Book Review: The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama

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Review by Jack Neworth

For those born before the time period known as the Sixties or for those who lived through the decade but whose memories have faded from time (or psychedelics) it was perhaps the most turbulent era in modern U.S. history.  The phrase “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” reflected only part of the change that swept the country. In almost all aspects of American life, the Sixties weren’t business as usual.

There is certainly no one more qualified than Tom Hayden to document the era. Hayden authored the Port Huron Statement, long considered the founding document of the Sixties movement. He was also one of the defendants in the infamous “Chicago 8” trial. (Renamed “Chicago 7” when Black Panther Bobby Seale’s case was separated.) In 1972, all of the convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Remarkably, Hayden was present at so many crucial moments in the Sixties, he’s reminiscent of the character Zelig in Woody Allen’s 1983 movie of the same name. With meticulous research, Hayden takes us from the beginnings of Sixties all the way to its effect on the Obama campaign and presidency, in a highly compelling manner.

However, the historic political and social changes that Hayden describes in detail, he also points outs that they came at a great cost. JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X were assassinated; Vietnam tore the country apart; and defenseless students at Kent State were gunned down.  There were church bombings, fire hose attacks, lynchings and brutal murders of blacks and whites. (Meaning there was a good deal more going on during the “peace and love generation.”

The Sixties social changes extended far beyond civil rights. During this period the feminist, Chicano and Native American movements galvanized their constituencies. The anti-war advocates had universities all across the country under siege. Sadly, many people didn’t survive the tumult. Reading The Long Sixties, it’s a wonder how the nation did.

Bill Clinton observed that those who thought that the Sixties created more good than harm were likely to become Democrats. And those who felt the opposite were likely to be Republicans.  Either way, the period is so relevant to understanding today’s struggles “The Sixties” is taught in history courses at colleges nationwide.

Among Hayden’s many insights is that Barack Obama’s election would not have been possible without the Sixties. Obama was conceived because of changing mores on interracial marriage; was electable because of the civil rights movement and voting rights laws; and was successful because of a new social movement that applied participatory democracy online and door to door.

Hayden’s account of the era includes the many, often forgotten Sixties’ achievements and would seem valuable reading for activists, journalists and historians. Hayden’s 50-page timeline at the end of the book is an eye opening, albeit emotionally draining, experience as one either recalls, or learns for the first time, of the often-violent struggles of the Sixties.

On an almost daily basis, there were huge, dramatic events of major social and political significance. (Protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, many Americans actually immolated themselves.) Today  “major events” are more likely to concern Paris Hilton’s lack of underwear or the “balloon boy,” and be reported on TMZ or in the National Enquirer.

There are also touching moments in Hayden’s book. He describes visiting Vietnam after a 40-year absence. Remarkably, many of the Vietnamese he met then were still alive, and greeted him warmly.

Whether one agrees with Hayden’s politics or not, any reader of this book will better understand the era that left a critical imprint on America. A century after the Civil War, the Sixties saw the passage of civil rights laws, the birth of the environmental movement, and forced open the political process to women and people of color.

As he continues his tireless, worldwide fight for peace, Hayden has written 15 books including, Voices of the Chicago 8: A Generation on Trial, and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader.

To any student of American history,  The Long Sixties is a must read. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “No nation can be ignorant and expect to be free.”

The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama is available at Amazon.com, and at bookstores everywhere. Tom Hayden can be reached at www.TomHayden.com


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