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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

'Back in the day' is a lot like today

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By Trum Simmons

How does what was happening in the protest movements of the 1960s relate to the social justice movements of today? I recently was asked to do a session on this topic for a national leadership conference for college/university student leaders and advisers from campuses across the country, and I was happy to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the years, for I came of age during the years 1966-71. I was studying English and American literature in graduate school, and I strongly identified with Herman Melville, who once wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he dated his life from his 25th year. Melville had experienced no real development before then, he said. I happened to turn 25 in 1969, and was I excited to read that letter; Herman Melville and I had something in common!

There was so much going on during the 1960s that it was impossible to keep up, especially for a young grad student who was taking classes and studying to become a college professor.

The classes were demanding, the expectations high. And outside the classroom students were advocating for an end to the Vietnam War, for justice for African Americans, for liberation of women and yes, for the freedom to love whomever you wanted to love. I wanted to soak it all up, to experience all of it.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was exhilarating, it was exhausting.

More recently, I’ve been heartened by the protests both on and off campus that have sprung up over the past 15 years or so. My wife, Michelle, and I went to Washington, D.C. for the big Iraq antiwar rally in 2003, and it reminded me of the Vietnam War protests. There was a spirit present that was similar to that back in the day--people were feeling genuine solidarity with one another.

Today I see many people--college students and others--who are experiencing what I was 60 years ago. It is exhilarating, it is exhausting. And the people I know who are advocating for social justice across the board are finding their way to fight the good fight.

I am guardedly optimistic about today’s efforts. The Black Lives Matter Movement, the #MeToo Movement, the fight for basic human rights for all those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, the crying out for fair treatment of refugees and immigrants, the antiwar activities--all of them give me hope.

At the same time, what we might call the dark side of the unrest in our country is the same as always. The dark side I’m referring to is, of course, the backlash.

Protesting college students (both undergrad and graduate) in the 1960s faced daily cries of “America: Love it or leave it,” and we were said to be unpatriotic, ill-informed and just plain wrong about everything.

Families were divided, and it was impossible for many parents and their children to talk honestly about what was going on in the country. While we were gathering together to discuss what to do about the military draft, millions of Americans were calling us “cowards” and “sissies.”

What curious language. At the time, I wore long (well, longish) hair and love beads. Walking down the streets of Nashville, I was whistled at by truckers and stared at by passersby. Attending an antiwar teach-in on campus meant having to put up with a counter-protest that featured people yelling all sorts of epithets.

Today it’s much the same, especially with our current president. We thought Richard Nixon and LBJ were pretty scary, and now look where we are. The meanness and bullying of Donald Trump and so many of his followers is in a new class all by itself. I believe in trying to avoid them at all costs.

If I have any advice to offer today’s progressive activists, it is simply this. Keep the faith. Seriously. Your task is to do what you can to work for a better world, keeping in mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: A thing well done is done forever.