[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a participant-observer account of the period written by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Jim has graciously agreed to let us publish his manuscript here at the blog. The manuscript is divided into five main chapters/sections, each with its own title. The post below includes Jim’s brief prologue to the work, as well as the first chapter in its entirety. We will publish a new chapter each week.]
MEMORIES OF THE STUDENT MOVEMENT
AND THE NEW LEFT IN THE UNITED STATES
Good books exist on the New Left, most of them written by or about people who were heavyweights in the movement. My own perspective is that of a local New Left activist who was in touch with events at the national level but not really part of them. I was one of the movement’s unofficial historians at the time, and I wrote a PhD dissertation on its origins. In the end I was too close to the events to come up with a real analysis of where we fit into the flow of history. I’m still not sure I can do that, but in this manuscript I’ve tried to step back a little and look at the times of great excitement that I lived through in the 1960s.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE:
EARLY STIRRINGS OF THE NEW LEFT, 1960–1963
“The nineteen-sixties,” both literally and symbolically — meaning a decade of political insurgency — began February 1, 1960, during my freshman year in college. That day, four young students at the all-black North Carolina A & T College sat down at a department-store lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. They refused to leave. Impeccably dressed in coats and ties, they stayed patiently until the police came to arrest them. Their challenge to segregation fell like a spark in dry tinder. Over the next few months, thousands of black students throughout the South defied Jim Crow practices in the same way. The “sit-ins” were an extraordinary mass movement.
I lived in Minnesota, not the South. (If I needed a reminder, I could look at the ice sheet on the inside of my dormitory window, where the radiator’s heat met the outside cold.) But I was halfway through my first year at Carleton College, a small, academically strong co-ed liberal arts college. I was a liberal Republican, an idealist who thought that certain things were right and others — segregation above all — were wrong. In the spring of 1960 I took part in my first demonstration: a big symbolic picket in downtown Minneapolis by maybe a hundred students from Carleton and from St. Olaf College, across town. We picketed at a Woolworth’s store because black students across the South were being arrested at Woolworth lunch counters.
I didn’t feel a part of history. I participated because some older students on the soccer team told me about it — a black African soccer player from St. Olaf had recruited them. To me at that time, “politics” simply meant choosing individuals for office (Richard Nixon for president, for example, though I couldn’t vote for him because I wasn’t yet twenty-one). Picketing was new to me, and it felt strange.