Tag Archives: Black Panthers

More Than Just an Abundance of Good Music

Danny Goldberg, In Search of the Lost Chord:

1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books, $25.95)

 Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67:

The Year That Changed Soul Music (Polygon, £9.99)

                With good reason, there is a profusion of literature on 1968, one of those years that seemed to change everything and in which everything seemed to change.  Across the globe, student-led protests challenged the post World War II status quo. In May 1968, students and workers nearly toppled the government in France, while the student-inspired “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia ended in a Soviet invasion in August.  In the United States, 1968 is remembered less for student protests, although there were plenty of those, and more for two devastating assassinations sixty days apart, Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June.  1968 was also the year of an infamous police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, followed by a closely contested Presidential election in the fall that resulted in the election of future Watergate unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon.  By comparison, the previous year, 1967, has rarely been singled out for book-length treatment.

If that’s an oversight, it has been rectified with two recent books addressing the year that set the stage for 1968: Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, and Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul Music.  As the titles indicate, the two works focus on different aspects of 1967.  In what he terms a “subjective and highly selective history” (G., p.17), Goldberg, today a prominent music industry executive, describes the “hippie idea,” an elusive notion sometimes referred to as the “counterculture.” Cosgrove, a British journalist, examines with much stylistic flair the city of Detroit and its Motown Record Company during a particularly fraught year: in July 1967, Detroit suffered a devastating civil disorder that accelerated a downward spiral in the city’s fortunes that has yet to be fully reversed (three other reviews on this blog address Detroit’s spiral downward, here, here, and here).

Goldberg’s hippie idea was the loose sum of a variety of different tendencies and groups — Goldberg calls them “tribes” — as often as not at odds with one another.  It was “like a galloping horse in the wild,” no one ever controlled it (G., 15), he writes.  Yet, somehow, “dozens of separate, sometimes contradictory ‘notes’ from an assortment of political, spiritual, chemical, demographic, historical, and media influences” collectively created a “unique energy” (G., p.16-17).  The hippie idea peaked in 1967 with what came to be popularly known as “the Summer of Love,” when the author was 16.  But by the end of 1967, the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea had entered a new and darker phase, with the summer of love never fully recaptured.

Detroit’s phenomenally successful Motown Records by 1967 was a mind-boggling collection of talent that included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, all under the tutelage of one Barry Gordy. Cosgrove’s lead character, Gordy was to Motown what Steve Jobs was to Apple: the founding father, driving force and marketing genius who put together a company that revolutionized an industry, popular music.  Motown lived through no summer of love in 1967 and, like Detroit itself, was on a downward spiral as the year ended.  Much of Cosgrove’s emphasis is upon how Detroit’s fall and that of Motown Records were intertwined.

1967’s popular music provides one key link between what otherwise appear to be two disparate works headed in different directions.  Motown had risen to prominence by making African-American popular music – initially called “Rhythm and Blues” or more simply “r & b” but by 1967 more frequently termed “soul” music – palatable to “mainstream” audiences, young and mostly white.  The world famous Motown sound “softened the rough edges of rhythm and blues, [and] draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love,” to the point that it was sometimes derided as “bubblegum soul” (C., p.5), Cosgrove writes.  But in 1967, young, white audiences were often looking elsewhere for their music, especially to the sound most closely identified with the counterculture and Goldberg’s hippie idea, perhaps best known as psychedelic rock, with Motown struggling to compete.

While young America was listening to an abundance of music in 1967, two overriding issues were tearing American society apart: the Vietnam War and the movement for full equality for African-Americans.  In different ways, these two weighty matters undermined both the counterculture and Motown Records, and constitute the indispensable backdrop to both authors’ narratives.  Richard Nixon’s narrow electoral victory the following year capitalized upon a general reaction in mainstream America to the counterculture and its excesses, which many equated with opposition to the Vietnam War; and upon reaction to the violence and urban disorders throughout the country, for which Detroit had become the prime symbol, which white America often conflated with the cause of African-American advancement.  As much as the music of 1967, the Vietnam War and racial unrest link these two works.

* * *

               One of the more enduring if anodyne songs from 1967 was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco,” whose official title included a parenthetical sub-title “Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.”  Among the song’s key lines: “There’s a whole generation/With a new explanation.” Goldberg’s work seems to strive to articulate that “explanation,” his hippie idea; it makes clear that San Francisco was indeed the place to experience that explanation in 1967.  The city where Tony Bennett had left his heart a few years previously was undoubtedly the epicenter of Goldberg’s hippie idea, especially its Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, in 1967 the “biggest counterculture magnet in the Western world” (G., p.30; nine summers hence, in 1976, I lived in the Haight neighborhood, a time when the summer of love was but a faded memory).

Although centered in San Francisco, Goldberg’s account also emphasizes what was going on in New York during 1967 – the Lower East Side was the Haight’s “psychic cousin” (G., p. 56) in 1967, he writes — with occasional looks elsewhere, including London.  Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the continent of Europe in the  year prior to  the earthshaking events in 1968 in France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere.  This is a work first and foremost about the United States.  At times the work reads like a college undergraduate textbook account of what  was going on in 1967 in and around the US counterculture, as if Goldberg were trying to enlighten those not yet born in 1967 on all that  their hippie parents and grandparents were up to and concerned about more than a half century ago, when they were the same age or younger.

Goldberg considers what was called a “Be In,” a musical event that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, to be the unofficial start marking the year as unlike its predecessors.  Organized in large part by poet Allen Ginsburg, one of the leading 1950s “beatnik” literary lights who was fully at home with the much younger hippies, the event attracted some 30,000 people.  Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Gracie Slick performed; all lived nearby in the Haight neighborhood, not far from one another.  Radical activist Jerry Rubin pontificated about politics and it was a turn-off, not well received by the energetic young crowd. The event also marked LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s first West Coast public appearance, in which he repeated what would become his signature phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  But the main point of the event, Goldberg contends, was simply “for members of the crowd to experience one another” (G., p.53).

