As many of you know, I'm as old as the hills. Well, not quite that old, but some mornings I feel that way. I wanted to share with you my perspective on the events since February 14, 2018, which made me look at when I was 18, and I took to the streets, as it were.
My days of protesting began in the fall of 1969 when I was in the south, at the University of North Carolina. In October, there was a call nationwide for a Moratorium -- a general strike in schools, in businesses, in the military, in government until the war was ended. An ambitious, and seemingly unrealistic, goal, but we were all ambitious and seemingly unrealistic back then. The Moratorum movement had begun that spring and translated into a march on Washington that October. But the biggie came in November, when an estimated 500,000 descended on the nation's Capital -- all over the city, in fact, and it included busloads and carloads of us from Chapel Hill. It was my freshman year. In local protests and mini-marches and information tables we were, in the words of North Carolina natives (sometimes to our faces but more often yelled at us from drive-bys) "Northern Commie Pinko $#@!" the last word being one that I will not ever repeat, but it flowed from their lips with liquid ease contrasting the harshness and violence of tone and seeming intent.
Context: The major focus of civil action at the time was around race. And that was sometimes violent. UNC had just started admitting black students. The first black athlete on UNC's storied basketball team, Charlie Scott, entered UNC in 1968. I was subjected to epithets when I walked across campus with my dorm suite mate, Richard Epps, who became, our senior year, the first black president of the student body. Freshman year, when I was on the outdoor track team (a freak of my otherwise meek physique -- I could throw the javelin a long way) we had our first black varsity track athlete and on bus rides to meets, we'd always stop for takeout so as to not subject him to the humiliation of not getting served at the restaurants. Because, outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina was a different world. At the outskirts of Wilson, N.C., there was a "Welcome" sign, perched on top of three steel posts 25 feet high, the proud proclamation that the town was the "Birthplace of the KKK."
So that fall, the fall of 1969, a bunch of us went to Washington to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon was president, and while we thought he was evil incarnate, we were still bristling at the secret escalation of the war under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Check your history books. That November 1969 the protest in Washington was enormous. Most of it was peaceful except in DuPont Circle where teargas was deployed. But Nixon feigned disinterest, reporting that he was watching football on TV and issuing a statement forever seared on my memory like a bad jingle: Of the protest, Nixon said, "under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it."
As they used to say in the south, "Them's fightin' words."
Back then we were all "radicals." We were a "menace to society," "UnAmerican." Chapel Hill was branded as a "hotbed of communism." Even disillusioned Vietnam veterans who travelled up to hurl their medals over the fence in front of the White House (a scene of protest repeated countless times by Vets from all over the U.S) were tagged as "druggies, hippies, malcontents." Many VFWs even barred them from admittance.
In the spring of 1970, the Moratorium movement grew. And with track season over, I decided to join in. At some risk. The drill was this: We were to go to our professors, explain our position on the war, say we were on strike and seek an amnesty on our absence, that our current grade be made our final grade. If we failed, of course, we'd flunk out. We'd be drafted. We'd be sent to Vietnam.
I remember the first professor most vividly. He taught calculus and was a 30-something southerner with a stocky, quiet way about him; he listened to me and then said, in a deep accent, "That war is immoral." I was surprised. I waited in silence and slowly he unfolded, in near tears, the story of his brother's death in a sortie near Danang, in his mind a routine and utterly useless mission. Yes, he said, he would make my current grade my final grade. He stood and shook my hand. He thanked me. My luck continued; the rest of my professors in my required freshmen classes all happened to be from the north and all were equally opposed to the war and equally sympathetic. I was set.
Then came Kent State. Four students were killed, nine wounded, on May 4, 1970 when the National Guard opened fire on vast throng of students protesting the war. The guardsmen had been called in from riots in another part of Ohio; they were tired, tense, young. It was a horrible mistake. But the nation was shocked. Shattered. And 10 days later, two more protesting students were killed by National Guardsmen at Jackson State in Mississippi. The Moratorum spread like wildfire. Protests were massive. Colleges and universities across the country began shutting down. UNC went bonkers. Thousands of students galvinized and walked out of classes. Protests took over the streets and the campus. Despite widespread condemnation that it was all the "work of outside agitators," and the administration's demands that we return to class, most didn't. Lecture halls were largely vacant. Professors came to classes that had no students. The trustees called an emergency meeting that was piped via loudspeakers onto the main quad where thousands of us sat listening. They finally decided: The university would shut down early. Current grades would be treated as final grades. UNC became the first public southern university to shut down.
