In the opening lines of Boom!, Tom Brokaw recalls that when he told baby boomers he was writing a book on the aftershocks of the 1960s, “a number of them laughed a little nervously and said, ‘What are you going to call this one? The Worst Generation?’”
It was a flip yet disturbing question for the author of The Greatest Generation, which chronicled those who served in World War II. Many people have viewed the Sixties as an era of unending turbulence and unsettling changes in race, civil rights, war, politics, feminism, sexuality, drugs and music. Brokaw admits in his introduction, “Many of the debates about the political, cultural and socioeconomic meaning of the Sixties are still as lively and passionate and unresolved as they ever were.”
That doesn’t stop the former NBC anchor, of course, from taking the next 600 pages to recount what happened in the Sixties – and trying to figure out what it meant. It is a fascinating, if inconclusive, retrospective, as was Brokaw’s History Channel documentary, “1968,” and I cannot recommend more highly a book and a television show because they force you to reflect on the impact of those times on our lives today.
As a child of the Sixties, I was too young to have any meaningful understanding of what was transpiring across America. I grew up in Owatonna, an almost entirely white town just far enough from the Twin Cities to be disconnected from protests against the Vietnam War or marches for civil rights. We read about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and we saw television footage of Chicago police beating protesters at the Democratic National Convention, but even those shocking incidents seemed remote from the comforting isolation of rural America.
Life on the St. Thomas campus was relatively quiet, too. Father James Groppi and other speakers talked about non-violent racial protests, The Aquin ran “dove” and “hawk” columns about the war and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a former St. Thomas sociology professor, drew big crowds as a presidential candidate. But “local,” more mundane matters such as tuition increases, Homecoming festivities and the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry grabbed more attention.
“It certainly was quiet here, at least compared with other campuses,” says Dr. Thomas Sullivan, who arrived at St. Thomas in 1966 to teach philosophy and today is the university’s longest-tenured professor. “It took time for what was happening with the war and everything else to sink in.”
A frequent lament of activists interviewed for Boom! is society’s ambivalence today toward causes that dominated the Sixties, even though issues such as the racial divide and the Iraq war are eerily reminiscent and are playing a role in presidential campaigns. Leonard Riggio, who went from bookstore clerk to largest shareholder in Barnes & Noble, tracks the country’s mood by book sales and sees a lot of “self-indulgence … how can I be healthier, live longer, be more beautiful, make more money?” He is waiting for the next Sixties-style movement, when people again participate in debates “intellectually and spiritually – even when they’re on the outskirts. We’re not participants anymore. We’re witnesses.”
Brokaw frets that our unwillingness to find common ground is “a disgrace” and says we have not lived up to the potential of landmark initiatives such as the civil rights legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. “‘We shall overcome’ was the anthem of the civil rights movement, a soulful and moving promise by marchers on the dusty roads of Alabama, in rural and big-city churches, on city streets, and wherever the cause of racial equality was raised,” Brokaw writes. “To hear those evocative words uttered sincerely by an old-fashioned white political boss from deep in the heart of Texas was a startling and promising moment. More than 40 years later, it remains a promise unfulfilled.”
Even though he says we “cling to our old racial and cultural landscapes, fenced in by insecurities, biases, ignorance of others, and intellectual laziness,” Brokaw believes the laws of the Sixties provide an opportunity “for a profound change in racial dialogue, attitudes, and how we live our lives.” Ultimately, he insists, “Assimilation does not require the surrender of ethnic pride or cultural distinctions. It is about values that transcend racial distinctions. It is about common goals, standards, conduct, tolerance, and empathy. It is about challenging hypocrisy and dishonesty.”
And near the end of Boom!, Brokaw says he found through his reporting “a longing for common cause, a call to citizenship that goes beyond, ‘What can you do for me?’”
Let us hope it is a call that the candidates for president ultimately will answer, and a call that all of us will embrace – not as witnesses, but as participants – as we seek common ground on which we will bind our wounds and build a stronger America.