Nowadays, "radical" seems to be defined by the fire of rhetoric, the sweep of intellectual analysis, and the extremes of demands and remedies. But I'm an old geezer from a simpler era when "radical" was judged and measured by what you did and what you actually accomplished in terms of changing peoples' lives and attitudes — not just what you said.
More than 50 years ago, in 1960, Black students in the South faced an unsolvable dilemma. No longer were they willing to live segregated lives as second-class, semi-citizens. No longer would they submit to white-supremacy and all it stood for. But every route and avenue of change was closed, every method for redress of grievance was blocked. Lobbying for legislation had proved an utter failure. The promise of "Brown v Board of Education" was dashed by southern segregationists defying the ruling across the board and a federal government that had not the political will to enforce the law of the land. Students who challenged the "southern way of life" by speaking up or trying to register to vote faced expulsion by college administrations controlled by white power-structures. And all attempts at peaceful public protest faced certain arrest, or mob violence, or both.
Most of these students were the first in their family ever to reach college. Their parents scrimped, and saved, and sacrificed to provide them an education. They came from a culture striving for acceptance and respect by a dominant society that — simply because of the color of their skin — treated them as less than fully human. And despised them for false racist stereotypes of laziness, incompetence, and brutish criminality. They were proud of making it to college, proud of their educational achievements, and they were determined to compel white society to recognize them as full American citizens. For them, to be expelled was out of the question, to be arrested and burdened with a criminal record a shame beyond endurance, not only for themselves, but for their families, their churches, and their communities.
In 1960, a few — a very, very few — in places like Greensboro and Nashville, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, Jackson and Orangeburg dared to start thinking "outside the box." They dared to challenge the dominant paradigm. They determined to defy the southern way of life and pay the price whatever it cost. If registering to vote or speaking up meant being expelled from school, so be it. If sitting-in at a lunch counter meant jail, they would serve their sentences with pride. If riding at the front of the bus meant facing mob violence they would endure it. If dropping out to organize communities in the most violent regions of the rural South meant risking their lives, they would brave that danger.
Yes, at first they wore coats and ties, skirts and heels, but they and their actions were "radical" in the deepest sense of the term. Their words were non-belligerent, their tactics nonviolent, their language inclusive rather than divisive, and their demands "deeply rooted in the American dream." They were determined not strident, steadfast not dogmatic. In a word, they were "revolutionaries."
It is hard today to grasp how utterly radical were the actions of those first Black sit-in students, and the Black and white youth who later followed them down into Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and the Carolinas. Perhaps a modern analogy may make it clearer. Today, students and recent graduates are politically imprisoned by the imperatives of paying off student debt. The economic risks of failing to graduate into the promised affluent careers are overwhelming, few dare drop out to organize in defense of a planet threatened by ecologic disaster or to combat ever-widening disparities of wealth and political power. What the Black students of the 1960s did back then was as radical as if a young woman today chose to do the unthinkable, to simply defy the banks and courts by refusing to pay off her education loans in order to pursue a goal, objective, or life outside the dominant corporate paradigm.
And pay the piper. Which was the most radical act of all. The students of the Sixties understood that there was no way to defy segregation and end the Jim Crow system without paying the price and suffering the consequences. The paths claiming to serve both self and cause had all turned out to be illusions. There were no clever tricks, no subtle stratagems, no way to defy white-supremacy without suffering the penalties enacted to enforce it.
And pay the piper they did. In abandoned educations, filthy jail cells, brutal beatings, crippling injuries both physical and mental, and for some, sudden violent death. Today, the freedom riders of yesterday are considered by many to be heroes. But for every movement activist who managed to eventually return to school, graduate, and build a successful career in business, politics, or academia there are others, many others, who did not. Yes, a few achieved great acclaim and even high political office, many more found ways to scrape by on modest incomes while continuing to be activists, and some died homeless, or live today in quiet poverty.
Back in the 60s, the overwhelming majority of college students chose to get their degrees and establish their careers rather than radically defy or challenge the entrenched status quo with radical action. Today, student loans, careers, and mortgages still establish the sanctioned channels and penalties of youthful energy. But those few, those radical few of the 1960s who chose otherwise changed the face of the South and of America. Now a new generation, confronted with ever-increasing inequality, corrupt power, and cataclysmic climate change must choose their own path.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2014
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