The CNN special The Sixties reminds us that through assassination, war and civil turmoil most of us by habit or inclination are bound by the ubiquitous force of normality. We turn on the TV or go to the movies.
It was a decade that began with the hit song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and closed with the anthem solemnity of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.”
For a Southern journalist, it was a hinge decade that began with the region still clinging to “our way of life” against the first threat to it from the sit-in movement and ended with a collective decision to let the Old South sink to the bottom of history.
The sit-ins had reached Raleigh by the time I was hired by The Raleigh Times, but more people watched the new Andy Griffith Show and followed the dazzling JFK, the last Democrat to campaign throughout the South.
Soon, John Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Johnson had proclaimed that Democrats had lost the South for a decade (for much longer, as it turned out) in a ghastly year for the region and my hometown.
“Bloody Sunday” is the way we describe the 1965 assault by Alabama State Troopers and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark’s irregular truncheon-wielding cavalry on peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Televised pictures of the bloody fallen in a mist of tear gas helped swift passage of the Voting Right Act, ironically dooming the “way of life” the troopers and sheriff’s deputies were there to defend.
In Anniston, a parade of Klansmen made an unmilitary, imprecise march down the main street, their wizard-peak hats against the familiar Victorian buildings made an incongruous contrast … as if they were in a movie.
Later that summer, two nights of “White Men’s Rallies” from the courthouse steps urged listeners “in the name of Jesus Christ … if it takes killing to get the black man out of the white man’s streets, I say, yes, kill ’em.”
Unfortunately, the lives of white thugs, fired by the so-called rallies, intersected with a carload of black workingmen on their way home from their shift at a pipe shop. A slug from a deer rifle hit the driver, Willie Brewster, in the spine.
The death of Brewster, whose only outside hobby was gardening, enraged a white doctor who called me as then-managing editor of The Anniston Star. By midnight we had tapped into the well of decency, which can be aroused in any community, we had raised $20,000 (a hefty sum in today’s dollars) and each donor agreed to sign a full-page ad announcing the reward.
The man who fired the fatal shot, Damon Strange, was convicted in the fall by an all-white, all-male jury.
Riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts that year told the nation in scenes of blood and fury that black protest was not quarantined only to the South.
The killing machine of Vietnam ground on, but it was also the year that the very unmilitary, un-militant “Pillsbury Doughboy” was born. It was also the year that My Fair Lady won the best picture Oscar and, significantly, when the Beatles first met Elvis Presley.
By the end of the decade in 1970, the United States had astonished the world by landing a man on the moon. It was a time when we defined sex, drugs and rock and roll by one word, Woodstock; when John Lennon had sung his anthem to peace; and a hymn to adolescent sex, “Mrs. Robinson,” won the Grammy award for best song.
Finally, for a Southern journalist, there was a moment of elation for my beloved South, the lightness of release from scorn and separation, when all over the region realistic, non-racist men were elected governor.
There was Askew of Florida, Bumpers of Arkansas, Carter of Georgia, West of South Carolina and a progressive Republican, Holton of Virginia. Alabama did not join the progressive march that year, 1970.
It would be fitting to say that the end of the decade would have been celebrated by Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but the feelings of excitement for a New South had died by the 1980s.
From then to today we have watched the tedious construction of a one-party Republican South, which is no improvement over the one-party Democratic region. Racial prejudice has been replaced by immigrant prejudice.
Paul Simon could have registered his feelings for the decades after the ’60s with his hit single, “Still Crazy After All These Years.”