The Movement and The Sixties

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Terry H. Anderson. The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 (hardcover): ISBN 0-19-507409-2

Summary

The scope of Terry Anderson’s Movement and the Sixties approaches that of a master narrative. Though it focuses on social protest, it really covers the history of an entire decade. Protest was a reflection of the major issues of the period – civil rights, free speech, political upheaval, and of course the Vietnam War. For those who lived through them, the sixties are hard to view dispassionately. The “movement” that Anderson documents was started and sustained by passion, and this lingering passion is reflected in the interviews with activists of the period. Anderson is not immune himself, and his sympathies are evident.

Nevertheless, Anderson provides a comprehensive and generally well-balanced story of how different causes merged and affected each other and how gains (or reverses) in one area encouraged efforts in other places and causes. Anderson starts by describing the somnambulant Fifties and contrasting the youth of that period with those who would become activists in the next decade. He moves next to the first major protest of the sixties, the Greensboro lunch counter demonstrations. The treatment that African-Americans received in public places had not changed since reconstruction – what had changed was the impact of wide and rapid publicity. The cruelties inflicted on the protesters were broadcast around the country in what amounted to real-time, and these graphic images stirred others to action in other places such as Selma. The violent responses to non-violent protesters, while painful in the near term, worked in favor of the movement in the long term as the rest of the country – and the world – was shamed and sickened by the sort of treatment that was common but largely invisible to them previously.

Anderson describes the Port Huron Statement as a watershed manifesto of the movement (64), which served to bring future radicals like Tom Hayden to its forefront. Anderson charts the evolution of the movement from this non-violent idealism with Martin Luther King in its front rank to a more radical, violent, less tolerant movement which boiled over in 1968 with assassinations, campus takeovers, and the debacle in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. With his frequent references to popular culture and well-documented statements of the movement members themselves, Anderson captures the emotion of the era – a reader that remembers the era can actually feel the building tension again.

Anderson concludes his narrative with a thoughtful summary of the lasting impact of the sixties and the movement that still defines the decade. His summary points stand as a counterpoint to the opinions of conservative commentators like George Will (quoted on page 412). Anderson makes a very strong case for the positive aspects of the movement; in that the changes he lists regarding areas such as law enforcement, higher education, regionalism (south moving closer to the political and social mainstream) and gender roles are impossible to deny (413-23).

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Anderson’s use of popular culture – especially songs and poetry – to illuminate his narrative becomes somewhat thick after a while. Some of his lyric quotes are inaccurate and others are misinterpreted. This could be overlooked if it these references were used in moderation, but the frequent, lengthy, and sometimes misused quotes eventually draw too much attention and become a distraction.

But while Anderson occasionally waxes rhapsodic about the movement, he makes a point of analyzing it realistically early in the book as being grounded in traditional American pragmatism (preface). He also acknowledges two important points regarding the broader context of the movement. The first is that there was activism on both sides of the political spectrum (109). Anderson’s discussion of “whitelash,” the sometimes violent response of working class white Americans to the perceived threats to their vision of society, correlates with Dan Carter’s political biography of George Wallace Politics of Rage. Secondly, while Anderson contests the conservative opinions regarding the meaning of the sixties, he does recognize the harm done to the movement by increased violence and radicalism such as the Watts riots (132), and the sometimes self-defeating and trivializing actions of the members of the movement (150).

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