Goldberg was not present for the Be In, but he was in San Francisco for a good portion of the summer, and his experiences there and elsewhere that year are very much part of his story.  He candidly reveals how he used LSD and other mind expanding drugs,  as well as how the music of 1967 seemed to feed off the drugs.  As the years have past, he reflects, the music has proven to be the “most resilient trigger of authentic memories,” even as much of it has been “gradually drained of meaning by repetitive use in TV shows, movies, and commercials, all trying to leverage nostalgia” (G., p.27).

1967 was the year of the Monterey International Pop Festival, which introduced Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and Janis Joplin to large audiences (Redding’s participation in that event was part of my review of his biography here in February 2018).   By 1967, Bob Dylan had already achieved mythic status.  “There is no way to overstate Dylan’s influence on other artists or on my generation” (p.167), Goldberg writes.  The Beatles in 1967 were in the “throes of a level of productivity that future artists would marvel at” (G., p.177).   Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant came out in 1967.  Judy Collins made a splash by introducing Leonard Cohen songs.  Joan Baez had some popular songs, but in 1967 was more political activist than singer.  Haight-Asbury hippies considered McKenzie’s “San Francisco” a “simplistic exploitation of their scene” (G., p.150).

The counterculture appreciated but did not prioritize the soul music of the type that Motown was churning out.  Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones were staples of counterculture musical fare in 1967, but there were numerous additional British artists and groups vying for American audiences and American dollars that year.  Among them, the Scottish singer Donavon Phillips Leitch, known better as “Donavon” and known best for his 1967 hit “Sunshine Superman,” probably resonated most deeply with the counterculture.

Goldberg manages to lift his work beyond popular musical nostalgia and provide it with heft through his assessment of how the 1967 counterculture interacted with African-Americans’ struggles and the anti-war movement.  He also takes shorter looks at other weighty matters of the day, including the rise of women’s rights, environmentalism, and what we would today call gay rights.  Although strong support in the abstract for full equality for African-Americans was a non-negotiable common denominator of the counterculture, Goldberg rightly stresses the often-strained relations between the African-American community and the psychedelic world of the mostly white, frequently affluent hippies.

Goldberg confesses that he is perplexed and even ashamed today that Martin Luther King was not a more revered figure in the counterculture in 1967.  But in his last full year,King was the object of criticism from all sides.  His decision that year to oppose the war in Vietnam “permanently shattered his relationship with many in the liberal and moderate worlds” (G., p.202).  A fiery generation of younger black activists also challenged King in 1967, including Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, a group based in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco.  The younger activists rejected King’s traditional civil rights vision of integration with the white mainstream, to be achieved through non-violence.  “Black Power” was their slogan, with black control of black communities their most immediate objective. They were loath to renounce violence as a means to obtain their objective.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam was less abstract for 1967’s hippies, given that males over the age of 18 were subject to the draft. For the hippies, Muhammad Ali was a more revered than King because of his resistance to the draft.  1967 was the year Ali refused to be inducted into the military, was tried and found guilty of Selective Service violations, and stripped of his boxing title.  But Ali, a recent convert to the Nation of Islam, was a curious figure for reverence.  His creed of no smoking, drinking or drugs, and his disapproval of interracial dating, was wholly at odds with the counterculture ethos.

Just as the African-American community and the era’s hippies were frequently not in sync, opposition to the war brought out tensions between the most dedicated anti-war activists and much of the hippie community, with the former considering the latter frivolous and unserious. Goldberg attributes much significance to a major October antiwar march in Washington, the March on the Pentagon,  “arguably the last time that liberals, political radicals, and countercultural hippies effectively combined energies” (G., p.284).  Already, the various tribes had started to go their separate ways and that parting accelerated as 1967 drew to a close:

Hippies often felt that the antiwar “leaders” were boring and/or too angry.  Radicals and liberals accused hippies of being self-indulgent.  The old left claimed that the new left had no discipline.  Young radicals were not all that impressed with what the old left had accomplished.   Within each of these broad categories there were numerous sects, which were frequently at odds with each other.  At the same time, the American government and establishment increasingly harassed the civil rights and antiwar movements (G. p.268).

Goldberg doesn’t hide a dark underside to the 1967 counterculture.  A few “violent, delusional members of the peace movement discredited the movement in its entirety,” he writes. “An earnest spiritual movement became obscured by stoned, pontificating buffoons” (G., p.27).  There were, he writes elsewhere, “a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing” who “tried to take advantage of psychologically damaged kids who had been attracted to the hippie culture” (G., p.261).  In 1967 Haight-Ashbury, the “open sexuality in hippie culture was exploited by a predictable number of macho jerks” (G., p.303).

Stating what now seems all too obvious, Goldberg finds it was very naïve in 1967 to think that there could be “instant world peace” (G., p.335).  The hippie idea of prioritizing peace and love, he cautions, wasn’t a “gateway into a new age, just a flash to indicate that something different was possible” (G., p.337).

* * *

               Unlike Goldberg, Cosgrove arranges his book chronologically, in 12 monthly chapters, with Gordy a presence in each.  More than any other individual of his time, Gordy grasped how to bring African-American popular music into mainstream — that is white — America.  But by 1967, Gordy was losing his grasp on what white America wanted in its music.  He was “uneasy with strident political opinion and saw the counterculture, especially drug inspired lyrics, as a dangerous distraction” (C., p.390).  Although he initially resisted efforts to allude to drugs, racial discontent and protest over the Vietnam War in Motown music, he relented toward the end of the year with Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On,” which addressed all three.

