Book Review: 'Generation on Fire: An Oral History: Voices of Protest from the 1960s' by Jeff Kisseloff
Review by Susan Gardner
Generation on Fire An Oral History: Voices of Protest from the 1960s By Jeff Kisseloff University Press of Kentucky Lexington, 2006
[Update: The author has emailed me with the news that there is a website for this book that has additional interviews that didn't make it into the book, photos and contemporary magazine accounts of events, for those who want to explore further.]
I swear I didn’t mean to write this book review now. I meant to dip in from day to day and read each of the featured activists’ memories of the turbulent 1960’s one at a time; alas, once started, this collaborative oral history proved impossible to put down. The parallels to today’s often fractious progressive movements are striking, but more than that, there is a vibrancy to the interviews with integrationists, anti-war activists, environmentalists, and women’s and gay rights advocates that brings to life a decade that most of us reading here are far too young too have experienced directly. For the course of this book, one gets subsumed in the hopes and dreams of a previous generation in a way few other histories of the decade convey.
It’s tempting to assume that the collage of memories from different factions active in the 1960’s serves as a pointer to the almost duplicative arguments we see on Daily Kos each day, as if there were a direct bloodline of specific resentments and arguments that were passed down to today’s progressive movements. But after a couple of years of participating at this blog, I’ve come to the conclusion that many here – myself included – are unaware of many of the undercurrents and cross-currents from the previous protest generation. Thus, it seems to me that we are less carrying on old grudge matches inherited from our progressive forebears than we are re-creating the same old tired ones anew, with each progressive generation.
Now this is my own conclusion. I’m sure other readers will take different lessons from this amazing book; in a sense, because the author offers very little analysis himself beyond quick factual introductions to the interviewees, we each our allowed to form our own interpretation from the kaleidoscope of accounts presented. Think of it as a Rorschach test for what individuals can draw from the wide variety of contemporary oral histories presented here. Hard-core, life-risking integrationists and playful street artists offer alternate views and philosophies about what their experiences and hopes for the decade meant to them, and we are free to draw our own conclusions.
Most of the interviews presented are given by those deeply embedded in the formation of their respective movements but whose names are not familiar to those who are not historians of the period (with the possible exceptions of Daniel Berrigan and Barry Melton, "Fish" of Country Joe and the Fish). Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, SNCC organizer Bob Zellner, alternative press founder and humorist Paul Krassner, Vietnam vet activist David Kline, former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker David Meggyesy and feminist Marilyn Webb are featured. While I’d heard of a couple of them – Lafayette, Zellner and Krassner – I hadn’t know the details of their involvement until I read their accounts.
What becomes clear after reading even just a few of these oral histories is how simplistic it is to make any overall statement about the era or its more involved movement participants. Lumping all the different factions together and judging them as one mass movement of ineffectiveness or offensiveness or counterproductiveness is foolish. Some achieved their goals – either by defining them narrowly and realistically, or by sheer mundane, never-ending drudge work – and some did not. Some were oriented toward changing law or public policy; some aimed to change attitude and culture (and thus were much more difficult to assess). A great deal of isolation between pockets of activism was apparent from the beginning, and entirely different motivations led people to involvement.
So for my own Rorschach test of lessons drawn from the book (your mileage may vary), I drew the following:
There was an indirect influence of a linear timeline to activism, and the more successful and serious movements began earliest. The integrationist/voting rights in the South movement groundwork was laid by the most dedicated and serious activists earliest. Many avenues were explored before the tsunami of the 1960’s hit, and a lot of the more mundane education of activists took place under the radar in the 1950’s, with attendance at small, loosely affiliated venues such as American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville where Lafayette and John Lewis learned under Jim Lawson the tactics of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance. The risks were highest for these earliest activists – as evidenced by the murders later in Mississippi – and as Lafayette says:
I’m being honest with you when I say this: none of us expected to live to be twenty-five years old, particularly with the kind of behavior we were involved in. That was part of the understanding. You can’t practice nonviolence being afraid to die, and the training frees you from that fear.
Eventually, there was a spillover from the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement. Some civil rights activists stayed with voting and integration issues, some developed a hybrid (think King’s anti-Vietnam speech). As the anti-war activists became a second wave, they were joined by seasoned Vietnam vets such as those who founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War.(represented in this book by Dave Cline). The vets’ on-the-ground reports of the ineffectiveness of American military policy lent impetus to the draft resistors and were a bitter voice of authenticity that middle America found more and more difficult to ignore.
