The sweet and delectable decade of the 1950’s was over. The next one would become a runaway train, headed towards a cliff on the two rails of racism and war.
The year 1967 would become the tipping point of what would become a five-year period of national turmoil, crisis, and tragedy, tempered and slowed only by the resignation of a president.
In that year, Muhammad Ali refuses military service. 10,000 gather for the Central Park be-in. Martin Luther King, Jr. denounces the Vietnam War
Four hundred students seize the administration building at Cheney State College, the oldest institute for higher education for African- Americans
1967 Milwaukee race riots begin. Race riots in the United States spread to Washington, D.C.
Thirty-nine people, including singer-activist Joan Baez, are arrested in Oakland, California, for blocking the entrance of that city’s military induction center.
Several thousand people advance to the Pentagon, including Benjamin Spock and Allen Ginsberg to protest against the Vietnam War.
100,000 people, mostly young people sporting hippie fashions of dress and behavior, converged the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco, becoming the Mecca for this movement, with tens of thousands of teenage run-aways setting up communal living.
This “hippie movement” had its own slogans; “Tune in, Turn on, & Drop out” and “Never trust the MAN.
Within the next year, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy would be assassinated, Abbie Hoffman and the “Yippies” lead protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, that would in turn lead to the cities ‘Police Action’ against peaceful demonstrators.
The Vietnam war and its draft was nationally unpopular- yet Richard Nixon, conservative Republican wins the White House.
Movies like…Wild in the Streets, Uptight, The Trip, & Psych-Out depicted a disenfranchised youth—in stark contrast to the pro-war fever catered to by the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets .
That same year of ’67, I was a ninth grader at a Catholic High School in small-town Iowa. It was a conservative, hard-working town, steeped in old-fashioned family values.
Even so, I was keenly aware from the evening news with Walter Cronkite–of the turmoil broiling throughout the rest of the country.
My friends and I watched the nation unravel from our vantage-point in farmland midwest. Like boys too young to enlist, we see a cultural war happening that we are missing out on, and while too young to be challenged directly by the war, we were acquainted first hand with small town racism even in the heartland.
We wanted in on the action, but there was nothing happening in our town—no firebrand to ignite the fuel.
Until the day they fired our favorite teacher.
No one knew the details of the firing. It was after all, a Catholic school, ran by clergy, not democracy.
This was my first experience with that delectable sense of outrage –
The MAN is doing it to us here in Iowa! We are gonna stick it to the MAN. We have a say in our education.
We just hadn’t learned how to say it.
There was little forethought or discussion. My friends and I followed the directions of the upperclassmen and planned to have banners and posters and bullhorns ready to go.
After home-room, which was first thing in the morning, we marched outside and collected our signs and our banners. Forming a large circle in the front of the school, we marched round and round, chanting “Save Mr D.”—“Hell No– He Won’t Go”, and “It’s our school– it’s our choice”.
Finally, I had joined up with ‘generation angst’ – the disenfranchised generation.
I had my cause, I had my tribe, and the excitement of marching on our own school was electrifying.
In all the exuberance with my first entry into the world of anarchy, I forgot about one thing—my house was directly across the street from the school– and my mom was a stay- at- home mom. She could clearly hear the bullhorn-led chants and the commotion of the marching students shouting out their slogans
Suddenly, I saw this tiny little woman stomping across the street onto the school lawn, headed straight for me. Only an Irish mother’s eyes could have spotted my so quickly in this mass of anarchists.
She marched up to me, disregarding the excited throng, and reached up to my shirt collar, grabbed it, and said “Bobby, you are coming home with me NOW!” She pulled me out of line and dragged me all the way home.
The sound of the laughter of the crowd followed this little Irish woman who was dragging her wayward fourteen-year-old son across the street to who knew what doom!
I am sure when we were inside the house that she scolded me furiously, but all I could hear was the sound of the bullhorn urging on my comrade’s public protest. How could I face them tomorrow? What kind of social activist gets dragged home by his mom?
When I returned to school the next day, I got looks of disgust from my teachers, and surprisingly from a lot of my classmates. Not because of what my mom did, but because of my choice to confront the authority of the school, and in the end, the Church.
This in the end hurt me the most. I had to trade the good will of many of my friends to join this cause.
This was a true microcosm of society. I learned that day that just because I took a stand, I would not be protected from criticism, even by friends and family who I admire and respect. I learned that political or social causes will always have those in opposition, who have just as much integrity and passion as I have for my cause.
Either side will always require courage–the courage to stand up to something, even when those you respect hold a differing view.
I am glad to say this was not my last foray into the arena of public demonstration. In hindsight, it was a low-brow cause. It was a cause of convenience. Yet, it was my start. Over the years I have marched in the streets, and on industrial sites, and on military bases– for a variety of causes of a higher purpose.
Sometimes, though, even on those occasions, I would look out to see if mom was marching towards me—either to congratulate me, or to grab me by my color and drag me home. But either way – I was out there.