My 1968 in the Heartland

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Judith Ezekiel

“EZEKIEL’S BROTHER GOT arrested. He’s a Communist!”

This was Mr. Tucker’s first-period current events class, towards the end of my seventh grade school year. Other voices chimed in: “He’s anti-American! A subversive! It said so in the paper.”

That morning, my 19-year-old brother Michael’s arrest was front-page news. He and a group of anti-Vietnam War activists had been distributing leaflets entitled “Your Legal Alternatives to the Draft” at a Dayton, Ohio high school. After my father and the local ACLU lawyer, a family friend, had gotten them out, we had gathered around our dining room table to hear their story.

The group had been legally on the sidewalk outside the high school, but one boy had stepped onto the path that led to the school’s entrance. The principal had pulled him inside and had begun hitting him, until the diminutive Mrs. Bulley, a head of the Quaker Friends’ Service Committee, stepped between them. When the police arrived they arrested the protesters for trespassing and resisting arrest after one notorious activist went limp, civil-rights style. She had recently emerged from time in the workhouse and a hunger strike following a different protest.

A deal was cut in which charges against the protestors were dropped on the condition that they not press assault charges against the principal (the said principal went on to become an elected official and pioneer of the radical right revival in the city).

That night, to our great surprise, my father confessed that he, too, had been arrested: painting Zionist slogans on the British embassy in 1948.

In my current events class, I earnestly tried to explain what had really happened. Nobody listened. “But it was written in the newspaper.” At that moment, two things went click: first, I learned that the media lied and vowed never again to take it at face value. Second, I became a radical.

Just months earlier, I had acquiesced in discussions about Vietnam that “although I was against war, I had to admit that we couldn’t let the Communists take over.” Even as I spoke, my heart filled with shame at betraying my beloved, gentle Grandpa Eddie, whom I vaguely knew to have Communist sympathies.

Direct Action

Despite my ignorance about Vietnam and that one-time slip into unthinkingly parroting anticommunism, I was far from conservative or apolitical. I had watched with sympathy the outbreaks of anger dubbed “mini-riots” — was it in 1966 or ‘67?

After our science teacher announced that Blacks were descended from apes and whites created in God’s image, I cheered the boys who displaced his VW bug to the top of the Jefferson Elementary school’s monumental staircase. One day when he stepped inside the storage closet, my class locked him in, threw the keys out the window and walked out. The teacher was never again seen at Jefferson.

A lot of my commitment centered around our community, such as the group of girls I had organized to raise money to help fix up and plant trees in the nearby park, abandoned by city officials. Community work in this, the city’s sole integrated neighborhood, was inseparable from anti-racist work.

I recently uncovered papers documenting my father’s campaign to get a pool built there; city officials made little effort to mask the racism behind their refusal (after all, one couldn’t have Blacks and whites swimming together).

It was my brother’s arrest, however, that pushed me over the line. Before the school year was out I had gone from chanting “Peace Now,” to “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Gonna Win!”

For me, this meant understanding that the War was but one example of United States imperialism. My mental geography began expanding as I thought about the position of America in the world. Between my sympathy with the victims of the War, my disgust with patriotism and my family history of wandering Jews, borders lost their meaning to me; later, moving to France, my country of adoption for the past 32 years, felt no different than my brother’s choice of California.

After those clicks, all else seemed to flow organically, as if I was swept up in movement(s) toward a new future. Politics seemed to fuse with the (counter)cultural revolution. Protesting and leafleting felt like one facet of a whole that included going to the rock and folk concerts at McKinley Park, my pet snake around my neck. Intricately embroidering my jeans in math class paralleled angry debates in English and guerilla theater in the hallways.

Desperately gleaning information here and there about national and international events, I unsuccessfully tried to blackmail my brother into taking me with him to the Chicago Convention and Woodstock. The farthest I made it was the visits to cousins in Ann Arbor for the Blues and Jazz Festival and antiwar protests there, and of course the trips to neighboring Yellow Springs, Ohio (Antioch College) to buy radical literature, see art films and just hang out with other like-minded (or like-dressed) people; sitting on the steps of the Antioch student union, “locals” would drive by to ogle the “hippy chicks” (“we” tore up the street and closed it to traffic).

And then there was feminism. Dayton, Ohio’s first feminist group only formed in 1969; since I was some six years younger than the youngest of its members, I only participated by attending public events. But I felt a part of it — after all, as Lisa Maria Hogeland suggests in Feminism and Its Fictions, membership of the women’s movement “really did exist in your mind.” It was, she said, a form of literacy: “a set of reading and interpretive strategies that people applied both to texts and to the world around them.”

Later in high school, I harassed my history teacher about the absence of women in his teachings, and then rejected his offer to let me do a research project on the subject, saying that was his job.

I later did my first women’s history project in 1972 as a student in the free school I helped found, relying on the two books available at the Dayton Public Library (Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle, and William O’Neil’s Everyone Was Brave), and on correspondence with my grandfather, son of Rachel Brill Ezekiel, the long-time secretary to Carrie Chapman Catt.

What Matters is Vision

I cannot deny that, like many of my peers, I look back nostalgically to the ‘60s, an ironic sentiment about a period that defined itself as forward-looking. I have even made a career teaching about it. But it is not that period per se that needs to be recaptured or re-lived, but its sense of vision.

In recent years, I have been dismayed by the retreat to “realism.” During a recent French court case concerning compensation for children of Jews deported by the Vichy regime [the World War II collaborator government under Nazi occupation — ed.], the blogosphere was full of writings by young people who opposed the proceedings. How dare the plaintiffs assume, these cybernauts argued, that they would have been any better than the silent masses, or even the collaborationists?!

Whereas in my generation, we naively, sometimes histrionically, projected ourselves back into the skins of the anti-Nazi partisans and the heroes, not only do these youth refuse to “demand the impossible,” as the French May `68 slogan went, they are even aiming below what was actually shown to be feasible.

For years, I argued in vain against social movement theory that stressed resources while negating the power of ideas. Today, the same theoreticians are crediting ideas, emotions and utopian vision as driving forces in change. In the conclusion of my Feminism in the Heartland, I stress the importance of utopian vision, or what Robin Kelley would call “radical imagination,” in change.

I use a Patricia Robinson quote, a paraphrase of a 19th century German socialist who emigrated to the United States and became an active abolitionist. As Robinson put it: “Ideals are like the stars, you can never reach them but you need them to chart your course.”

However, in recent years, with the election and reelection of George W. Bush, renewed war, man-made natural catastrophes, rampant consumer orgies in the midst of poverty — in short, the looming of strong dystopian visions — many people find my utopianism a tad optimistic.

So I offer another more modest quote, by Oscar Wilde, who said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Perhaps even more modestly, may I suggest that if the realization of a utopia may well be impossible, and may even inevitably lead to dystopia, it is in the creative and productive process of striving towards them, in the tension between those stars and the attempts to reach them, that utopias can exist.

ATC 133, March-April 2008