EssaysFeature

Our Sixties: Blowin’ in the Wind

Thinking Morally, Acting Strategically

Making History/Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America is a chronicle of the political and personal lives of progressive activists Richard (Dick) and Miriam (Mickey) Flacks, two of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As active members of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, and leaders in today’s social movements, their stories are a first-hand account of progressive American activism from the 1960s to the present. As the children of immigrants and first-generation Jews, Dick and Mickey crafted their own religious identity as secular Jews, created a critical space for American progressive activism through SDS, and ultimately, found themselves raising an “American” family. Read an interview with Mickey and Dick, followed by a passage chapter 7, “Our Sixties: Blowin’ in the Wind,” from Making History/Making Blintzes, below.

Public Seminar [PS]: Why did you write Making History/Making Blintzes now?

Miriam and Richard Flacks [MRF]: It’s a project that was suggested to us several decades ago by Charles Lemert. A joint memoir by a married couple who were raising a family while being engaged in the political upsurge of the sixties new left — a theme the title tries to evoke.

PS: What do you hope readers will take away from it in the age of Trump and a global turn to the right?

[MRF] We emphasize the ways in which “Thinking globally, acting locally’ is a valid guideline for advancing democratic movement and empowerment.

PS: Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing a joint memoir? How did you decide on the sections you would each contribute?

MRF: We decided to write separately, each telling the stories we wanted to tell, and, in the end, it wasn’t that hard to weave these together, each in our own voice.

PS: What is the significance of the title, Making History/Making Blintzes?

MRF: It expresses first of all how we’ve tried to make everyday life rooted in family and work and community while living out our activist identities—a fusion we learned was possible from our ‘red’ parents. It also alludes to the importance of the Jewish socialist tradition in helping to make that fusion.

PS: How did the project evolve over time? Did it go through many stages and changes? Can you describe some of them for us?

MRF: We didn’t write anything for about 20 years after we decided to do it. We began writing a couple years after Dick retired from full-time teaching in 2006. We wrote from our memories and the stories we’ve always told. An important early decision was to write about our communist mothers and to see the book as a chronicle of the American left over the last 100 years. And half of the book, we decided, recounts our experience in the 50 years since the sixties — an experience we see as about the growth of a healthy Left — with, as we say, profound limits.

PS: Looking back on your life as progressive activists and thinkers, what advice would you give to young, left-leaning people fighting for progressive and democratic ideals?

MRF: Connecting to the everyday needs and lives of the communities you inhabit rather than claiming that ‘they’ have to convert to your superior truth. Recognize that ideology isn’t a guide for most people’s actions. Philosophical pragmatism should be fused with radical hope. Think morally, act strategically.

To hear the Flacks discussing Making History/Making Blintzes click here.

JFK Murdered

Dick:

Everyone remembers 1963 as the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Even though we were, to say the least, ambivalent about Kennedy’s policies vis-à-vis the Cold War and civil rights, we were, of course, fascinated with him. He had begun to change direction, we thought, in June of 1963, when he delivered a remarkable speech at American University in which he called for a new chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations, anticipating achievement of the nuclear test ban treaty and speaking much of the language of peace groups like SANE.

Although he and his administration were dismayed by the March on Washington and tried to prevent it from happening, they could not publicly disavow it. Responding to the pressure of dramatic confrontations in the South, the Justice Department began to lend support to Southern freedom fighters. Behind the scenes, and unknown to us at the time, the Kennedys had agreed with J. Edgar Hoover that Martin Luther King Jr. should be put under surveillance, and they bought into Hoover’s claims that King was actually in thrall to the Communists. SDSers who were close to SNCC had enough firsthand experience to believe that the Kennedys were determined to control the civil rights movement rather than simply respond to its moral demands.

There were, accordingly, many reasons for our ambivalence with respect to the Kennedys, but nothing could be more shocking than to have JFK shot down in that motorcade on the streets of Dallas. It was quickly reported that groups of people in the South, including schoolchildren, applauded the news of Kennedy’s assassination, and, like many, we saw this response as a logical culmination of right-wing hysteria that had been sweeping the South in general and Texas in particular. Tom Hayden came over to our place almost immediately, and we were glued to the television in the hours and days after the shooting. Tom was deeply affected by what was happening. He identified with the Kennedys deeply — with their Catholic roots and their capacity to affect history — even though he was highly mistrustful of their Machiavellian approach to social movements.

