Summer, 1964: a Different Sort of Mud Bath : While the media overdose on Woodstock revisited, remember a more significant anniversary.

<i> Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on political culture. </i>

What a nation chooses to remember tells us a lot about who we are. The media frenzy over the 25th anniversary of Woodstock has created a freeze-dried image of the 1960s and celebrates the least-threatening aspect of that decade--the hedonism and self-indulgence that so easily turned into the narcissism of the 1970s and greed of the 1980s.

(I’m no curmudgeon, though--I didn’t attend Woodstock because, like so many in my generation, I had a job. But I danced many nights away and, yes, I inhaled.)

Instead, we should ponder much more significant anniversaries. Thirty years ago, for example, during the fateful summer months of 1964, the 1950s ended and the United States formally entered the cultural and political wars of the 1960s, from which it has not yet recovered.

During the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 Northern college students, black and white, “went South” for Mississippi Freedom Summer. They lived among the Southern rural poor, teaching in freedom schools, trying to register black citizens as voters. At night, they trembled as night riders’ bullets whizzed through their windows. By day, they drove anxiously, terrified by the dangers of back-road Mississippi.


Some died. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil-rights workers who disappeared early in the summer, were finally unearthed from a dam in August. The deaths and beatings of so many white youths forced a nation indifferent to black casualties to acknowledge the violence that terrorized the Southern civil-rights movement.

That summer the dream of an interracial society collapsed at the Democratic National Convention. Excluded from the political process, African Americans formed the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party and demanded to replace the state’s all-white delegation at the convention. Afraid to lose Southern whites to the Republicans, the Democrats turned their backs on all black Americans by refusing to seat the entire delegation. Many African Americans date the rebirth of separatism and black power from that humiliating moment in Atlantic City; the alliance with white liberal Democrats had been shattered.

That August also brought the shocking news that Vietnam had supposedly attacked a U.S. Navy vessel. Days later, Congress, with only two dissenting votes, passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The war that would shadow the next 10 years of my life--my entire college and graduate education--had begun.

The Tonkin resolution ignited a fierce battle among Americans, eventually tearing the nation apart. Sometimes the polarization began between children and their parents. I was not the only anti-war activist whose parents fiercely supported the war. The generation gap, fed by the growing counterculture, widened rapidly. Stigmatized as filthy beatniks or communist sympathizers, the earliest anti-war protesters dared question whether the government had lied to the American people. (It had.)


When the summer ended, fall brought an uprising of thousands of students during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. The sleepy ‘50s ended abruptly: Police hauled off 800 students for protesting the university’s prohibition of campus recruitment of students for civil-rights activity. The ban on free speech united students and faculty and was eventually reversed. Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of students, inspired by the news of a student movement, began questioning received wisdom as they fought against an escalating war. In the wake of these movements came spirited struggles for women’s rights, gay rights and a new ecology movement.

But these are not the events we choose to remember this summer. For if we did, we might have to face the hard facts that the plight of African Americans has deteriorated since Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, that the nation is still deeply divided over the Vietnam War and American foreign policy and that the hopeful idealism that fired the Free Speech Movement has been replaced by the hopeless despair of much of today’s youth.

Foreign observers often accuse the United States of having a bad case of historical amnesia. They’re wrong. Like other nations, we choose our memories selectively, careful to avoid those that threaten our fragile national identity. Thirty years ago, thousands of Americans made enormous personal sacrifices to stop a war, poverty and racial intolerance.

So much simpler, sexier--and profitable--to celebrate the mythic muddy lovemaking at Woodstock.