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Summer into Fall 1963: a Continuing Education

October 1, 2013


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want the crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be as struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they re resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. –Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

(Do not those words sound both fresh and prophetic now, as true as they were a century and a half ago when they were written? Has not history proven him right?)

The Oakland Tribune’s response to the August 1963 March on Washington was an editorial (on the front page? I cannot remember) denouncing the March for its emphasis on rights with no mention of the supposed “responsibilities of Negroes to clean up their act, behave better and earn their rights.” The Oakland Tribune in those days was owned by the Knowland family, a power in the California GOP. William F. Knowland was a US Republican Senator from 1945 to 1959, a Majority Leader, the Minority Leader, and was such a vehement advocate of “unleashing Chaing Kai-Shek” to spearhead a US military recon quest of China from the “chincoms” that even conservative papers labeled him “The Senator from Formosa,” since he seemed so much more concerned with the welfare of residents of the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu than with that of California residents. He ran for Governor in 1958, and suffered a crushing (59%-40%) defeat by Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, the father of current Governor Jerry Brown, ending his political career. With his brother’s death in 1961 he gained control of the Oakland Tribune until his suicide in 1974 at age 65. If 30,000 marched against the Vietnam War and one person held a picket sign supporting the war, the Tribune would cover the lone pro-war spokesman and ignore the 30,000.

From Oakland to San Francisco:
In September 1963 I started attending San Francisco State College (later University). The move was Oakland to SF was dramatic. The weather in the southwest corner of The City was cooler and damper than Oakland. Colors seemed muted, vistas more confined. There were fewer black students on campus and many more Asian-Americans than in Oakland. Buildings, streetcars and roads seemed older, both more run-down and yet more venerable than those in Oakland. I discovered City Lights bookstore, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a haven for the disappearing Beat Generation. I was intrigued by the black-and-white photographic covers of New Directions paperbacks. I found the Surf Theatre a movie house out by the ocean that showed foreign films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut. I found coffeehouses and a quasi-bohemian scene that seemed absent from the Oakland I knew. San Francisco seemed filled with diverse neighborhoods, quirky, off-beat, eccentric enclaves and individuals that were novel and curious to me but not compelling or deeply engaging.

I soon discovered that Friends of SNCC was the active Civil Rights organization on the SFSC campus and I gravitated toward them. Like many volunteer organizations they had hundreds on their mailing list but a core of about a dozen people, who did everything. Our primary job was publicity and fund-raising for the Southern Civil Rights Movement. We hosted Dick Gregory and a benefit concert by Cal Tjader. We circulated petitions, made speeches, sent letters and telegrams to congressmen, participated in marches and demonstrations in The City. It was engaging but obviously it was nothing compared to what people on the front lines in Alabama and Mississippi were facing. It didn’t’ take courage to speak out in San Francisco. We weren’t putting our bodies on the line or risking our lives. At most, we’d get yelled at, called Communist dupes, trouble-makers, dirty beatniks, and most commonly, egotistical publicity-seekers—but we were not physically assaulted or jailed (except for one 1965 incident).I remember feeling contempt for social work majors on campus who said they passionately wanted social change but were afraid to sign any petition because they might get their name on some blacklist as a “pinko” or a communist sympathizer, and have their career ambitions short-circuited. So much for “free speech.”

Being an introvert it was hard for me to speak up in public, to do precinct work, to approach strangers and ask them to sign petitions, to give a few speeches, but I did it because I was felt I had to. There was a lot of fear in those Cold War days. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had convinced millions that anything pro-labor, pro-minority, anti-racism, anti-war, pro-social justice, or just questioning of the Conventional Wisdom was probably a communist front operation in disguise, seeking to seduce naïve dupes. Many times I was worriedly asked if I were a communist.

SFSC Friends of SNCC wasn’t a big organization but it was only a small component of the larger Bay Area Friends of SNCC headed by Mike Miller that was one of the most successful fund-raising FOSNCC units across the nation. I met some movement leaders like Bob Moses and his unique non-leadership leadership style, twice. Once in a big auditorium and once at someone’s small house. I was intrigued by his combination of seemingly self-effacing mildness that disguised a fierce determination. I was amused by seeing so many people (perhaps unconsciously) mimic his habitual two-finger hand gesture as he spoke. Bob Moses would make flattened, almost horizontal circles with two fingers extended and the other two folded back in , Whenever I saw someone use that gesture I realized they’d had a recent meeting with Bob Moses. I also met John Lewis in a small group setting on campus. He too was quiet, a small man, not flashy or charismatic, almost solemn, but with a gravity and great determination. He wore a suit and tie, and black high-top dress shoes that I later learned were called “preacher boots” down South.

