Books · Politics

Book Review: Clara Bingham Captures Complexity of ‘the Sixties’

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way it details how Women’s Liberation was born out of the Peace movement — out of urgent necessity. Women in the movement were being treated much as they were in the culture at large: as secondary to the male leaders, when in fact, many women, like Bernadine Dohrn, were central figures from the beginning. I was shocked to learn that during the search for the bodies of the “Mississippi Burning” victims (three young Civil Rights activists who disappeared in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964), the mutilated remains of close to 17 women were dredged up from a local river. Robin Morgan recalls that when she brought this up to others in her group “the guys all looked at me incredulously as if I’d landed from Mars and said, ‘Those were probably sex murders, those weren’t political.’” Crimes against women were not seen in a political light; “That was just the mindset at the time,” says Morgan.

Things began to unravel somewhat when some factions of the movement turned to violence. It had begun with the idea that peaceful protest for peace would be effective. Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties, says, “The revolutionary mood had been fueled by the blindingly bright illusion that human history was beginning afresh because a graced generation had willed it so. Now there wasn’t enough life left to mobilize against all the death that was raining down.”  Unable to make an impression on the Nixon administration, recognizing that protesters were a maligned group, targeted as a dangerous element, they became more dangerous. In March 1970, three “Weathermen”  (a radical anti-war group that had splintered off from SDS, Students for a Democratic Society), were killed while making bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse that belonged to a member’s parents. Movement radicals were going “underground” in increasing numbers, living on the run with assumed identities. Thousands of draft resisters fled to Canada with no hope of ever being able to return (President Jimmy Carter eventually pardoned them.) Many were discouraged and defeated, and the initial spark of optimism faded as things grew increasingly ugly.

After the invasion of Cambodia, a strike on college campuses across the nation was called in May 1970. Many institutions had to end classes for the academic year, canceling exams and even graduations as unrest broke out everywhere. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS, remembers, “It was larger than any other student strike . . . ’70 was so big that I think it was the turning point for the establishment. They knew that if they continue the war, there would be some kind of permanent rupture in American society.”

Still, it took more than five years for the war to end, and the seeds of rupture that were planted have evolved into major divisions as the culture wars continued and expanded into Women’s Liberation, Abortion Rights, and Gay Rights, to name just a few. But the feeling that together young people could be a force for good was dealt a fatal blow by the events of the turbulent year described in this remarkable book. Movement photographer David Fenton says, “Culturally, it was a revolution. And it was an instant. It was as fast as it took for a tablet of LSD to dissolve. People were never the same again.” It was a moment in history as powerful as it was brief, and Clara Bingham has captured it like a photograph of lightning just as it strikes.

 

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