Back To The Barricades


MANY STUDENT ACTIVISTS IN THE 1960S were driven by conviction and idealism. The young black men and women who courageously battled Jim Crow in the South number first among that group; so does the small but influential cadre of white students who put their bodies on the line in places like Mississippi and Alabama. But the vast majority of protesters most likely acted on a variety of impulses: some, idealistic; others, more parochial and prosaic. At the heart of their engagement was a reaction against Cold War culture, a reaction born of the growing sense that America’s rhetorical commitment to freedom and prosperity rang hollow. America, many students came to believe, had betrayed them.

The historian James T. Patterson has written that “economic growth was … the most decisive force in the shaping of attitudes and expectations in the post-war years.” Sharp increases in government spending and greater worker productivity helped fuel an unprecedented boom, and consequently, “the average American … earned more in real dollars, ate better, lived more comfortably, and stayed alive longer than his or her parents.”


Battered by two decades of Depression-era scarcity and wartime rationing, many Americans—particularly young veterans and their families—happily left behind a world of self-sacrifice and deferred dreams. Between 1950 and 1960, the average American family experienced 330 percent hike in purchasing power, reflecting an amazing 55 percent increase in the gross national product over roughly the same period. In constant dollars, spending on personal consumption leaped from $12.8.1 billion in 192.9 to $2,98.1 billion in 1960. The average American home in the late 1950S held seven times more equipment and goods than in the 1920S.

Prosperity and abundance helped fuel American confidence, but they were not the only forces contributing to the intense optimism on which the sixties generation was nurtured. Americans had won a war against German and Japanese fascism; they were winning scientific wars against disease, social wars against structural unemployment and poverty, and diplomatic wars against communism. As the economist Robert Samuelson later recalled, “If you grew up in the 19505, you were constantly treated to the marvels of the time. At school, you were vaccinated against polio.… At home, you watched television. Every so often, you looked up into the sky and saw the white vapor trails of a new jet…. There was an endless array of new gadgets and machines. No problem seemed to be beyond solution.”


The first batch of sixties-generation college students arrived on campus steeped in this ethic of optimism. The civil rights movement would soon shake their confidence. “We were imbued with very idealistic American values,” Tom Hayden later recalled, “a belief in racial integration, not just as a future ideal, but as an ideal to be practiced in the here and now; a belief that places like Mississippi were not part of the American dream, but nightmares that America would awaken from.”

The black struggle for equality didn’t just challenge young people to question the discrepancy between American rhetoric and reality. It also drew well over a thousand white students to the trenches between 1960 and 1964—to the deep South, where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) enlisted neophytes like Hayden and now-senator Joe Lieberman in voter-registration and direct-action campaigns.

In the fall of 1964, a thousand such students returned home from the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, transformed by what they had seen and done and about to sow the seeds of activism that would define the sixties generation. One of them was Mario Savio.

“Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights,” Savio announced in late 1964. “This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. In Mississippi an autocratic and powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university bureaucracy to suppress the students’ political expression.”

Savio, a 21-year-old philosophy major at the University of California at Berkeley, was a master at drawing powerful rhetorical connections between the plight of Southern blacks and the everyday tribulations faced by his fellow collegians. On the surface, Savio’s experiences in Mississippi bore only superficial resemblance to events at Berkeley, where university administrators had banned on-campus political advocacy. But like activists on other campuses, he was able to make students feel personally affronted and affected by what they saw on television: the brutality of Jim Crow, the passivity and complacency of the federal government, the seeming indifference of establishment figures who urged moderation and patience.


Ideas like “Michigan State is the Mississippi of American universities”—as asserted by an editor of a campus newspaper, circa 1965—resonated with many students. Having grown up in a prosperous, middle-class culture that placed children at the center of domestic life, many members of the sixties generation came to feel both neglected and victimized by university administrators, and to understand their situation as part of a larger pattern of American exploitation, the most egregious example of which was Jim Crow.