In the spring of 1970, universities across the Unite States closed early. They didn’t close because of a virus as they have this year. They closed because there was a different epidemic sweeping across America. It was an epidemic of ideas that questioned many of the long held beliefs in America about race, religion, gender equality, and the authority of a government to force its youth to fight and die in a war that to many, including myself, believed was morally and ethically wrong.
I was a sophomore at Miami University of Ohio, a school best known for its high academic standards and as the, “mother of fraternities”, several national fraternities having been founded there.
In 1970, a university as conservative and “frat bro” as Miami was not immune to what was happening in the country. President Nixon had just announced the invasion of Cambodia. The escalation of an already unpopular war triggered mass demonstrations throughout the United States. There were multiple actions and marches on campuses and cities around the country including my university.
The unrest wasn’t just caused by the Viet Nam war. It was, I believe, the result of a complicit and complacent nation that allowed political, civic, religious and racist interests to suppress the rights of many of its citizens.
We are now experiencing, in Minneapolis and other cities, another round of citizens demanding their basic right to life and liberty. In 1970 we marched for an end to the Viet Nam war. In the following years, people marched for women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, clean air, clean water, child protection laws, affordable health care, racial equality, and gender equality. All of these are civil rights. They have all been resisted in some manner by the unprincipled privileged and powerful whose support comes from a population that is too racist, too frightened or too ignorant to lift their heads and oppose the status quo even when it would improve their lives as well.
We used to say, in the Viet Nam War days, that when someone realized how futile and unjust the war was, they became radicalized. When the Butler County Sheriffs came onto the beautiful Georgian campus of Miami University and began beating students with night sticks and letting their dogs attack, many previously indifferent students became radicalized. When the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University in 1970, many more became radicalized.
How many George Floyd’s have to die before enough people wake from their complacency and complicity, before the United States is truly willing to live up to its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all? Are we as a nation, once again, going to use our might to suppress the oppressed as we did in Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, Chicago in 1968, L.A. in 1992. Or are we going to listen to the concerns of our fellow citizens and work with them to address the abuses of power and inequality?
Every time we have an event like the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, we reach a fork in the road of our destiny. Do we turn away and let the instruments of power and privilege beat our fellow citizens back into smoldering submission? Or do we demand of ourselves and those we elect that we rise to the task of questioning too-long held beliefs about race? Will we question how authority is used and abused in our society?
At conservative Miami University, I learned how to think, to question assumptions, to challenge myself and those in power. I would have graduated from there with those skills even if there had not been the Viet Nam War and the protests. What those protests did, was bring to life what I was learning in my literature, history, and political science classes. I was fortunate to see and experience first hand how important it is for a population to speak truth to power and to see how frightened and vicious the powerful become when faced with uncomfortable truths about their actions and motives. I became “radicalized”. I understood how people can become angry when faced with an intransigent force with deeply vested interests in maintaining their prejudices and power.
We are once again faced with a crisis in America. We have an opportunity to make real and lasting changes in the way we see each other. Will we continue to be outraged and divided by our national leaders? Will we examine our own prejudices which perpetuate the status quo? Will we speak truth to power? It is up to all of us. How many men and women have to be killed by the use of excessive force? How many ensuing riots do we want to endure before we say enough is enough? Justice must be served for all. No one is safe until all of us are safe.
*This is adapted from the song, “Abraham, Martin and John” written by Dick Holler in 1968. It was first recorded by Dion. It was written as a tribute to four assassinated Americans: President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. It has subsequently had many covers by: Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, The Band of Heathens, among others.
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