Figuring out the political, cultural, and social meaning of the assassination and the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was our main preoccupation that weekend. We debated whether it was best to assume that some kind of conspiracy lay behind the assassination or whether Oswald could have been the lone assassin. My sociologist self invented, on the spot, a new social type that I called the “lurker.” “Lurkers” are people like Oswald — very poorly integrated into normal society, their whole life story one of marginalization and alienation. Lurkers, I imagined, may be very tempted to do some kind of grandiose, highly visible public act in order to validate themselves. Later, as we learned about Oswald’s personal history, his restless urge to stand out in history became even clearer. So it’s always seemed to me quite plausible that Oswald did act alone, in the context of a climate in which hatred of Kennedy was widespread and profound and manufactured by right-wing operatives.

At the same time, the possibility of conspiracy seemed very real. For example, I remember distinctly hearing the surgeons on television reporting that the bullet hole in Kennedy’s throat was an entry wound, which gave plausibility to the idea, which was soon voiced, that a second shooter was positioned on the grassy knoll facing Kennedy’s approaching motorcade — since Oswald’s shots had to come from above and behind. More blatant was the experience on Sunday morning of that weekend as we watched the telecast of Oswald being brought down to the basement of the jail for transport to the court. I said, jokingly, “He’s going to be shot there,” and, incredibly that’s what happened. That one could imagine and then see Oswald being done away with reinforced the idea that something beyond a lurker acting alone was needed to understand this event. “Lurkers of the world unite!” I joked. Both Oswald and his killer, Jack Ruby, fit the social type I had been inventing.

For a while afterward, I was an avid reader of many of the books about the assassination. A leading questioner of the official story of the “lone assassin” was a good friend of SDS, former New York State Assembly member Mark Lane, who pioneered the notion that JFK was killed by an elite conspiracy. I’ve always been of two minds on the matter: while I think it’s plausible that Oswald acted alone, I think there’s very good reason to try to determine whether there was an assassination plot. Maybe the most plausible accounts are those in fiction. There is Richard Condon’s great novel Winter Kills, and then there is Don DeLillo’s rich novel about the assassination, Libra. Both compel belief that conspiracy in this instance can readily account for what we know as the “facts” better than the “lurker”/lone assassin story. But more importantly, DeLillo gives us a framework for understanding the assassination as a major episode in an ongoing cultural/ political war in the United States. It’s a war that is being played out not just in political debate and mass mobilization but in the machinations of government intelligence organizations, which have both the power and the means to manipulate events, under cover. So whether or not there was a specific conspiracy in this case or in the later assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy, the machinery for such operations exists in the national security apparatus. Such considerations became a necessary underlying theme in our political lives in the decades that followed.

In any case, the bright promise of that summer, for which “Blowin’ in the Wind” was part of the soundtrack, had turned into a very cold November, in which death and violence were looming in ways we had not before been willing to face. That was the same month that America’s puppet leader of South Vietnam was assassinated, just shortly before the killing of JFK. Vietnam was in our minds at that time, but only as one of a number of trouble spots, where, we thought, the threat of wider war might flare up. Kennedy’s assassination, and the unresolved circumstances surrounding it, marked the end of our innocence. If once we had thought that reasoned debate and sincere, well-meaning protest could change the course of the government and the national elite, doubt about the sufficiency of decency and idealism now dominated our conversation.

At the same time, the pace and potentials of SDS were getting more promising every day. SDS had a close relationship with the UAW’s national leadership, which, of course, was based in Detroit — a short drive from Ann Arbor. One of the founding leaders of SDS was Sharon Jeffrey, whose mother, Mildred (Millie) Jeffrey, was among UAW leader Walter Reuther’s closest aides and confidants. Millie Jeffrey appreciated us greatly, and we were thrilled to get to know this exceptional figure in labor (and Michigan) history. She and other UAW staff were very helpful in getting support for SDS from the union.

