As time passes, it becomes easy to associate any decade with fashion trends or music hits. Yet the ’50s, ’70s and ’80s don’t quite carry the same weight as the ’60s. Clara Bingham’s new oral history of the single year that ended the 1960s helps frame that tumultuous and contentious period.
The great success of “Witness to the Revolution” is that it never veers toward the boredom one associates with history textbooks. The book builds chronologically in one-month or two-month blocks. Bingham’s voice adds context and clarity in the form of brief biographies and chapter introductions, which help give this massive work a good narrative flow.
The core, however, is based on more than 100 original interviews that were completed from 2012 to 2015. The words and memories come from former Defense Department employees, Weather Underground members and leaders of Students for a Democratic Society.
What comes from this is a collective sense of things and a range of individual thought. Oliver Stone and Jane Fonda. Peter Coyote and Bill Ayers.
August 1969 to August 1970 saw the power of protest and the violent reality that those actions can bring. The Ohio National Guard shootings of students at Kent State University in May 1970 (which left four dead and nine injured) were a singular event but were part of the larger conflict at college campuses, which included more than 80 acts of arson or bombings. Seven hundred schools were shut down for various lengths of time, and more than 9,000 official protests took place.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was at the heart of much of this, but there was also a strong general sense of disarray at home. Distrust of the government in general and a continuation of the women’s rights and civil rights movements were very much in the mix.
Bingham manages to accomplish a difficult task here. She has created a work that indeed captures its own time and makes it still seem of the moment. I imagine for those who lived through these events, the book will evoke personal thoughts and history. And for those of us who were not alive, it gives a detailed and informative glimpse into what was happening.
It also shows us that much of what America is grappling with today is nothing new. Civil liberties and unpopular extended war(s), combined with racial and sexual inequalities, are still at the forefront. The movements begun half a century ago still inform and affect how we’re living and disagreeing and acting right now.
Hans Weyandt is a bookseller who lives in Minneapolis.
Witness to the Revolution
By: Clara Bingham.
Publisher: Random House, 611 pages, $30.