As protest movements spread out from the seminal civil rights movement and the anti-war vets, theorists and intellectuals most immediately affected by the draft – the college students at mostly elite universities – began to get pulled into the discussion of activism and strategy. While the previous movements had had some splintering over tactics – violence versus non-violence – for the most part, they had settled these differences by branching off and ignoring each other. This new "intellectualization" from the campuses, however, led to a lot of what we see here on the blogs today – purity tests and more investment in proving progressive rivals wrong than in effecting real change. Wasted energy went into stealing each other’s alternative press printing presses and declaring coups of organizations, and many who flocked to the exhilaration of the recognized historical moment stayed stuck forever in these purity wars.
Meanwhile, the third timeline wave – feminism – evolved out of some of this "stuckness" as the women involved with SDS and other radical campus organizations began to question why their roles were relegated to keeping the communal cooking pot going and providing "liberating" sex while the men argued Marxist theory until all hours and refused to clean the toilets. The viciousness of the men in these organizations to the women’s objections (and their subsequent departure from these movements) led to some really horrifying vilification, as recounted by Marilyn Webb, who was one of the first feminists to speak at a huge supposedly coalition-building joint anti-war rally in Washington in 1968:
I decided I would talk about equality, abortion, child care, and treating women with respect. It was a pretty mild speech. I wasn’t attacking men.... But when it got to be our turn to speak, Dave Dellinger got up and said, "The girls from women’s liberation are going to speak ...." Then, when I started to speak, I hadn’t gotten three sentences out when fistfights broke out. People were yelling, "Take her off the stage and fuck her." "Fuck her down a dark alley."
The final activist wave, according to gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny’s account, was that of his own movement; technically, Kameny claims, its prominence really broke during the early 1970’s and was a natural result of – not a part of – the previous movements.
A second lesson I drew from this book:
The more serious and successful the activists, the less credit they give to themselves and the more realistic (or cynical) they are about assessing the long-term impact of their part of the movement. Weirdly, the civil rights and hard-core anti-war vets and activists interviewed express more frustration – and take very less personal credit – for their accomplishments than some of the "avant garde" lifestyle activists interviewed.
Contsider this assessment from indicted Chicago Eight defendant Lee Weiner (a very serious activist indeed), who now works on staff in the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League:
... I began to lose faith in the outcome of what we were doing. I believed that the scope of the problems were such that they were not going to be addressed from the bottom up like that. I no longer thought that working within the system would succeed. I didn’t know what the answer was. Mostly, I was burned out. Then King and Kennedy were killed. Nineteen sixty-eight was the only year I ever thought that a revolution in the United States might actually happen. As Abbie used to say about 1968, "They don’t make years like that anymore."
...We continue [today] to have problems with racism, bigotry, sexism, ageism. Those things need to be fought on a day-to-day basis, and that’s what I do. The fact that these issues were raised in the 60’s and brought to the table are very positive legacies of the decade. That and good music.
Now contrast that with the interview from Pete Berg, a member of a San Francisco "guerilla theater" group known as "The Diggers." A typical Digger event was the "Intersection Game" in which flyers were passed out urging pedestrians to keep crossing street intersections in different configurations until traffic was stalled for twenty blocks. To be fair, Berg moved into the environmental movement, founding Planet Drum, which appears to be an effective, localized organization today. But his assessment of the Digger activity (from my view, of course), seems quite overblown:
What has flowed forward from it? I would say American society has been changed tremendously.... So many more things are acceptable today: the language that you hear, even on television, or read: sexuality.
There are a couple of interviews in here that reek of the well-known stereotype of dilettante hangers-on to more serious movements; a pretentious "artist" or "poet" or two who think the height of the "revolution" was dancing naked under strobe lights while passages from the Book of Revelations were read (and not knowing until the birth of their child who the father was). Of course, these hangers-on were part of the scenery too and deserve some voice; it’s simply unfortunate that their ego-serving has come to represent the main of the movements in modern minds today.
Taken as a whole, Generation on Fire is a study of both the goofiness of the times and the confusion that was present even as it was being lived by those in the forefront of the counterculture. For the most part, these were serious people wrestling with serious issues, and in many cases truly changing the world forever. These gathered oral histories point the way to reassessing the era in a kinder light than is usually offered today. More than anything else, study of the splintering, factions and failed coalition building – and those that succeeded, by the way – can serve as suggestions as today’s progressive movement struggles to overcome the same tendencies.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.