Gordy moreover always considered Motown personnel to be one big, happy family and appeared flummoxed by growing disaccord that seemed to be on the rise among his stars throughout 1967.  His most visible internal problem was the in fighting within the Supremes, three photogenic young women with soaring voices, the main subject of Cosgrove’s early chapters.  A group whose origins were in the “the raw ghetto sounds of Detroit R & B,” the Supremes had been “magically transformed into the greatest girl group ever.”  Their songs “seemed to be blindly unaware of radical social change and looked backward with nostalgia . . . For some it was an audacious achievement and a triumph over racism; for other, it was a shimmering compromise” (C., p.329).

What many people listening to the Supremes in 1967 probably didn’t realize is that the group by then had become almost totally dysfunctional, due primarily to the breakdown in the relationship between two of its three members, lead singer Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.  By the spring of 1967, the two rarely spoke; they frequently took separate transportation to their engagements.  The third Supreme, Mary Wilson, was caught in the middle, unable to bridge the chasms and diminish the enmity that existed between her two partners.

Ballard had more than her share of personal and psychological problems; by 1967, she had become was a full-fledged alcoholic. Her erratic behavior prompted Gordy to line up a replacement for her when she was unable or unwilling to perform.  Ballard retaliated by filing suit against Motown, embroiling the company in litigation that lasted years.  She died of a heart attack in 1976, at age thirty-two.  Her early death “attached itself like a stigma to Motown, and for the remainder of his career it pursued Berry Gordy like a dark phantom” (C., p.421).

To complicate matters further for Gordy, Martha and the Vandellas, the number two girls’ group in the Motown pecking order, ended the year in a similar state of disaccord.  Martha Reeves, the group’s lead singer, had somehow managed to alienate her supporting Vandellas, Betty Kelly and Rosalline Ashford.  There is “no simple way to describe the layers of vitriol that surrounded the Vandellas,” Cosgrove writes, “fuelled by drug abuse, backstage jealousies and hurtful arguments” (C.,p.295-96).   As luck would have it, the Vandellas’ last high profile concert together took place at the Fox Theatre downtown on the weekend when the July civil disorder broke out a couple of short miles away.

Cosgrove’s July chapter is consumed by the disorder, an altogether too familiar story for Detroiters of a certain age – how it occurred on an early Sunday morning some 52 years ago, as police broke up what was known in Detroit lingo as a “blind pig,” an after-hours drinking establishment where most of the patrons had gathered that Sunday morning to celebrate a young man’s safe return from Vietnam; how it somehow spun quickly out of control; and how it devastated huge swaths of the city.  There’s nothing new or novel in Cosgrove’s account but, as always, it makes for painful reading for Detroiters who saw their city implode before their eyes.

Although Motown survived the July disorder “largely unscathed,” it marked the end of the “musical gold rush that had made Detroit the most creative black-music city ever” (C., p.268).   In the final months of 1967, Gordy began to contemplate what had previously been unimaginable, that Motown’s future might lie elsewhere than in Detroit: “The city that had given Motown its global identity and had been home to the greatest black-owned company in musical history was increasingly associated in the minds of the American public with urban decay, violent crime and social unrest,” Cosgrove writes. “Berry Gordy had begun to lose patience with one of his greatest romances: he had fallen out of love with Detroit” (C.p.297-98).  Gordy opened an office in Los Angeles in 1967 and moved all the company’s operations from Motown to Tinseltown in the early 1970s.

Playing in the background, so to speak, throughout Cosgrove’s month-by-month account is the kind of music Goldberg was listening to, the psychedelic rock that reflected the changing taste of the white middle class.  One Detroit group, the MC5 –“MC” standing for Motor City — achieved national prominence for a form which Cosgrove terms “insurrectionary garage rock” (C., p.12), far removed from the soft Motown sound (Goldberg mentions the MC5 briefly).  In the last months of 1967, Gordy moved lightly into the music of the counterculture with a hybrid form later known as “psychedelic soul,” reflected in the Temptations’ album Cloud Nine.

The unlikely spokesman for the local psychedelic hard rock sound was John Sinclair, who appears periodically throughout Cosgrove’s account, as if a foil to the straight laced Gordy.  Sinclair was an omnipresent promoter of many forms of music – he loved jazz way more the psychedelic hard rock – and also a promoter of mind altering drugs. He aggressively advocated the use of marijuana and much else, making him a target for law enforcement.  Sinclair spent time in jail for his promotion of the drugs and mind-altering substances of the type that Goldberg and his friends were indulging in and were at the heart of the counterculture.

* * *

               In an “Afterword” to the most recent paperback edition of Goldberg’s book, entitled “The Hippie Idea in the Age of Trump,” Goldberg valiantly strives to explain how a dormant form of the summer of love lives on in an era dominated by the current White House occupant.   Goldberg doesn’t try to draw a direct line from Nixon to Trump, but notes that the counterculture precipitated a “reaction of the right that we did not predict that is still reverberating today” (G., p.335).  Although immigration was not the issue in 1968 that it became in 2016, Trump’s narrow electoral victory capitalized on racial and cultural divisions similar to those that had helped pave Nixon’s path to the White House.