After the summer of 1963, we succeeded in getting a grant from the UAW for what was called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). The UAW thought that it was funding SDS so that we could advance a pro-union agenda on college campuses and an educational program in favor of full employment and other economic issues. But such an educational effort didn’t match the yearning within SDS for direct action.

The nature of ERAP was to be debated at the next meeting of the SDS National Council, scheduled to be held in New York during the Christmas break. It turned out to be another of those fateful occasions in the development of SDS and in our shared lives. Truly memorable was that certain persons of mythical proportions, who happened to be in the city, were invited to come by to greet the new SDS. One of our new and very active members, Jeremy Brecher, was a family friend of Alger Hiss. Hiss was, of course, one of the main targets of the postwar Red Scare, charged and ultimately convicted of perjury related to alleged espionage in the 1940s. It was his case that launched the career of Richard Nixon as a foe of the Red Menace and helped determine the Cold War discourse in postwar America.

Hiss, after three years in prison, had embarked on a private, under-the-radar, life, but Jeremy invited him to come by to greet the SDS National Council. I’m unsure whether many of those present really knew much about Hiss, but it was fascinating for us to have the chance to talk to him for a few minutes in a group situation. I can’t recall the content of that interaction, but Hiss’s appearance at the meeting was a symbolic flaunting of the LID code. We were welcoming in our midst someone who’d actually been convicted of aiding the Soviet cause.

When I was a kid, I had a deep and obsessive fascination in all of the happenings of the McCarthy years and had learned a great deal about the Hiss case. Hiss was of particular interest because he’d been a well-liked and prominent member of the foreign policy elite (and therefore his disgrace helped tarnish the entire New Deal legacy). He maintained, until his death, that he was innocent of the charges against him, and there was quite a literature debating the case. Indeed, I renewed my interest in Hiss some years later during the Watergate affair, when Nixon had been quoted as saying that his treatment of Daniel Ellsberg was based on his earlier targeting of Hiss.

It wasn’t at all clear what Nixon might have meant when he said that. But Hiss had worked hard over the years to show that evidence used against him had been forged and planted — and it was clear that Nixon’s crew of “plumbers” had tried to do just those things to Ellsberg after his leaking of the Pentagon Papers. The Hiss case involved all kinds of weird and fascinating details, including microfilms hidden in pumpkins in backyard gardens, but what intrigued me during the Watergate affair was the relevance of Hiss’s claim that material allegedly typed on his typewriter and given to confessed Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers was in fact forged. Apparently, White House operatives had tried to forge materials to be used incriminate JFK in the murder of South Vietnam dictator Diem. To my knowledge, no one has tried to connect these various dots, and conventional wisdom now assumes that Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent of some sort. But even the phrase Soviet agent may be more ambiguous than it seems, given that at the time of Hiss’s alleged “crimes” the USSR was not an enemy — and it’s never been made clear what the content of the information Hiss allegedly gave to self-proclaimed Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers was about. I’ve always wished that a new generation of historians would look with fresh eyes on the whole matter of U.S. Communist Party involvement in Soviet espionage.

Anyway, we met Hiss for a brief moment in the SDS National Council meeting in 1963. A more significant encounter when Bob Dylan showed up for an hour or so. One of the people who’d been drawn to the SDS circle was Danny Kalb, an admired guitarist in the folk rock world, who was part of the New York SDS group. Kalb was a friend of Dylan’s and thought that Dylan would be interested in what we were up to. So he told the council that, at a certain time, Dylan would be arriving at the meeting. We discussed how to greet him, deciding to be cool and take no notice of his arrival, even though we were in total awe of young Bobby. We agreed that we would recess the meeting soon after his arrival, and then a small group of us were delegated to talk to Dylan in the hallway. I was one of those, for some reason, who was in that little “delegation.”

