I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the sixties. Not because of any knowledge of social or political or historical perspective, but because I was seven years old in 1960 and grew up watching it unfold. What’s even more significant is that I lived in the center of the biggest civil rights mess one could hope for (or dread). I spent the sixties in the south, and even worse, Alabama. Our Governor was a man named George Wallace.
This post was motivated by recent headlines and various references to similarities today’s events have to the sixties. I thought it might be useful to write about the effects certain events had on one young man growing up in that time and what lessons that young man (me) learned in that time period.
I was not a native Alabamian. I was born in Arkansas. At the age of six months I was taken by my parents, along with my two older sisters, to London, because our Army father was stationed there. After two years (and with two new siblings) we returned to the US and bought a home in Georgia, next to Fort Benning ,my father’s new duty station. At some point dad decided to divorce mom and he was gone. I remember nothing about that time except that when he left, my beatings stopped. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a popular saying back then. My father made a special effort in assuring I would not be spoiled. I was in the second grade when we moved from Georgia to Alabama. A single mother with five children had none of the options available to single moms today. She ended up in a cotton mill and we all got to see what poverty was really like.
With my father gone, and mother working so many double shifts she was rarely available, I was pretty much free to learn about life without any guidance. My two older sisters left me alone to watch over my little brother and sister, so my after school hours were spent mostly in front of our 10 inch B/W TV. Before the sixties started looking like today’s headlines, there were certain things I saw on that TV that created permanent memories in my young mind. Some of these follow.
Russia had launched Sputnik into orbit. The Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev went on TV to announce to America “We will bury you.”. Russia put a man in orbit. JFK gave a speech where he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Although I don’t remember the words exactly used, he also said “Some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream of things that have never been and ask why not?” The last thing I remember him saying was when he proposed that America would send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth, before the decade was up. The next JFK moment I saw on that little TV was his funeral procession. And then, of course, came the Zapruder film, where we all got to see the top of his head taken off by a rifle shot.
With no one around to tell me what to think about it all, JFK made me believe in America in a way I can’t explain. I just know that I loved my country almost as much as I loved my mother, and God and country were the only other things that mattered.
But the sixties were just beginning. The Vietnam war was now on TV. At first, it seemed right to support the war. But something new was happening to America. A counter-culture was growing. California kids were growing their hair long, and they protested against the war. As I got older, I started seeing things that didn’t make sense. Hearing things that confused me. I sought out adults to try to get guidance, mostly just by listening. I heard a lot of things being said about blacks by people who called themselves Christians. I heard that things were written in the bible that made me open a bible to look for myself. I never found those things.
Our little TV had introduced me to God via the movie “The Ten Commandments”. With Charlton Heston as Moses I was riveted by the story and amazed by what he did with God’s power. In my loneliest nights I would talk to this God, usually through tears, asking for an explanation about what was happening. Why were we so poor, why were people saying the things they were saying. Of course, I never got an answer, but that didn’t stop me from talking to him. In fact, I began to talk to him all the time. Not out loud, but in my mind. It just felt right. Like I had a mute friend who knew more about me than any other person. The presence of him was so real to me that I never felt lonely again.
God became my armor that prevented me from being affected by the events around me. While the so-called Christians and the evangelicals spewed the lies about blacks and non-believers and condemned those who were ‘different’, I only saw more amazing examples of God’s creations. God had made them all. He did not put other people here for us to abuse. He put them here for us to love. So when I saw legions of white cops beating on unarmed black men, I saw clearly who was in the wrong.
I admit, at my young age I wondered about Black people. Why would God make some races inferior to others? Why was the n-word so common in the south? Then one day all those questions went away when I saw one person on that little TV. Martin Luther King settled the matter of race for me. He was as smart a man as I had ever heard. He spoke about God in a way that was closer to the God I knew than any white person ever had. He had a dream. Just like JFK. He was an American, a fellow American. And just like JFK he was gunned down before his dream could be realized.
So, are the events that have sparked today’s unrest worse than the sixties? Has all of America become like Alabama of the sixties? The media has made reference to the sixties but they have yet to mention how they compare. I can make some comparisons myself. For example, today we have Donald Trump, back then we had George Wallace, the Governor who tried to block a little black girl from going to a white school.
Today’s unrest has been the result of a single black mans death. Back then, the police and the National Guard with their German Shepherds openly attacked scores of black people in front of news cameras.
In the sixties only the well-off went to college. In the 21st Century higher education is held up as a right we all deserve. The overall population is far more educated and has seen more things than were dreamed of in the sixties. We had two TV stations back then, and no Home PC’s, much less the internet.
Is today better than back then? George Wallace was constrained back then. He could only do those things allowed by the State and people of Alabama. Donald Trump has threatened to call up the U.S. Military,to enter any state he so chooses.
At 67 years of age, I am still that unguided child I was back then. I didn’t see things the way the majority of those around me saw them. That is as true today as ever. I talk to the same God all the time, and I seek not the counsel of others. So, is today really any different? Is it better, or worse? I say it is worse. I’ll close with what I see has gone wrong.
Ignorance is just as prevalent as it was back then. Just as many people as then claim to know the truth when they do not know of whence they speak. Experts are ignored by the ignorant because their leaders are ignorant and their leaders speak for them. In the sixties the prejudices were on open display. The hypocrisy was on open display. The KKK wore their hoods in public. The difference today is that no one claims to be racist, they all deny it. All the new knowledge gained since the sixties has taught people nothing but new ways to profit, to deceive, to get the most while giving the least.
To sum up: Things were much better in the sixties. As a Boomer, I am proud of the things my generation has accomplished. As far as I’m concerned the bad conduct displayed by so many was a nation going through a growth spurt. Every generation since ours was less and less real American, and more and more just a population feeding on the great fruits American had produced. We may have been ignorant, but we cared about our country. I went into the Navy in 1971. Not because I had to, but because of JFK. I asked what I could do for my country. With young men burning their draft cards and with the draft ended, no one wanted to serve. It was unpopular, it was not cool. Who then was going to defend the nation while the majority decided to gorge themselves on the fruits it had created. So I went, and those who went with me saw the problem first hand. We were always undermanned. We stood many extra watches and filled in for the men who were not there.
Since our generation it has only gotten worse. Each new generation decided that enjoying America’s great wealth and prosperity was more important than protecting America itself. People today think that voting is the only responsibility that they have to the country. They use that vote to elect whoever promises them what they want. Not to make a better America, but to get more for themselves. Donald Trump, as bad as he is, is not the problem. That the people of America allowed him to become the President is the problem. So, as social media has become the new substitute for what people call living, I leave you with this: what’s trending. America has been trending toward today’s world for many years. Faster and faster with each new generation. The ‘woke’ generation may be the worst off and maybe the last. If I could give any worthwhile advice to this generation it would have be the same my Father gave to me when he saw me heading in the wrong direction:
Take your right hand and grab your left ear. Take your left hand and grab your right ear. Now jerk your head out of your ass so you can see where you’re going.
God bless America. Have a great day.