President Trump was a mere lad of 21 during the Summer of Love, but an improbable participant  – might the bone spurs that kept him out of the draft have also prevented him from traveling to San Francisco that summer?  The President seems unlikely to have fit into any of the disparate groups that make up Goldberg’s hippie idea; and it seems further unlikely that the man gets into his presidential groove today by listening to a collection of Greatest Motown Hits.  But wherever and whatever the President may have been fifty-two years ago, Goldberg and Cosgrove remind us not only how good the music was back then but also how much else was going on in 1967.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 26, 2019


Filed under American Society, Music, Music

Year of Liberal Unraveling


James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction:
How 1965 Transformed America

       James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America addresses a distinction between the 1960s and the Sixties, the former being the decade that ended in 1969, whereas the latter refers to the divisive times we associate in the United States with anti-war protests, student radicalism, urban riots, racial conflict, changing mores and, for many, cultural degeneration. Patterson, professor emeritus at Brown University and a prolific writer on 20th century American history (not to be confused with the best-selling thriller author of the same name), finds the early 1960s to have been socially and culturally similar to the 1950s in the United States. He locates the start of the Sixties in the second half of 1965, past the halfway point of the 1960s. 1965 was a year of remarkable legislative accomplishment in the United States, under the banner of the Great Society. But 1965 also marked the point when a post-war liberal consensus began to unravel, and a half-decade or so of tumult and fractious disorder ensued.

       Patterson sees the unraveling as due above all to the significant, incremental and largely secretive escalation in the United States’ participation in the war in Vietnam in 1965, along with discord within the Civil Rights movement, as it moved beyond its original focus on desegregation and injustice in the American South to focus on full rights for all African-Americans throughout the country, North and South, and consequently began to lose widespread white support. In Patterson’s account, the major event setting off this counter-reaction – “white backlash” was the term often used at the time — was the disturbance in August of 1965 in the heavily African-American Watts neighborhood of south central Los Angeles. The outsized if flawed personality of President Lyndon B. Johnson dominates the book, as he dominated political life in the United States in 1965. But lurking in the background is Ronald Reagan and a conservative movement that was down at the time, but definitely not out. In addition to covering the main political events of 1965, Patterson strives to capture the social and cultural zeitgeist of the year in the United States, discussing films, television and, especially, popular music.

       Books abound about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Johnson presidency. Patterson’s sources are almost exclusively derived from authors who have written in greater detail on these subjects, and his book is almost entirely about the United States. Even his discussions of Vietnam are mostly from a United States perspective. If there is an original contribution here, it may be his chronological approach within the year 1965 and his precision in dating the start of the Sixties to a two-week period in late July and early August 1965.

       On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced a large and practically irrevocable escalation in the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam. Two days later, on the thirtieth, he signed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid act, one of the Great Society’s most significant social welfare measures, extending medical care to millions. On August 6, 1965, the equally significant Voting Rights Act became law, providing authority to the federal government to end voting rights discrimination against African Americans. Then, on the eleventh, the five-day rebellion erupted in Watts. “These were the most consequential days of 1965, the inaugural year of the Sixties” (p.191), Patterson writes. They represented the “high-water mark for postwar liberalism . . . never to rise again during Johnson’s presidency. It was not long before a considerably more divided and disputatious politics – a hallmark of the Sixties – would surge into view” (p.201).

* * *

       Patterson begins with President Johnson’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December 1964. Coming of a landslide victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in the previous month’s presidential elections, Johnson proclaimed that Americans then lived in the “most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem . . . Today—as never before – man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth” (xiii-xiv). Johnson’s rhetoric now seems almost comically inflated, but Patterson notes that most Americans in December 1964 found the United States to be a “remarkably stable and confident place to live” (p.18). Johnson’s tree lighting message the following year would be more subdued, addressing a country noticeably less unified and confident of its future.

      Johnson idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was determined to build a body of legislative achievement comparable to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In that, he largely succeeded. The legislative achievements of 1964 had included passage of an historic Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and federally aided programs. Passage of an effective voting rights act, although a natural next step after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemed out of reach for 1965. Johnson nonetheless made clear in his 1964 Christmas message that he had extensive liberal legislation in mind for the upcoming year, calling for “passage of a huge bundle of programs he would urge on Congress in the coming months: an education bill that would aid disadvantaged public school students; a government effort (labeled Medicare) that would provide health care for the elderly via Social Security; laws to advance clean air, clean water, and the landscaping of highways; increased funding for the War on Poverty; repeal of . . . Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act – a goal of union leaders—and creation of a National Foundation on the Arts” (p.37).

       But Johnson was also a Cold War warrior, every bit as much as his post-World War II predecessors in the Oval Office, and saw the defense of South Vietnam’s independence as a test of American will to stand firm against international communism. Further, Johnson believed that each of his predecessors had committed the United States to preserving an independent South Vietnam. Driven by his conviction that the international credibility of the United States was at issue in Vietnam, Johnson worried that conservative Republicans such as Goldwater and Reagan would “savage him if he did not stand up to communism” (p.93). Further, Johnson thought he needed to remain steadfast in Vietnam to maintain Republican support for his ambitious Great Society agenda (yes, in those days, some Republicans supported a Democratic president’s legislative proposals).

      Patterson joins many others in demonstrating that Johnson made incremental decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam largely in secret, without informing the public. Johnson seemed to sense that the public would not support an enlarged war as a measure to confront international communist foes. He never accepted the recommendation of his advisors that he provide more information to the American public on what he intended to do in Vietnam. Throughout 1965, Johnson remained “secretive about his decisions and about the course of the war. But it was impossible to conceal everything that the United States was doing” (p.95).

      In late March 1965, Johnson authorized sending 3500 combat Marines to Vietnam and secretly granted a request to allow American soldiers to mount offensive operations. Three weeks later, Johnson — again secretly — ordered additional combat troops to be deployed to Vietnam, this time 40,000 — a “staggering escalation of American military might” (p.131). But the turning point came on June 7, when the head military officer on the ground in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, beseeched the President to send 93, 000 additional troops to prevent a collapse of South Vietnam, America’s ally. Westmoreland informed the President that the United States was “in for the long pull” and that he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war” (p.159). Johnson agonized over the request for some seven weeks until, on July 28, the day after the House of Representatives had passed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, he officially authorized an additional 50,000 troops be deployed to Vietnam, hiking the overall U.S. commitment to 125,000 military personnel.

