Coming Around Again
Echoes and resonance in SDS memoirs
BY SUZI STEFFEN
FLYING CLOSE TO THE SUN, memoir by Cathy Wilkerson. Seven Stories Press, 2007. Hardcover, $26.95.
RAVENS IN THE STORM, memoir by Carl Oglesby. Scribner, 2008. Hardcover, $25.
STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY: A GRAPHIC HISTORY, memoir by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm et al.; edited by Paul Buhle. Hill and Wang, 2008. Hardcover, $22.
Our national debt was up, … our inner cities were up in flames, our war strategists were up a tree, our kids were up to their necks in killing and getting killed in a lost cause, our North Atlantic allies were almost up in arms against us. The war had to come to an end.
Replace the “inner cities up in flames” with “our collective Ninth Ward was still underwater,” and you might have a fairly accurate analysis of life today. But the time described was the late 1960s, and the writer, Carl Oglesby, spent much of that decade trying to accomplish an end to the Vietnam War.
Books about Students for Democratic Society (SDS), the New Left and Weatherman come in waves. Oglesby and Cathy Wilkerson weigh in now with lengthy, detailed memoirs, and a broader history arrives when Harvey Pekar’s writing mixes with the art of Gary Dumm and editing of Paul Buhle in Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History.
The Buhle-Dumm-Pekar book probably provides the best starting point for those who know little about SDS. The authors and illustrators provide an overview of the group from the Port Huron statement to the 1969 national convention, where factions sundered the organization, and the March 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse where three young Weathermen died. The rest of the book presents the stories of various SDSers, from tales of those who worked in Cleveland’s Economic Research Action Project (ERAP) to those who helped organize voting rights drives in the South and those involved in women’s rights, high school student protests, cultural changes and more. These voices are valuable if uneven; readers should look further for information about the exciting, turbulent times.
Cathy Wilkerson provides quite a lot of context in her memoir. The townhouse that blew up belonged to her father and stepmother, who were on vacation and allowing Wilkerson to stay there. In Flying Close to the Sun, Wilkerson writes about her political development as the 1960s progressed. Though she delivers a too-detailed report on every meeting, informal discussion and project, Wilkerson sticks to her main point: Using violence as a solution hurt the movement. Her point, stated with moralistic hindsight, sometimes overshadows her stories. But those vivid tales — of visiting Cambodia, of working at New Left Notes, of trying to reconcile her desire to work for civil rights with the intensity of movement politics — carry the book. Plus, it’s good to have a woman’s voice talking about the women’s liberation movement, political education for women, the Vietnam War and racism. And her description of the explosion is a telling vignette: While the guys (Ted Gold and Terry Robbins) and one of the politically experienced women (Diana Oughton) worked on the bomb, Wilkerson was upstairs frantically ironing sheets so her father’s house would look perfect when he returned.
Bet Carl Oglesby never ironed a sheet during the 1960s. Oglesby, by all accounts the most eloquent of SDS presidents, tells his story in Ravens in the Storm. Though many early SDSers came to the group in the desire to help fight racism and bring about a more equal world, the older Oglesby worked for a defense contractor before he began doing research on the war for a local Democratic congressman. What he found in his research transformed him into a radical and won him the SDS presidency during a time of surging interest in the student antiwar movement. Though his book combines an aw-shucks humble tone with some arrogance about his point of view (which was and is that SDS should have focused on campuses and student empowerment), it’s a revealing look into the politics of “movement elite.”
But the stories of the 1960s have barely begun to be told. Where’s a memoir by Diane Nash, organizer of SNCC? Where’s a “graphic history” of the voting rights movement from John Lewis, Anne Moody and Julius Lester? Like the SDS memoirs, they could fill in more pieces of the complex quilt that made up the ferment and change of the time — and help the antiracist and antiwar movements of today.