These thoughts have been swirling around in my head since sometime last month when I saw a story on my browser newsfeed about how this was the 50 year anniversary of the ‘Summer of Love’. (Younger people will want to remember that all this occurred pre-internet, 24/7 news channels, and newsfeeds to handheld devices that connect to worldwide web.) It occurred to me how many 50th anniversaries of significant events we faced and still face in this decade of 2010-2019. Of course almost every year holds milestones private, public and national. Most decades hold at least one event, whether a natural catastrophic, political upheaval, economic disasters, or the death of some figure who was admired around the world. But most Americans no matter what end of the political spectrum they lean toward, no matter what values they hold most dear think of the 60’s as particularly turbulent. And it was. But it was also a study in contrasts. Young men were being drafted and sent to Viet Nam to fight a battle that was never really ours to fight, based on an erroneous domino theory and fear of communism. Others were involved in anti-war and civil rights movements. The proliferation of activism, an alphabet soup of causes simultaneously with the Beat generation midwifing or morphing into Hippies: Peace Love and Rock n Roll.
My first thought when I read the headline was ‘That means in the next couple of years we’ll have the 50th anniversary of a lot of unpleasant memories.’ My second was that younger people and even some of my contemporaries are clueless about how many forms ‘hippiedom’ took. How diverse those wearing flowers in their hair were. It was not all peace and love, even amongst those who felt they were being sincere. Some communes got very cultish.
As is my habit I fact checked my own memories as routinely as I fact check Face Book memes and sensationalistic news stories. We’re past the 50th anniversary for some events—like the assassinations of JFK in 1963 and Malcolm X in 1965. Past the 50th of the summer of 1966 that saw the Meredith March, which had representatives from most every civil rights group in the country as well as a lot of non-affiliated people who just wanted to take a stand. I worked for SCLC, but hung out with people from CORE and SNCC. There was a change in rhetoric at the morning and evening ‘meetings’ of marchers, as Kwame Ture then known as Stokely Carmichael, emerged as a more militant voice for civil rights. Scared a lot of white folks, but I saw it as a natural evolution. The fact that Malcolm X had been killed almost 18 months before when he came back from Mecca with new perspectives and a willingness to work with people from all backgrounds had weighed heavily on me and no doubt on many others, Ture filled that void summer of 66: Dynamic and in control when speaking to large groups, but very rational and capable of sincere dialog in small groups or one on one.
But another story also dominated the news that summer. It was the July mass murder of 8 student nurses by Richard Speck. Don’t know about anyone else, but this was the first non-politically/racially instigated mass killing that I recall hearing about, though I know they, like all forms of murder, have occurred throughout human history.
Meanwhile, the Viet Nam conflict moved from being a small blip on our consciousness when spotting small articles about ‘military advisers’ in the early 60’s to protests against the draft and the war, to body counts on the evening news and somewhere near the end of the decade we became aware of ‘friendly fire’. Friendly Fire is a fact of war (probably since they consisted of throwing stones and spears at each other), but the public, particularly the American public was mostly unaware until a mid-western farm wife needed, as part of her grief process to know exactly HOW her serviceman son died and badgered the military and legislators until they revealed it. (Never underestimate the power of a mother’s determination, while she of course got help…her need and will fueled the truth coming out.)
April 4, 1968 - The assassination of MLK
June 5, 1968 – The assassination of RFK
Around this time the Zodiac Killer began his killings in Northern California that would continue into the 1970s. Probably the first serial killer to capture the American public’s attention, he was certainly the first on my consciousness radar. As I said, it was a decade of contrast. Soup kitchens, pre and after school programs, communal households, demonstrations where it wasn’t just those directly affected protesting inequities in our system. Meanwhile the worst of humanity was being brought to our attention by the expansion of evening news and print media struggling to compete. If it bleeds it leads.
August 1969 the contrasting elements of the decade were juxtaposed more closely than usual: The Tate-LaBianca Murders one week and Woodstock the next. Four months later came the killing at the Altamont Festival while the Rolling Stones were on stage. Much has been written about the ‘shift’ that occurred after that, some feel the peace and love movement was done in by the tragedy. But if you look back over the ‘big news’ of that decade you have to realize that the ugly side of humanity was showing itself all along. That ugly side has been a part of human life from the beginning, or at least since Homo Sapiens Sapiens (ah vanity—as if naming us with a redundant ‘wise’ descriptor would make it so) killed most of the peaceful Neanderthal’s (first humans to show signs of caring for dead, possible belief in afterlife) and assimilated the rest. We are more aware of the great variety of forms, crude and subtle it can take these days, due to technology, which has outpaced our emotional and spiritual growth.
The questions are what can and what are we going to do about it? I saw a relevant quote from Norman Cousins yesterday: “History is a vast early warning system.” (The discussion of the difficulty of uncovering the true facts, since history is generally written by the victors, or to suit the temperaments of those currently in power we can save for another day.) To paraphrase the song ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ written by Pete Seeger in the mid-50’s and held dear by many of my generation: When will WE ever learn? Because, you see, that is the whole point of trying to discover the true facts of any historical event or time, era: To learn from it, so we can do better and be better as human beings.