      Patterson characterizes the July 28th decision to send additional troops as the “most significant in terms of manpower of any that . . . [Johnson] had made to that time. And it had huge implications: it committed the United States to take over much of the fighting from the demoralized South Vietnamese” (p.173). Johnson made this “extraordinarily important decision” (p.172) after seriously consulting only a handful of senior officials. Advisor William Bundy said later that Johnson’s July 28th decision was the “end of debate on policy, and the beginning of a new debate on tactics and above all on presentation to the country” (p.170). Because he did not level with the public about the seriousness of the situation, Johnson “did not prepare them for sacrifices that would later be required. Imagining that Americans might tolerate ever-increasing costs and causalities, he overestimated the solidity of his popular support and the reverence of people for the presidency” (p.173). By year’s end, there were 184,000 troops in Vietnam, with 400,000 at the end of 1966.

        The public generally seemed to support Johnson’s war efforts throughout most of the year, although public support was “neither deep nor well-informed” (p.93). As the year progressed, however, protests against the war became ever more commonplace on college campuses. Many were based on the realpolitik principle that it was not in the interests of the United States to preserve the independence of a South Vietnamese regime widely seen as pervasively corrupt and ineffective. But protests also began to reflect what came to be known as the “New Left” viewpoint associated with the Sixties, which linked the Vietnam War explicitly to the “baneful influences of materialism, corruption and corporate liberalism” (p.232). The United States in the New Left view was an imperialist country in which the “insatiable appetites of American capitalism generated warlike policies” (p.97) – policies implemented by leaders who, as one New Left radical put it, “study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead” (p.232). More than any other event of 1965, Patterson concludes, American escalation in Vietnam “spurred the polarization that characterized the Sixties in the United States” (p.89).

       Interwoven with escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a source of polarization was the fracturing of what had been relative unity within the Civil Rights movement. Beginning in early 1965, Martin Luther King led a series of nationally televised marches in Selma, Alabama, seeking support for an effective Voting Rights Act, the complement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On March 7, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” white law enforcement authorities in Selma assaulted some six hundred nonviolent civil rights marchers crossing a bridge on their way to demonstrate for voting rights at the state capital in Montgomery, battering the marchers with clubs, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. Many marchers were hospitalized. The day’s violence, much of it televised nationally, provided the impetus for the politically elusive Voting Rights Act.

        Passed one week after the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to correct what President Johnson described as a “clear and simple wrong.” It established mechanisms for abolishing literary tests as voting requirements. Section V of the Act – its “pre-clearance” provision — required governmental entities with a history of racial discrimination to secure “clearance” from the Department of Justice or special three-judge court in Washington, D.C., before making changes to voting procedures. But passage of the Voting Rights Act also occurred almost simultaneously with President Johnson’s nearly irrevocable decision to escalate the war in Vietnam and five days prior to the devastating riot that broke out in Watts.

       The Watts disorders, an “especially damaging blow to liberal dreams” (p.179), were a forerunner to a series of summer riots in African-American communities across the United States that took place in the immediately following years. For many, urban unrest such as that in Watts, came to be seen as an integral part of the Sixties, transforming the attitudes of many white Americans who had previously been sympathetic to the civil rights cause. The destruction of Watts and its political aftershocks “demoralized Johnson and left the once proud and luminously effective civil rights movement in a state of disarray from which it never recovered” (p.179).

       As 1965 progressed, but particularly in the aftermath of Watts, many African-Americans activists began “openly questioning the virtues of nonviolence and interracial cooperation” (p.225) and highlighting poverty and discriminatory conditions in African-American communities outside the South. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this approach until he was assassinated in February 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the message after Malcolm X’s death, directly challenging older, more traditional civil rights leaders such as King. The “fracturing and enfeebling of the nonviolent, interracial civil rights movement” (p.225) by the end of 1965 was the second far-reaching development marking the onset of the Sixties, Patterson contends.

     Critically, Patterson emphasizes, the new militancy within the Civil Rights movement and the specter of unrest in African-American communities not only undermined white support for civil rights but also engendered a conservative reaction, personified by a former actor, Ronald Reagan, who seemed to be angling to run for governor of California and perhaps seek national office. The 1966 mid-term elections, in which Republicans gained solid majorities in both houses of Congress, demonstrated that the once powerful clout of liberalism “was no more. Fallout from the pivotal events that had started to weaken it in mid and late 1965—above all, escalation in Vietnam and the disturbances at Watts – had seriously afflicted it, ushering in the more contentious political world that followed. The earliest of these more polarized years, extending from late 1965 into the early 1970s, are what should be remembered as the Sixties” (p.244).

        “The Eve of Destruction” makes an appropriate title to Patterson’s book, capturing well how progressives might now look back at 1965, a high water mark of post-war liberalism. Devastating urban riots would take place in numerous other American cities during the following years, including Detroit, my hometown, in 1967. United States military involvement in Vietnam would not end until 1973. No social legislation even approximating the significance of Medicare and Medicaid would pass into law until 2010, 45 years later, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Better known as Obamacare, the ACA seeks to guarantee heath care to working age persons and families. But conservatives opposed and attacked the ACA with a rancor and vehemence politically unthinkable at the time Medicare and Medicaid became law. Further, in 2013, the Supreme Court drastically undermined the Department of Justice’s “pre-clearance” authority under Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been one of the federal government’s most effective tools in guaranteeing voting rights to African-Americans in the American South. And Democrats, representing, however imperfectly, mainstream American liberalism, would go on to lose five of the next six presidential elections.