We let Dylan know that we hoped to somehow involve him in our work. We thought, rather crassly, that he might do some fund-raising concerts for us, and someone gently tried to raise that with him when he said he was interested in helping us. He responded that what he really wanted to do was go out and organize with us. He said that he had been in Harlan County, Kentucky, where a miners’ strike was famously happening, and he had been down to Mississippi for events there, and so he thought that he could play a role at least for a few minutes as one of the gang of organizers. But then, he said, “Please don’t consider me a politically reliable person. I am not.” “In fact,” he said, “I’ve been seeing a shrink to figure out my emotional instabilities.” To illustrate, he told the story, which has been published in several versions, of what had happened just a few days before his meeting with us. He’d been invited to get an award from a left-wing organization called the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. He thought he had been invited to sing, not realizing that he was expected to say something rather than to sing. He came out from the wings to see a room full of “bald-headed overfed people” (as he put it) who were having a banquet, and he felt quite alienated from this crowd. That was just a week after the Kennedy assassination, and Dylan found himself saying to this assemblage that he understood Oswald’s impulse to kill the president, or words to that effect, whereupon he was booed off stage. In telling this story to us, he was apologetic and upset with himself. Perhaps that event compelled Dylan to examine, more than he had previously, the implications of taking political stands and the dangers to art and psyche that might follow. Soon after meeting with us, he wrote a long poetic apology to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and another to Broadside magazine. In these, he was declaring in effect: “I am not the kind of person who can be seen as a committed engaged political activist, even though I’ve been singing as if I am.”

Anyway, he did give us some contact information, but we were never able to make any further connection with him. I’m not sure how much people in the SDS leadership tried to continue that contact, but it never happened. There were some on the left who saw Dylan somehow as a renegade, who compromised politically once his commercial potential began to be realized. My five seconds with him led me to see him, instead, as an artist wanting to be understood through his songs and no other way.

The most memorable debate at the national council meeting was about what ERAP was to be. Al Haber, having solicited the grant from the UAW, urged that we fulfill its terms by setting up an educational program focused on economic and labor issues and aimed at college students. Tom Hayden took the view, which turned out to be quite prophetic, that it was very important for SDS to undertake an organizing program that would in some way parallel what SNCC was doing in the South. He argued that it was possible to recruit college students to go into urban slum neighborhoods in the North and concentrate on organizing poor whites, in the hope of building what he called “an interracial movement of the poor.” It was quite a vigorous debate. Tom was proposing to take SDS in a very new direction — away from the campus and into the outer world — indeed into the most difficult neighborhoods of society.

The national council voted for Tom’s version and that changed history as far as the New Left was concerned. The decision meant that we had to create an ambitious apparatus for recruiting and training groups of students, that we had to (carefully, if we could) select some urban neighborhoods for them to go into on a full-time basis, and that we then had to have several groupings of SDS-sponsored people operating in those neighborhoods over time. It was a remarkably ambitious program, especially when you realize (which we hardly acknowledged) that those who undertook it had little basis in experience or knowledge to do this work.

One of the people who took charge of it was Rennie Davis, a dynamic, charismatic guy, who was then at the University of Illinois, in Urbana, and who turned out to have remarkable skills as an organizer. Rennie moved to Ann Arbor and set up shop at the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, which, rather boldly and most generously, provided us with space — and use of the center’s mimeograph machine and other facilities in the evenings. The center at night soon became a bustling scene, staffed largely by several young women whom Rennie recruited, producing hundreds of mimeographed copies of a series of pamphlets that laid out a rationale for the organizing project. A training camp for student volunteers was scheduled for June 1964. By that summer, well over a hundred students had been trained and assigned to ten Northern cities, to set up communal apartments and figure out how to organize in some of the poorest urban neighborhoods in America.

Excerpted with permission from Rutgers University Press (RUP). Purchase a copy of Making History/Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America on the RUP website here, or on Amazon here.

Dick Flacks is emeritus research professor of sociology at University of California Santa Barbara where he retired after nearly 40 years as professor and department chair. He did graduate work in social psychology at Michigan; taught sociology at the University of Chicago in the sixties. He’s the author of several books and numerous articles on the American left, student culture and social movements, including Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. Mickey Flacks was a researcher in molecular biology at all these campuses and then served as editor of Environmental Periodicals Bulletin. Mickey is a skilled Yiddish translator; she co-authored, with Mara Vishniac Kohn, Children of a Vanished World. Mickey and Dick have been life partners for 60 years; their sons Charles Wright Flacks and Marc Ajay Flacks have fathered a total of six grandchildren.

To read a review of Making History/Making Blintzes, Myra Marx Ferree, click here. To read a review by Maurice Isserman, click here.

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