Yesterday evening I watched a documentary on the sixties. As I sat there, five decades later, it occurred to me how disappointed I was that I needn’t try too hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in such complicated and conflicted times. The sixties were a decade torn apart by civil rights struggles, political unrest, misunderstood youth, but most of all, marked by a common thread of separation. Never before was it more apparent nor more important as to whom one was different than. Black or white. Rich or poor. Liberal or conservative. Pro or Anti-war. The tensions and the anger swirled together and, then, feeding off one another, exploded. The conservative older generation fought tooth and nail to “protect” the laws and ways of the past. Troubled, angry folks in the North and South protested change with banners and signs bearing Nazi symbols and things I can’t bring myself to type. But thanks to the tenacity and persistence of many of the decade’s greatest hearts and minds, things changed a little. In 1961, JFK provided protection for “Freedom Riders”. Michael Harrington publishes “The Other Americans” in 1962, an eye-opening expose on poverty which influenced even JKF and, later, Johnson, who in 1964 declares a war on poverty. One of the greatest moments of the time came in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act of, well, 1964. The law aimed to outlaw discrimination in public places (but I can still practice hate in my living room!) and to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender. More changes took place as the decade unfolded such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Housing Discrimination Ban in 1968.
But it came at a cost. Those men and women with the banners and the signs, symbols and words, became more violent as changes were imminent. Most people know about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But do you remember the four little girls killed in the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing? Just babies, they were unfortunate and accidental martyrs for a plight they were too young to even understand. If you’ve seen “Mississippi Burning” (and if not, that’s your homework assignment) you know about the civil rights activists killed in 1964, although it was merely based loosely on the case and left out important details. There was police brutality, child arrests, and the infamous fire hoses. All of it deplorable and indicative of a society that felt a strange need to keep those who were different in a separate space from themselves; be it financial or geographical.
The sixties began fifty-six years ago. So many things have, indeed, changed. Things that were once unimaginable are now possible. In the year 2008, this country elected its first back president. Women hold positions higher than secretary in things other than sweater sets. There are gays on television doing things other than appearing on Hollywood Squares (no disrespect, Paul). Minimum wage is on its way to maybe being close to an actual living wage. All is well. Or so it seems. Truth is, those people, those people who existed in the sixties? They still exist today. They still fear change and they still want to be separated.
In a recent poll, one in three women reported having been sexually harassed at work- 81% having been verbally assaulted. And only recently have a large number of victims of rape and sexual assault on college campuses been given a proper voice, with so far to go. Another study done in 2015, showed that job applicants with “black names” were 50% less likely to receive call backs, regardless of job qualifications, than applicants with “white names”. Black Lives Matter is a movement started as a reaction to the murder of Treyvon Martin. In 2015, its estimated that one in three black men killed by police were unarmed. And hot off the press is a new “bathroom law” in North Carolina which is really much more than it seems. It directly interferes with the rights of many more than those who identify themselves as transgender, as if that weren’t bad enough. The law makes a bold statement at to what level the government can, and will, protect it’s citizens based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
I may have stronger opinions about what goes on today than I do about what happened fifteen years before I was born. Because I know how embarrassed I am for my race when Black Lives Matter is turned into All Lives Matter, in a matter of moments. All Lives Matter? That’s a given. I know how I felt the morning of November 9th, 2008, when I woke up early to see the results of Prop 8 in my home state of California, only to find out it had passed. I was in tears. Never before had I been ashamed to be a Californian. I know first hand how it feels to have your manager reach into your apron and grope you in the middle of a restaurant because he was “looking for a pen”. And when you say something, you’re labeled uptight, a “femnazi” or a “dike”. All attempts to remind a group of people different from another that they are not created equal.
But just as the sixties had its heroes, it’s voices of reason and resistance in the face of incredible adversity, so does today. There will always be people fighting for what is right. Civil Rights advocates and feminists. And then there will always be people stuck in their ways, fists clenched more tightly than their hearts, pushing for a simpler time. When things were better. When things were separate.