       But Patterson’s title comes from what he terms a “breakthrough rock song” (p.153) of that name, sung by Barry McGuire, formerly lead singer for the New Christy Minstrels. “The Eve of Destruction” was briefly the country’s number one popular song and ranked 29th on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year. With the sounds of bombs going off in the background, the song’s lyrics were “bitter, blunt and devastatingly bleak about contemporary events, predicting that all manner of terrible developments – war in Vietnam, racial tensions, nuclear weapons – were propelling the United States (and ‘the whole crazy world’) toward the apocalypse” (p.193-94). Like many songs that address political and social issues, “The Eve of Destruction” seemed to me at the time, and still seems, mostly like an opportunistic attempt to make money off important issues of the time. Perhaps because of his use of “Eve of Destruction” for his title, Patterson’s effort to capture the zeitgeist of 1965 concentrates on the year’s popular music, although he also covers the most popular television shows and movies of 1965.

* * *

       Patterson makes a convincing case that 1965 may be considered the beginning point for what we have come to know as the Sixties – perhaps even that they started in that fateful two week period between President Johnson’s no-turning-back decision to escalate United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam on July 28 and the eruption in Watts on August 11.  Those readers who, like myself, lived through 1965 and the Sixties as young adults will find an instructive summation of the momentous year — in my case, with the exception of popular music, mostly a reminder of what I missed. Those too young to remember the period should also benefit from Patterson’s analysis of a year whose repercussions are still very much with us today, a full half-century later.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 29, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics

Livelong Activism and Anger at American Injustice


Jeanne Theoharris, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

            In the winter of 2013, I reviewed Douglas Brinkley’s succinct Rosa Parks: A Life, under the title “Civil Civil Rights Activist.” I was therefore intrigued when I learned that Jeanne Theoharris had written another biography of this remarkable woman, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharris aims for comprehensiveness in a way that Brinkley does not. She reveals far more about Parks’ engagement in the quest for social justice in the United States, both before and after that fateful day in December 1955 when Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, thereby triggering the Montgomery bus boycott, which in many ways triggered the modern civil rights movement. Much of Parks’ life after the boycott was spent in Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for Congressman John Conyers and confronted Northern racism. Unlike other works on Parks, Theoharris’s book explores in depth her Detroit years. Readers who share my enthusiasm for the Motor City, that soon-to-be-once-again-great industrial center, will find the latter portions of Theorharris’ book particularly captivating.

            Like Brinkley, Theoharris recoils from the sentimental image of Rosa Parks as a fed-up seamstress who one day had had enough and spontaneously decided to take a stand against Montgomery’s rigidly oppressive bus segregation. Theoharris considers this view a “romantic fable” (p.x) and “gendered caricature” (p.xiii), which reduces Parks’ significance to a single act of conscience while ignoring her “lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice” (p.ix). Theoharris drives this point home by starting with Parks’ funeral in 2005, a short time after Hurricane Katrina.

              In an effort to “cover up the federal travesty of inaction around Hurricane Katrina two months earlier,” national leaders cast Parks as the “nonthreatening heroine of a movement that had run its course” (p.241), Theoharris argues. The view of Parks which emerged at her burial was of a “self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption” (p.ix). Parks’ funeral “communicated a lesson on the history of American progress and the end of racism . . . [with racism] cast as an aberrant flaw rather than a constitutive element of American democracy – that, once recognized, had been eliminated” (p.242). Contemporary vestiges of racial discrimination, such as “[p]ersistent educational inequality, widening economic disparities, skyrocketing incarceration rates for people of color, unending wars, and rampant racial and religious profiling” were implicitly cast aside as matters “very different from the clear wrong that Parks had protested, despite the fact that the actual Rosa Parks and many of her colleagues had spent a lifetime trying to address them” (p.243).

            The sentimental version of Parks may well be part of an effort to convince ourselves that the ugly history of American racism should now be considered a closed chapter (after Ferguson, is there anyone who really believes that?). But Theoharris locates the origins of this version of Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott movement itself. For strategic reasons, at a time when many Americans associated the civil rights movement with communism, the male leadership of the boycott cleverly developed and exploited this version to demonstrate the wholesomeness and genuineness of the movement. Yet, that same leadership, which included a galvanizing 25 year old pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rarely if ever allowed Parks to speak for the movement. As Theoharris puts it, Parks was “lauded by the crowd as their heroine but not consulted for her vision of the struggle and subsequent political strategy” (p.93).

           In this highly-readable, wide-ranging biography, Theoharris demonstrates that the exploitation of Parks was made possible by Park’s bedrock character. Through deeds and by example more than by words, Rosa Parks managed throughout her life to be conciliatory yet uncompromising, serving repeatedly as a bridge between competing factions and visions.

* * *

              Rosa McCauley was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the granddaughter of slaves on both sides of her family. Her father left her mother and younger brother Sylvester when Rosa was very young. She was raised by her single mother, in a home that also included her grandparents and a great-grandfather – a home both “full of love” (p.3) and very mindful of social inequities. “Steeped in political thought from an earlier age,” Theoharris writes, Rosa’s family “exposed her to a sense of black pride. From an early age, she knew ‘we were not free’” (p.4). In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, whom Parks described as the “first real activist” she had met. The “appreciation for race pride and activism that she had learned at home came to fruition in her relationship with Raymond Parks. He was the love of her life” (p.14). The couple’s wedding took place as Raymond was actively organizing to save the Scottsboro nine, young men aged twelve to nineteen falsely accused of raping two white women. Throughout her life, Parks was also a “staunch and devout Christian” who saw “no contradiction between religious belief and political militancy. Serving God necessitated collective action to address the needs of her fellow men and women. To Mrs. Parks, God stood with the oppressed and did not take kindly to complacency” (p.179).

