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November 26, 2014

H. Brandt Ayers: Dreams of the Sixties

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Posted: Sunday, July 6, 2014 3:30 am

Anyone over 50 who has watched the CNN series The Sixties may have experienced as I did an other-worldly sensation of seeing one’s own life passing before your eyes.

Much of the decade appeared even more ghostly because the events and newsmakers of the time were filmed in black and white.

Funny what memory does to colors. I have seen “The Guernica” several times, Picasso’s passionately painted essay on the horrors of war and the persistence of hope: the dead horse’s tongue in the picture is a vivid red and the single light bulb casts a brilliant yellow light of hope.

That is the way I remember his masterpiece, but, of course, it is black and white, just as Picasso painted it.

John Glenn ascended on his orbital space fight in colorless images on TV, but as I chatted with him in his Senate office many years later, he was the picture of health as a U.S. senator and former Marine.

Was he ever nervous or afraid? “Yes,” said the senator, “when I had to address a joint session of Congress and opening my speech folder, my eye fell on page 13. I thought the pages had been jumbled up and I’d look like a dumb Marine colonel fumbling around. Fortunately, when I lifted page 13, there was page one (an unspoken sigh of relief).”

The 1963 March on Washington filmed from the press section on the Lincoln Memorial was a colorless mass jammed together on a hot August afternoon. I was there and remember a rainbow mass of colors, thinking how uncomfortable most of the marchers must be, how lucky were the ones dangling their feet in the reflecting pool far back. As I viewed the colorful mass below the stand, I felt a flash of fear that some crazed person might fire a shot and cause a stampede.

It wasn’t until 1965 that the networks announced they would broadcast more than half of their programming in color, starting the following fall. So Martin Luther King’s great speech, “I have a dream,” will forever be remembered in black and white.

Gray U.S. ships could be seen during the Cuban missile crisis steaming toward unseen Russian ships with gray missiles aboard while the world held its breath, fearing a blazing nuclear nova that would obliterate much of the earth.

All through the decade, gray B-29s dropped bombs on Hanoi and North Vietnamese jungles, which landed with a white flash on TV screens that did not invoke the happy feelings of patriotic purpose that accompanies the beginning of wars.

In 1961, networks had not yet developed the capability to give color to the Freedom Rider bus burned on the outskirts of my hometown. Neither were the beatings of marchers in Selma by Alabama troopers and mounted sheriffs’ deputies made more vivid by color.

In 1965, the national lens wasn’t present to project the Ku Klux Klan march down the main street of Anniston, an unreal sight as if it were a movie, nor the White Man’s Rallies on the courthouse steps or the nightrider murder that followed.

National reporters did return to Anniston for the trial of the nightrider murderer, old friends such as Gene Roberts of The New York Times and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, who appeared incongruously young on the recent CNN series.

The murders of Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy and, five years later, that of the president’s brother, Bobby, came into our living rooms in black and white.

Even the Beatles’ outrageously yellow submarine was muted down to dull whites and grays.

The CNN series did give us an uncertain burst of color, as if the networks had not quite learned to color between the lines in 1969. It was Joe Willie Namath, suddenly young, guaranteeing that his AFL Jets would beat the captain of yesteryear, Johnny Unitas, and his NFL Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

It is indeed odd what memory does to color, but black and white doesn’t mute the emotive power of a decade that remade America.

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