The outbreak of student revolts at the University of Missouri and Yale this fall reflect a mounting sense of anxiety among young people. It’s getting increasingly hard, it seems, for young Americans to evade the moral challenges posed by crises involving racism, income inequality and the global war system. At the same time, it is quite clear that our political leadership is incapable of taking action to solve even one of these crises, much less all of them. No wonder so few young people vote.
I’m 68 now, so I was a teenager in 1965, during another moral crisis. The civil rights movement peaked that year, having effectively shaken white America’s sense of moral superiority. Like millions of other kids, I had spent my growing-up years watching the civil rights movement expand and flourish. In the spring of 1965 the U.S. attacked a small and very poor Asian country. At first I tried to ignore it, dutifully going down to my draft board on my eighteenth birthday in June to register for the draft. My father had served in World War II and my brother was already in the Army. It’s just what everybody did.
When I got to Columbia University as a freshman in September of that year, I found a significant number of older students who—outraged that this war was being carried out in their names—were already studying and protesting it, and teaching others. Their moral gravity and idealism attracted me, as did the urgency of their cause. I wanted to be in this gang of super-cool world changers who were taking care of business.
Unlike me, many of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members at Columbia were “red-diaper babies,” meaning they had grown up in socialist or communist families. As children their parents had taken them to civil rights marches, ban-the-bomb demonstrations and union-strike picket lines. These SDS anti-war kids had a common underlying goal: to “build the movement.” They had inherited this strategy from the labor and the civil rights movements of their youth. So we spent endless meetings discussing how to involve more people: debating, for example, which issues would be more attractive to students (should we target Naval ROTC’s presence at Columbia or should we oppose the sending of class rank to students’ home draft boards?) and which protests we should put our efforts into supporting (e.g. local on-campus war-related issues vs. recruiting for big mobilizations in D.C.). We called ourselves “organizers,” the same name used by the red-diaper babies’ parents. The underlying purpose was always to grow the mass movement, of which we, the students, were a part.