The times, they are not a-changin'
America is a hot mess. We are polarized over non-existent election fraud, vaccines, gender politics, how to teach about race, an ex-president, and the list goes on. People say we haven't been this divided since the Civil War. But you don't have to go back that far to find the dis-United States. Look to the 1960s for a nation beset by political violence, cultural convulsions and rage in the streets.
NPR tracked down people who were activists and witnesses of the anti-war movement and the civil rights struggle, who today are watching with dismay as the country is again torn asunder. We asked them to reflect on 2020s America compared to 1960s America.
In general, figures from the counterculture movement cited pervasive misinformation as a striking feature of the new divide. Participants in the civil rights movement are alarmed at the setbacks to hard-earned racial progress: police and civilian shootings of unarmed Black people, the massacres of Black worshippers in Charleston, S.C., and Black supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, N.Y., a White House that courted white nationalism, the Confederate battle flag paraded through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and new state voting restrictions transparently aimed at Democrat-leaning Black communities.
Mark Rudd, 75, former student activist at Columbia University, member of the Weather Underground, now a retired community college instructor who has renounced violence.
"It was total optimism (back in the '60s), at least among my friends and my political faction. We thought the empire was going to fall, and that something new and wonderful was going to be created, something much more inclusive and peaceful.
"Violence (in the 2020s) is once again threatening our social fabric, this time from the far right. There's constant talk of civil war. They have grievances, which I don't share, about the slipping away of what they have always seen as their country. Oddly, I get it. Take away the white supremacy and leave the pain. And it's not that different from my friends and me 50 years ago.
"I wrote that for The New York Times after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
"The division that we're talking about is much worse now. ... My best guess is I thought that there'd be more unity because of the pandemic, but in fact that got exploited by a number of political forces and the idiotic president of the United States (Donald Trump). I've lost my optimism. I don't know how we're going to heal these divides."
Bernard Lafayette, 82, veteran civil rights activist; participant in the Freedom Rides, Selma Voting Rights campaign, and Nashville Student Lunch Counter Sit-Ins; visiting scholar at Auburn University.
"I am an expert on mean white folk. So, if you want to know anything about mean white folk, you're lookin' at the right person.
"Back in the '60s, whites had no inclination that blacks could rise up in political power. ... I think that today it's more scared white folks. I don't think they are mean now. They have come to the conclusion that other minority groups can take over.
"Because of the progress we had made in the past, it looked like we were moving forward in being able to have a good relationship between each other. ...(Today) people are talking about killing mayors and governors of certain places. I am utterly surprised and I have given a lot of thought to how we can make sure this way of thinking would not continue. That's why I focus on young people, helping them to realize the importance of respecting each other and not condemning people because of their ethnicity or their male/female choice."
Bill Broyles Jr., 77, screenwriter, journalist, anti-war activist, Vietnam veteran, author of Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace.
"So many things were going on in the '60s that were incredible. We had Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy shot and killed. The police riot at the Chicago Democratic convention. The shooting of students at Kent State. We glimpsed a little of that level of violence on Jan. 6, but in the '60s it was much, much worse.
"I feel like the difference is that passions are at least as great (today as they were in the '60s) over things that are much less important. We're not fighting a war and killing people.
"I remember when Trump was elected in 2016, and I talked to my daughter at the University of Texas who was there with a bunch of friends of various races and sexual orientations, and they were all in tears. What's going to happen? I said, 'Well, look, it can't be as bad as the '60s. Riots in the streets and people being assassinated and the war going on.' And I'm not sure I could tell her that now. I feel a potential for violence that I've never felt in my adult lifetime since then, since the '60s."
Valda Harris Montgomery, 74, daughter of the Harris family that opened their house in the Centennial Hill neighborhood of Montgomery, Ala., as a refuge and strategy headquarters to Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and the Freedom Riders.
"We thought we had gotten there in the '70s and the '80s.
"And I'm saying that because my children are now in their late 40s and 50s, and they reaped the benefits of integration here in the South. They went to school, had white friends. There was none of this feeling then.
"When George Floyd and all of this started to resurface again, now they're asking me, 'Oh, Mama, you didn't prepare us for this.' "
"We are so hate-filled that I'm just afraid that there's going to be some type of battle. That's a strong word and I don't know a softer word to say that. ... You know, why do you hate Jewish people? Why do you hate Black people? Why do you hate LGBTQ people. I mean, how are they threatening you?
"A lot of my friends — it's not just me — feel that we are reliving the past, and we have got to make our children and our grandchildren understand that this is not new. Be prepared."
