By the end of 1961, the new spirit of rebellion began to get noticed. Carey McWilliams in 1958 had described my generation as “The Careful Young Men” in The Nation Magazine. Reflecting on that issue later, McWilliams said that the following year, 1959, “we repeated the same idea–and [everyone] said they detected some rumblings. By the time we got to the third year, the thing was off and running.” McWilliams named the 1961 issue of The Nation “Rebels With a Hundred Causes.”
Liberals had mixed reactions to the activism. While they generally supported student causes, liberals were troubled by the students’ growing militancy and their indifference to ideological disputes of the past, specifically the participation of communists in movement activities. It is strange to write this in 2016, when the world’s largest Communist country is The United State’s biggest trading partner but in those days many people felt about communists the way many people today feel about terrorists.
The tension between radicals and liberals was too much for Pacifica president and KPFA manager Harold Winkler. He resigned in October of 1961. Quaker activist, Trevor Thomas, succeeded Winkler as President and KPFA Manager. His cautious reaction to the conservative attack was similar to Winkler’s, but he had a Quaker’s patience. Elsa stormed out of one her many meetings with Trevor fuming, “Arguing with a Quaker is like arguing with god. He can’t be wrong because his intentions are good.”
Elsa knew she would have to report to Liberals. “You are always working with liberals because who else is there to work with in the media?” Her frustration was at their insistence that every issue had two sides. The notion, for example, that a member of a White Citizens Council and a black student trying to exercise his constitutional right to vote were morally equivalent. “They think, they actually believe, that if you can find the middle of anything and sit there that this in itself constitutes virtue. They are never prepared to admit that there is such a thing as right and there is such a thing as wrong and that if it’s wrong you say so and if it’s right you say so. Or at least you give the audience the opportunity to notice this.”
False equivalents still plague our newsrooms. It’s why such a large proportion of United States citizens are ignorant about climate change and man’s influence on that change. To mention only one of many ignorant positions. Wanting to give both sides of any story both for fairness and dramatic story telling (conflict helps!), reporters and weather forecasters give a disproportionate amount of airtime to the 3% of earth scientists who deny global warming.
In 1961, the symbiotic relationship between liberals and activists might have been frustrating, but it also was essential. Liberals generally supported radical goals. They just wanted the movement to slow down. They preferred the status quo to the disruption of social change. And yet, without liberals, laws wouldn’t have change and money wouldn’t have been available. It was a unique time, when Liberals and radicals, many of the radicals the children of liberal parents, came together to change America.
Here’s an example of how it worked. A liberal majority on the Supreme Court ruled that interstate busses had to be integrated.
Freedom riders rode the buses into the south where they were beaten, jailed, and their busses burned. The liberal media spread images of the brutality across the world. The liberal Justice Department of John Kennedy had to act, to uphold the law. As James Farmer, the head of CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) put it: “Our intention was to provoke the authorities into arresting us, and thereby prod the Justice Department into enforcing the law of the land.”
There was a new mood in the United State. The Fifties were over. James Baldwin expressed the new mood in an interview with Elsa Knight Thompson, “What we are really living through is nothing less than a revolution. The people who hold the power never give it away. The power that one is trying to get,
and I think from the same point of view this may be happening for the first time in the history of the world, one is trying to achieve a bloodless revolution, a moral revolution and in our situation we have no choice.”
My two years at KPFA remain among the most engaging and productive of my life. My colleagues were exceptionally smart, dedicated and talented. KPFA gave me access to some of the most interesting minds of the time. Our tiny staff and a host of volunteers produced a huge variety of stories: historical programs — Ernest Lowe on the Belgium Congo, Fred Haines on the Spanish Civil War and the Seattle General Strike. Using portable tape recorders, Dale Minor, Gene Marine and I covered community fallout shelters, peace marches, student activism. John Leonard created a late night program, a montage of music and voices called Nightsounds, that foreshadowed the late night radio shows of the 1970’s. (Much of what Pacifica did in those days has been lost forever, because in our poverty we erased taped shows to record new ones.)
My life was grounded in a supportive community, something that I took for granted. I had my colleagues at KPFA and my close friends, Clint and Virginia Jencks. My parents lived a few blocks away. My sister and her family were in San Francisco. However, I also was twenty-seven, three years short of my thirtieth birthday, the time by which I thought I had to have achieved some great goal … written a book, produced a movie, been crucified.
At that crucial moment Trevor Thomas asked me if I wanted to go to New York City and take over Programming at WBAI. I didn’t hesitate. Leaving my parents, my sister and brother-in-law and their children, Clint and Virginia and my political friends, my colleagues at KPFA, the California coastline, the redwoods, my beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains … I honestly can’t remember a moment’s regret.