By Christopher Wink | Aug 3, 2007 | New York Times Magazine submission
There has been a great loss in the level of activism among college students since the turbulent 1960s. Complacency reigns over the people. Today’s twenty-something, anarchist-punk, bicycle-messenger population is dwindling. Those that have survived are crestfallen.
The man with the thin gray goatee – and a framed photograph of himself looking hairier and suspiciously uninhibited in 1972 – laments, if only half seriously, that the ire of this young generation cannot seem to be adequately risen.
It was different when he was young, he’ll tell you.
In the 1960s, you weren’t a major city if you didn’t have your own race riot: from Baltimore and D.C. to Watts, to Newark and New York and everywhere else. But it was more than race and it was more than war, the world was changing and college campuses held all the promise the future could hold.
I am one of those young people who the man with the thin gray goatee lectures about social action. For me, Kent State is college basketball. For him, Kent State will always be four dead at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. Time changes more than clocks.
I take classes at Temple University, a school in North Philadelphia known for its diversity and surrounded by a long history of activism. Philadelphia is certainly a major city, so, of course, we, too, had our own 1960s race riot, a charming, two-day affair that resulted in more than 300 injuries and nearly 800 arrests in August of 1964.
The south end of Temple University is marked by Cecil B. Moore Avenue, named for a legendary civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia. Today, at Temple, Cecil B. Moore means a row of residence halls and as far south as many students will walk at night. Before, Cecil B. Moore was who brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Philadelphia almost a year to the day after those race riots. Time changes more than clocks.
In the summer of 1965, Moore was in the midst of leading what would be an 8-month picket of Girard College, a private, then-segregated school for underprivileged, orphan boys. When King showed up on a hot day in August, he addressed 3,000 demonstrators massed outside the school, leaning into a microphone on an improvised stage that used Founder’s Hall, the finest 160-year-old example of Greek revival architecture in the country, as a backdrop.
“It is a sad experience to stand at this wall in the 20th century in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty,” he orated as King was known to orate. “It is a kind of Berlin Wall to keep the colored children of God out.”
Time tells that three years later, after state and federal court appeals, that that racial wall finally fell and the first black students were admitted. Things like that were happening everywhere in the country, everywhere in the world, the man with the thin gray goatee adds proudly, as if he really believes that back then one man with long hair and good music could change the world. No one believes that anymore. Time changes more than clocks.
They were times of excitement and confusion and fear. My own grandfather was moved enough to keep a .22 caliber rifle underneath the bed of his Long Island home, which was nestled, in his mind, uncomfortably between New York City to the west and established black communities to the east.
Why don’t the children of today terrify middle-aged suburbanites into gun ownership?
My generation has had our moments, but they are few, far in between, and seemingly less constructive than those of the past. Fifteen years ago, more than fifty died in the chaos following the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. Even more recently, Ohio has seen two well-publicized movements, one following a 2001 police shooting in Cincinnati and a 2005 reaction to a neo-Nazi rally in Toledo.
My own North Philadelphia campus has seen social action during my lifetime. Two years before ‘Rodney King’ became a household name, a brawl of some 600 students turned into days of protests on North Broad Street, as students demonstrated against what they felt were racially-charged, overly-aggressive tactics by university police.
What about that? I ask the man with the thin gray goatee. Those demonstrations might be more emblematic of our generational differences than anything, he counters as a father would counter a child too young to know anything.
It was fought and, by some standards, won, as Temple incorporated race courses into the university’s core curriculum, but, unlike the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t staying power. Walk around Temple’s campus today and it would be unlikely to find anyone who remembers campus rioting as recent as 1990.
The man with thin gray goatee is right. That breed of social action isn’t my generation’s specialty.
My peers and I have forgotten the great struggles of the past, we are without Kennedys and Kings, and we aren’t nearly as organized. The man with the thin gray goatee thinks that that means social action is dead, but I think he’s wrong.
Young people today are just doing things differently. Rather than staging a sit-in to encourage Gerald Ford to bring troops back from Vietnam, young people today are more likely to tutor someone younger or shovel the driveway of someone older.
A recent survey of college freshmen suggested the highest interest in volunteerism in decades. In the survey, sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement and conducted in the spring of 2006, more than one in three people interviewed had volunteered that year.
Like the 1960s and 1970s, these changes are happening on campuses first. The number of collegiate volunteers blossomed by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2005, an additional 600,000 young do-gooders, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, a federal agency.
Young people of the future won’t interact with their surrounding world the same as today, just as today’s youth don’t do it as those of the past did. Campuses are no longer hotbeds of dissension and civil disobedience, but now they congregate social work en masse like never before. It is now, as it has always been, about young people trying to find meaning in this world.
In October of 1967, King was back, speaking to students at Barratt Middle School in South Philadelphia , just six months before a sniper’s bullet left him dead in Memphis.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,” King said. “Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
It’s silly to condemn a generation. I’m not convinced that those my age have missed their calling already, that my peers and I will be remembered for not having swept what needs to be swept.
Energy isn’t lost, maybe diverted, but, even still, such complaints sound like hollow shouts at the moon for not being full. The man with the thin goatee likes that one, he says. It’s something he’d expect from one of his contemporaries, said back when indifference was un-cool, the world was pocket-sized and everybody cared. Don’t hear things like that anymore.