             Parks’ early life provides good insight into what might be termed the “pre-Civil Rights era.” This was an era when, with little national attention, the foundation was being established for an attack on racial segregation in the American South. Parks played a major, and largely uncredited, role in establishing that foundation. She served as secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and was active in other organizations that attacked segregation, frontally and indirectly. But working as an activist in the 1940s meant “working without any indication that your efforts would be realized in your lifetime,” Theoharris observes (p.18). During this time, Parks was closely associated with the dynamic yet enigmatic E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery NAACP.

                A fascinating figure who is likely someday to be himself the subject of a biography, Nixon was once described as “Gandhi with guns” (p.20). Nixon was decidedly working class in background and outlook and Montgomery’s substantial middle class African-American community looked upon him as a rabble-rouser. The NAACP was then a middle-class black enclave, and there was much tension between the Montgomery’s NAACP chapter and its head. Given her non-confrontational personality, the mistrust accorded to Nixon by Montgomery’s middle-class African Americans did not rub off on Parks. Although from a working class background herself, Parks was often the bridge between middle and working class African Americans in Montgomery in the 1940s and 1950s. Nixon was one of Parks’ greatest champions over the next decades, but his views about the proper roles for women did not include them being visible leaders. “Women don’t need to be nowhere but in the kitchen,” he once told Parks (p.28). Nixon “did not fully acknowledge Parks’s intellectual talents and political acumen, which shaped how he envisioned the roles she should play,” (p.29) Theoharris concludes.

                In the summer of 1955, Nixon arranged for Parks to attend a two-week workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee on desegregating public schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had held public school segregation unconstitutional. Highlander was a fully integrated social justice training center which was beginning to focus on civil rights after years of work on behalf of labor unions and the working poor, particularly Appalachian whites. The experience at Highland that summer was transformative for Parks, allowing her to see the need for desegregation in Montgomery as part of a global movement for human rights. It was also one of the few times, she remarked, when she “did not feel any hostility from white people” (p.40). Parks maintained her connections with Highlander for the rest of her life.

* * *

            Parks was not the first to challenge Montgomery’s bus policies. A bus boycott in 1900 had forced the city to change its policy so that no rider had to surrender a seat unless another was available, although this policy was routinely breached. There were numerous other instances of bus resistance and disruption in Montgomery, which Parks was fully familiar with. The notion that Parks was the “first – or even third — to resist or that she made her bus stand impulsively misses her familiarity with the many instances and dangers of bus resistance, and the considerable thought she had given to the matter” (p.49).

                Earlier in 1955, Claudette Colvin, a feisty fifteen year old, refused to cede her seat and was arrested, setting off a short-lived, Nixon-led bus boycott and fueling anger throughout Montgomery’s African-American community. Colvin’s case went to trial, where she was convicted not for refusing to respect Montgomery’s bus policies but for “assault” of the three policemen who arrested her, thereby precluding an appeal of the bus policies. Nixon did not consider Colvin quite the right person to build a campaign around. She was too young and “uncontrollable” (p.57) – she became pregnant by an older man shortly after the bus confrontation. Yet activist lawyer Fred Gray later commented that, without taking anything away from Rosa Parks, “Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did” (p.54).

             The bus which Parks boarded on December 1, 1955 was initially not crowded, and Parks took a seat in a middle row, an area of four seats in theory open to either race. But by the third stop, the bus had filled and there were no vacant seats for a boarding white passenger. When driver James Blake demanded that the four blacks seated in the middle row move so the single white person could be seated, three of the four blacks moved to the back of the bus. Parks did not move. Thereupon ensued one of the most famous dialogues in American history. Blake asked Parks: “Are you going to stand up,” to which Parks responded, “No.” When Blake said, “Well I am going to have you arrested,” Parks stoically retorted, “You may do that” (p.63-64).

                 This confrontation is the centerpiece of Brinkley’s book. “Her majestic use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can’,” Brinkley argues, put Parks “on the high ground, establishing her as a protester, not a victim . . . And her formal dignified ‘No,’ uttered on a suppertime bus in the cradle of the Confederacy as darkness fell, ignited the collective ‘no’ of black history in America, a defiance as liberating as John Brown’s on the gallows in Harper’s Ferry” (Brinkley, p.107). Theoharris is less melodramatic, but describes Parks’ response to Blake as a “deeply political, principled act by a woman who well knew the danger of bus resistance. In her bravery, other people would find theirs as well” (p.71).

          Parks was arrested but, through Nixon’s efforts she was quickly released on $100 bail. Nixon saw Parks’ resistance as the opportunity he had been waiting for to launch a direct attack on bus segregation. Parks was the ideal person to build a movement around: “middle-aged, religious, of good character, known and respected in the community for her political work and brave” (p.72). But building the boycott around Parks demanded publicizing a strategic public image of her which obscured her longstanding political activity. This strategic image as a “good Christian woman and tired seamstress” proved “pivotal to the success of the boycott because it helped deflect Cold War suspicions about grassroots militancy” (p.83). The “seeds of the ‘simple tired seamstress’ myth” — the “romantic fable” and “gendered caricature” which Theoharris deplores — were thus “planted in the early days of the boycott to mitigate the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War” (p.84).

           To the surprise of the boycott’s leadership, nearly 100% of Montgomery’s African-American community participated in the protest. The boycott relied upon car pools, which “powerfully drew together Montgomery’s various economic and social classes” (p.95) within its African-American community. Women were the backbone of the boycott, as walkers, drivers, organizers and fund-raisers, although the leadership visible to the public was all male.

                Throughout the bus boycott, Nixon clashed openly with Dr. King, then a newcomer to Montgomery. Some of the conflict was due to the class tension that divided Montgomery’s African-American community; some was due to the natural tendency to be offended by attention afforded to others during a deeply-felt, highly emotional series of activities. Nixon “resented the ways the young King received all the credit and adulation for the movement at the expense of other leaders” (p.138). King, though, was already a charismatic personality who gave the boycott pizzazz and clout.

