Among the mixed blessings of outliving the biblically allotted span of three-score-years-and-ten are half-century celebrations. For those of us who came of age politically in the 1960s, this means a lot of déjà vu all over again. Fifty years since Kennedy’s election, the Cuban missile crisis, the March on Washington, JFK’s assassination, the Selma to Montgomery March, the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riot.
Inevitably these commemorations simplify, magnify, and even glamorize the dramas of the 1960s. No small part of the recent upsurge of youthful militant activism is driven, I believe, by the desire to emulate what now looks like a decade of heroic political struggle.
Nineteen-sixty-seven poses a particularly rich menu of choices for commemoration. The “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury? Or the “Long Hot Summer” when violent urban conflicts broke out in over 150 black inner-city neighborhoods including Detroit (forty-three dead and thousands arrested) powerfully portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s film? The October March on the Pentagon?
That was the national atmosphere that gave birth to the National Conference for New Politics, convened in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend of 1967. Last summer I found it surprising but also salutary to see the conference included in a litany of landmark events to be remembered from a half-century ago. The chaos surrounding the conference extended even to the preposition in its name: I called it “on” in the September 29, 1967 issue of Commonweal. Other accounts use “of.” Most use “for.”
In the last days of August, two thousand (some estimated three thousand) activists from scores of local and national organizations began wandering through the lavishly decorated lobby and banquet rooms of Chicago’s historic Palmer House. There were tattered veterans of the struggles for racial justice and an end to the war in Vietnam; middle class liberals; Black Power advocates; white radicals who had graduated from campus to community organizing. They were all convinced that halting what seemed to be an interminable war and intractable racial inequities required major social and political changes.
What exactly did that mean? Create a third party? Run a national ticket in 1968, say of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock (the eminent pediatrician, not the Vulcan)? Focus money and energy on grass-roots organizing rather than electoral politics?
Dr. King himself gave a keynote talk at the Chicago Coliseum. (It should have been a portent that he was heckled by black teenagers.) There were other eminences: Julian Bond, Dick Gregory, Andrew Young, a few Congressmen, future leaders of a still emerging feminism, H. Rap Brown, who had memorably passed judgment on the summer’s riots with the phrase, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”
The New York Times and Washington Post sent reporters, as did the Soviets’ Tass and the London press. Dwight Macdonald and Renata Adler were on hand for Esquire and the New Yorker, along with leading writers for The New Republic and New York Review of Books.