anonymous novels and articles; lying about their identity to their families, their bosses, the military; suffering silently when they were found out; hiding and seeking and winking at each other, or drinking and dying by themselves. And sometimes, not often, braving it out and surviving. It’s absolutely astonishing to think that on one early summer’s night in New York that world ended, and a new one began.

–Andrew Kopkind, July 4, 1994

Ad Policy