            The impact that King’s emerging leadership had on Montgomery’s black community in those first months, Theoharris writes, was “hard to capture. Nearly everyone – Parks especially – thrilled to the amazing good fortune at having this bold young minister who was making the community proud” (p.105). If there was tension between Nixon and King, none of it affected King’s relationship with Parks. Parks plainly admired the mesmerizing young preacher and she and King formed a tight relationship that would last until King’s death in the following decade. But King, too, “gendered” Parks, to use Theoharris’ formulation, keeping her in secondary and auxiliary roles as the boycott moved on.

           The boycott crippled financially the private bus company, which blamed Montgomery’s local government. Whites were surprised by the extent and intensity of the grievances. Many were convinced that the Communist Party was behind the protest. The boycott came to an end over a year later when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Browder v. Gayle, a civil suit directly challenging the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregated bus policies, filed by four other female African-American bus riders. The case represented Nixon’s “second front” in the Montgomery bus boycott. For tactical reasons, Nixon and the boycott leadership determined that Parks would not be a plaintiff in the suit. In Browder, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Alabama federal district court, which had held unconstitutional racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses. On December 20, 1956, 382 days after the boycott had begun, a “community that had walked and walked and carpooled for more than a year stepped aboard the bus and sat where they pleased” (p.134).

                But the immediate aftermath of the boycott was not a happy period for Parks. She lost her job as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store and had great difficulty finding gainful employment. Her strong work habits and non-threatening personality were not nearly enough to overcome the stigma she bore among Montgomery’s white economic leaders, who had neither forgotten nor forgiven her role in the boycott. Further, Raymond lost his job as a barber and lapsed into serious drinking which further exacerbated the couple’s financial problems (the couple had no children).

* * *

              Given their financial uncertainties, Rosa and Raymond moved to Detroit in 1957, where Rosa’s brother Sylvester had lived since the end of World War II. The Parks were spared some of the indignities in Detroit which segregated Montgomery imposed on African-Americans every day. But Parks reached the conclusion quite early in her time in Detroit that African-Americans there too were second class citizens. Detroit was the “Northern promised land that wasn’t” (p.166), Parks concluded. Housing was at least as segregated as it had been in Alabama, police were at least equally brutal, if perhaps a bit more subtle in their brutality, and a wide swath of jobs was off limits to African-Americans.

               Parks and her husband continued to struggle economically in Detroit, but the couple turned the corner in March 1965 when Parks became the local office manager for another rising African-American star, Congressman, John Conyers, today the senior member of the Congressional black caucus. Parks served Conyers loyally for more than 20 years, but nonetheless remained in what Theoharris terms a “gender-appropriate role, answering phones, handling constituent needs, welcoming visitors, and coordinating the office” (p.182). In addition to these standard services which go with any home congressional office, Parks was also able to pursue many of the activist causes which both she and her boss supported – and get paid for it. Parks thus became a quiet but powerful force in Detroit for many of the same issues of social justice which Conyers was working on in Washington.

                    Parks lived through some of Detroit’s most trying moments, none more so than the July 1967 riots, probably the worst of the riot-filled 1960s, which started only a few blocks from Parks’ home and destroyed large chunks of the city. Parks attributed the origins of the riots to the “long history of white resistance to civil rights demands and rising anger among black youth” (p.195). The riots accelerated the movement of Detroit’s white working class families to the suburbs and started the city on a steep decline that continued into the 21st century. Returning to those horrific days was a heartbreaking experience for me. To this day, I remember vividly listening to the evening sniper fire while sitting on the back porch of my parents’ comfortable suburban home, only a few short miles from the violence.

               Parks’ first decade in Detroit coincided with significant changes in the African American rights movement across the country. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this new approach, until he was assassinated in 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the torch after Malcolm X’s death. Another indication of Park’s unusually conciliatory personality is that she managed to have good relations with both camps, the newer and younger militants, with their harder edges, and the more traditional, religious, integrationist, non-violent activists whom King led until he was assassinated in 1968. Parks saw “no contradiction in her deep admiration for King and Malcolm X” (p.207), Theoharris writes. Refusing to characterize the calls for black power movement as a perversion of the traditional civil rights movement, Parks was “not afraid of ruining her reputation or getting in trouble, as some black leaders of her generation would feel about associating with these young militants” (p.204).

               King’s assassination in 1968 deepened Parks’despair over the deep roots of racism in America. By the late 1960s, Parks had become an “elder stateswoman in the vast and diverse black freedom struggle.” Like King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz, Malcom X’s widow, Parks stayed “above the ideological fray to support a broad range of mobilizations” (p.217). In Parks’ later years, she was ignobly mugged in her home by a young black man, prompting commentators to “bemoan the decline of a new generation of black youth” (p.233). Parks’ mugging “served as a convenient metaphor for the degraded values of a new generation” (p.233), Theoharris observes.

* * *

                  Theoharris also describes one priceless scene that occurred in the same time frame as Parks’ mugging, when Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, just a few months after his release from Robben Island prison. Parks was a late addition to the dignitaries invited onto the tarmac to welcome Mandela as he deplaned (one can only imagine the other Detroit dignitaries jockeying for position on that tarmac). Although the two had never previously met, Mandela recognized Parks instantly. “Ro-sa Parks! Ro-sa Parks,” he shouted as he made a direct line for her. Then, the “two freedom fighters embraced” (p.231). How I wish I could have witnessed that embrace: African man, African-American woman, both having led lives that changed countless other lives and transformed the societies in which they lived.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
March 28, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History