Robert Siegel, 75, former student radio journalist at Columbia University during campus protests in 1968; retired after 41-year career at NPR.
"The '60s generally were a time of hugely rising expectations, whether that was the energy of the Kennedy presidency, the civil rights legislation of the Johnson presidency, the great civil rights march in Washington. ... In the end, it ended on a very pessimistic note. It ended on the country being very fearful.
"The most serious polarization that I feel now in the country, as opposed to back in the '60s, is over this argument over what's true. Who can you believe? Believe your lyin' eyes, or you're going to believe some guy on a podcast telling you what he claims to be true? That's very undermining of democracy because people don't have a common basis, a common set of facts and truth from which they can proceed."
Taylor Branch, 75, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who has chronicled much of the American civil rights movement; currently writing a book about the influence of race in all of American history.
"The divisions over the Vietnam War and certainly the divisions over segregation were really, really powerful. ... Those things ripped the country and families apart back then. We've always had extremely divisive issues. Right now, I think what we lack is a more coherent, positive alternative, and that's what Dr. King and the civil rights movement provided.
"Bob Moses, who died last year, one of my revered characters of the civil rights movement, always began or ended his speeches by reciting the preamble to the Constitution, that it is going to 'establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility ... and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.' It's unbelievably optimistic as to what we can do among each other in the experiment of self-governing public trust. And right now we're not self-governing and there's very little public trust.
"In my view, we are failing both the legacy of the founders in Philadelphia and the legacy of the re-founders in the civil rights era by allowing our politics to be so corroded and cynical.
"We have allowed people to discard the very first three words in the Constitution: We the people."
Ruth Rosen, 66, professor emerita University of California, Davis; former leader of campus feminist movement.
"I would say that the '60s contributed to the incredible divisions, cultural and political, that we now see in our contemporary society. The contribution is enormous.
"We had the civil rights movement. ... We had the women's movement ... the environmental movement, of course.
"If you look at anyone running for political office, they will have to talk about abortion. They will have to talk about climate change. And now we have a whole country that is trying to deal with racial reckoning. ... These issues are not resolved because they've gone deep into the culture. We have a country that is tolerant of many of these ideas, but half of it wishes we could go back to the '50s. So this is a very deep divide."
Hank Sanders, 79, civil rights attorney, retired Alabama state senator, and former student activist in Selma, Ala.
"I was absolutely optimistic, absolutely convinced that we were going to create a society that was more inclusive, more equitable, more peaceful.
"I was one of those people who were convinced that with the election of President Obama race relationship was going to get better. Because I said you know they'll that see he's an intelligent and capable man. He's got a wonderful wife and children. All of that's going to make things better. I was just shocked that it had the exact opposite reaction. It began this process of far more racial attacks.
"But I draw from the '60s that no matter how great the odds that you have to keep struggling and you have to keep moving forward.
Dan Balz, 76, reporter for 44 years at The Washington Post. He covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a cub reporter for an Illinois newspaper, and is now writing about the political aftermath of the Jan. 6 MAGA riot at the U.S. Capitol.
"In the '60s there were three broadcast networks. We all watched them. They gave a kind of common view of the world that people shared. People accepted facts as facts. You could disagree about what those facts meant and what kind of policies they should produce, but you didn't disagree with the facts.
"Fast forward to the environment we're in today. It's fundamentally different. The internet democratized the flow of information, and that's a good thing. ... But at the same time, we're all in our own silos of where we get the information we want. People seek out information that reinforces their view of the world rather than challenges it. That makes it easier for disinformation to flow, for conspiracy theorists to thrive ... and, as we saw on Jan. 6, for people to act on it. I think that's the more dangerous world we're in.
"In many ways you could understand what was happening in the '60s. ... It's harder to understand that today when you see people believing and accepting things that are just demonstrably not true."
Clayborne Carson, 73, retired history professor at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Papers Project, founder of the World House Project, and former civil rights militant in California.
"I don't think any of us who struggled to get civil rights and voting rights in the mid-1960s thought that this was going to lead to this huge political shift in America. And that the winners in a way were the people who built their careers on that backlash. I don't think Richard Nixon would have won in 1968 if not for this backlash. In my young mind, I thought that we had won a victory. And the notion that in the 2020s we would still be fighting over voting rights just didn't really occur to me. But here we are.
"If SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) or the Black Panther Party or any aspect of the civil rights movement had done anything close to what happened on Jan. 6, there would have been a massacre. Can you imagine Obama in the White House after losing by several million votes, saying, 'Now I'm still the president.' It's just inconceivable! An attempt by a Black person to do half of what Trump got away with, it's inconceivable."
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