These were the days when civil rights workers continued to be murdered, even when their deaths didn’t arouse the national media, as in the cases of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Sammy Younge. People continued to be beaten and arrested for attempting to register to vote. The FBI stood by and “took notes” claiming they had no powers of arrest. They could only take notes and pass them on to HQ in Washington, DC. Please remember that it was the White Liberal Administration of JFK that put out a contract on Fidel Castro’s life with Mafioso Sam Giancana and Joseph Bonanno (AKA “Joey Bananas”) and who also authorized wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, hoping to find evidence of Communist influence on him.

LBJ ordered the FBI to bug the members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention and, not coincidentally, SNCC headquarters in Atlanta. When SNCC refused to toe the Democratic Party line, and prominent members criticized the growing Vietnam adventure, they started to be demonized and vilified in the “liberal” media. Time magazine, mainstream Democratic congressmen, and the influential beltway columnists Evans & Novak began to red-bait SNCC, to vilify SNCC as subversive and anti-American. In November 1965 a Gallup poll showed that 48% of Americans seriously believed that Communists were involved “a lot” in the Civil Rights Movement, and another 27% believed in “some” Communist involvement and direction. As the Vietnam War escalated, anti-communist “patriotism” became a more and more emotional issue. The irony was that any Communist influence was a conservative force within the movement. The radicals of SNCC and CORE had scared them off. to the extent that the CPUSA was involved, they were followers not leaders. SNCC leaders began to realize they could not count on the Democratic Party or the federal government at all and that sympathetic white people were actually a small minority within the white community. The vast majority of whites were hostile and openly racist.

Julian Bond won a free and fair election in 1965 to the Georgia State Legislature, yet by a vote of 184-12 the other legislators refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was forced to stand for election again and again, wining every time, being refused his seat every time until a federal court finally intervened. So much for democracy and “free” elections.

I don’t know how much I really contributed to SNCC and to The Movement overall but I certainly got a heck of an education out of my limited involvement—especially about grassroots movements that didn’t focus on celebrity leaders and national supporters, and about how much such movements were misrepresented in the media. I read everything I could get my hands on, and listened to everyone who had been on the front lines. I don’t know that I contributed anything original, but I had curiosity and humility. I didn’t claim to have the answers. It changed my understanding of the world even if it also raised endless questions in my mind, many of which I still have no easy answers for, that I still wrestle with.

I remember one black friend, a recent graduate, confiding in my about frustrating it was not knowing how much of a role racism played in his failure to get hired after ten job interviews. He noted I, a white college kid, applied for several jobs recently without being hired, too. He was a scrupulous person who “didn’t want to cry prejudice when it’s not there” and “maybe some of the other applicants was better qualified” and that’s why he wasn’t hired but the agony was in never knowing. Racism was obviously a factor, but how much, in which situations, how often? Here? There? How avoid the twin dangers of naiveté and of paranoia?

Another black man, middle-aged, voiced the opinion that the overt racism of the South was easier for him to deal with than the invisible, hypocritical racism of the North in both hiring and in social invitations. Down South, he said, they’ll tell you to your face, “We don’t hire no colored here. You want a job, go down to Peterson Brothers on State Street or Anderson’s Lumber on Fourth Avenue. Those are the only places in town that hire colored.” Unjust and ugly as it was, that white cracker was giving you straightforward, honest information you needed to know. He was telling you the truth. In the North, if you were naïve enough to take white people’s assurances that there were no racial barriers and you were welcome everywhere, you would find to your sorrow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly and subtly, that whites didn’t really mean it, but they would never admit it.

Institutional racism was another subtle barrier, almost invisible. No official, overt barriers but somehow blacks and other so-called minorities were effectively excluded. Again, no simplistic answers, or slogans but a serious problem that need to be confronted. By Fall 1965, the Anti-War movement was emerging as the major force on campuses and drawing the attention of while college students away from the black struggle. The spring 1966 ouster of John Lewis & the rise of Black Power under Stokely Carmichael had been a long time coming but alienated many mainstream white liberal who had clung to Democratic Party orthodoxy. By the fall of 1966 SFSC Friends of SNCC was dead.

I am going to stop here. This started out as a post about how the events of 1963 including the March on Washington stimulated my own political awakening and not as a complete history of the 1960s.Things evolved with dizzying rapidity during the last half of the 1960s. SFSC, after a massive student strike (late 1968, early ‘69) with hundreds arrested, developed one of the first ethnic studies departments in the nation, a model for other colleges.

But from 1969 on it seemed to me many causes unraveled into chaos in many cases and ended badly. I saw nothing admirable about the Manson murders despite the Weatherman faction of SDS exulting over the killing. The prison movement, centered on George Jackson, ended in senseless murder and mayhem. “Marxism is my hustle,” Jackson once admitted. The SLA’s murder of Marcus Foster (first black Oakland Supt of Schools) and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst were acclaimed by some as fascinating theatre. I thought it was crazy, stupid, and senseless. If you want to honor Dr. King’s legacy, please read or listen to his April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church in NYC. Exactly one year before he was murdered, he laid out his vision of a “beloved community.” It is truly uncanny how relevant it is to the world we live in today, 46 years later.




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