But they did so with spite. Over the summer, the administration rid themselves of most of the northern-born, non-tenured faculty; upped the grade requirements for northern students so half of my friends were told not to come back; and built -- and in North Carolina they can build shit fast -- a "secure" structure off campus to house the administration. These were signs of the strength of those that held power, of the will of status quo, of the power of inertia. They were also indicators of how long our protests would take to bear fruit, to make change. And if you look at history, it was "Middle America" which changed the tide; the conservative Midwest with its farmers and manufacturing workers and businessmen and "housewives," the "Bible Belt," the "backbone of America" as it was called. But they were driven to oppose by the simple fact that the war was deeply touching their lives and more and more of their sons were returning from Vietnam in body bags. In January 1973, the American draft was ended. A year and a half later, a peace treaty had een signed. And in April 1975, the U.S. ingloriously burned its records, its headquarters and escaped Saigon by helicopters just as North Vietnamese tanks entered the city.
So, as I watched what unfolded from Parkland to Portland, from Washington to San Francisco, from this online community to Montpelier, I was heartened and encouraged by your writing and your voices; your shouts and your signs; your testimony and civic action. You articulated your outrage with empathy. You demanded action with resolve.
I see parallels between then and now. Back then, our anger was fueled by our personal stake -- the draft; today you are spurred on by the gnawing and growing fear of personal safety in your school, the Code Red drills, the news reports of the latest massacre in a school just like yours. Then we were led, spurred on, by many of the men who had gone through the object of our protest, or who had brothers or sons or fathers who were lost. You have been led by survivors. Then, like now, our government's leaders were largely silent, stolid in their silent resolve to maintain their position, their support, particularly as the corporate whispers grew louder in their ears.
You have "Middle America" behind you, the 60-70 percent of our citizens who are also mad as hell and are declaring that "enough is enough."
And then, like now, we operated in two parallel universes: the privileged and the not. In my day, white kids with money, myself included, deferred the draft by going to college. Black kids, rural kids, poor kids, were drafted right after high school and soon were thick in the fight on some numbered hill in the jungles of Vietnam with indiscriminate bullets tearing through the brush, through their bodies. This inequity was largely invisible, largely unacknowledged, largely ignored. Martin Luther King, at great personal sacrifice, took a stand in a famous speech on April 4, 1967, declaring that black men were being sent to die in Vietnam in untold numbers. It was a civil rights issue, he said. One year later, he would be dead from a sniper's bullet. His speech still holds truth today.
But here is a difference now, I hope. A group of Chicago youths went to Parkland, Florida, to share their perspective, their urban reality of living with the personal threat of gun violence, every day, every hour. The kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School listened. And learned. They took it to heart. And the day before the March for Our Lives, they met with their counterparts at Thurgood Marshall High School in inner city Washington. They learned some more. And they and the other organizaers of the March, made sure to include those voices of color, those different perspectives, those stories and by sharing the podium those stories gained audience and those young people gained agency. They showed while there is great difference in experience there is a commonality in hope and ambition: We must do something to stop the killing of our children.
But what is next? Can we continue to be intentional in linking these two universes, in acknowledging the greater toll, the longer hardship, the broader issues of children of color, children of urban environments, whose fear for their own safety is constant? We must. And all of us who do not live those lives must listen and learn and support them. We must absorb and give voice to the outrage of a young black man killed on his way home from school, or when he is stopped by police, or when he is caught in a cross fire.
I am encouraged that you, Generation Z, mobilized so quickly, that you have made so much noise and caught so much attention, so quickly. I say keep on going, keep writing, keep speaking out and testifying in new forums. Do not let up because it will not happen over night. Fend off the trolls and the naysayers and the NRA and the forces of fear. Get the politicians woke.
But also keep listening, keep learning of different perspectives; embrace the opposition, understand their point of view, respect them. Because together, change will persist. Divided any victory will be short-lived.