Wednesday, January 15, 2014

1964: One Year as Turning Point

Last night, I watched the latest edition of the PBS program, American Experience.  This one looked at the year 1964.

I had planned to read last night.  I'm rereading Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, and I'm really enjoying it.  But the PBS program got a good review in The Washington Post, and I thought, I'll just watch a few minutes.

Two hours later, I was still hooked.  It's a great show.  What I loved about it was its breadth.  Unlike, say, The Freedom Riders, a show that also aired on American Experience, last night's show looked at many different aspects of life in the U.S. in that year:  the Civil Rights Movement, the first visit to America by the Beatles along with other aspects of pop culture, the transformation of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, the publication of The Feminine Mystique, politics both mainstream and countercultural, all the events that made 1964 such a turning point.

I wonder if we could make a similar case for any year.  I suspect that we could.  Seen through a variety of lenses, any year takes us in a completely different direction.

At the end of the show, one of the commentators (I think it was Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone) said he would pay money to go back to 1964 and experience it all again.  He talked about his youthful enthusiasm, my words not his, and how he feels that was one of the last times he felt he could change the culture and the power structure.

I began to wonder if that's a hallmark of the years of late adolescence, say 19-25.  I could say a similar thing about the mid-80's, a time that I felt was fairly bleak as I was living through it.  But I would love to experience again the watching of the news reports that chronicled the Soviet Union letting go of Eastern Europe or hearing about Nelson Mandela's release from prison.  At the time, I felt that our political efforts had helped accomplish these feats.

But did they?  My spouse and I had a discussion after the show.  He feels that people in power change their ways not because they're convinced of the rightness of the movements of the time but to preserve their power.

I don't necessarily agree.  I think that Lyndon Johnson pushed the 1964 Civil Rights legislation through because he was convinced of its moral correctness.  If he had wanted to hang on to power, he wouldn't have gone that route at that time.  But maybe my spouse is right about the larger cultural landscape.

I have watched so many societal changes in my lifetime, changes that I thought would be much later coming:  the election of a mixed race president, the growing acceptance of gay marriage, women moving up various ladders.  There are days when I feel despair at how far we have yet to go.  And yet, it's good to remember how far we have come.

I thought about that as I watched the part of the show on Freedom Summer.  I thought about people who blather on about 21st century voter suppression.  I thought about Mississippi in 1964--now that was voter suppression.  Requiring a photo ID really isn't deserving of that label.

I was also struck by how familiar these images and clips from 1964 are to me.  I've seen them in Sociology classes and in any number of documentaries and retrospectives.  And yet, I never find them boring.

I thought about how familiar the narrative was to me too.  It made me wonder about the stories that haven't been told yet.  I have no idea what they are, but maybe it's time to find a different perspective or two.

Or maybe it's time to turn our attention to a different year, a different decade.  I'd nominate 1989 or 1990.

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