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Experience colors our view of history

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


While on Christmas vacation in the frozen North, I heard Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Henry Allen discuss his recent book, What It Felt Like Living in the American Century, on National Public Radio's program Talk of the Nation with host Juan Williams and his call-in guests. The book is a treat for history buffs who color the past outside the lines.

During the program, callers -- most of them older whites -- fondly reminisced. A 94-year-old woman vividly described hardships amid the 1920s' exuberance and worship of progress, but she also cheered the postwar economy that improved life for many Americans. Another white woman, born several years before the Great Depression, spoke of how she went door to door in New Orleans guiding illiterate blacks through the legal maze of the voting process, a task made more difficult because many older folk did not know when or where they were born. She also described how many local whites threatened to lynch her if she did not cease and desist.

The most interesting moments came when callers were asked to identify their favorite period during the 20th century. Not surprisingly, these elderly callers loved the postwar 1950s. They warmly recalled President Dwight D. Eisenhower, newly developed tract communities of identical houses, families gathered around black-and-white TVs, dandies awash with Vitalis, 3-D movies, Formica counter tops, Marilyn Monroe, American Bandstand, drive-in eateries.

Yes, the 1950s were good for most whites. Listening, I was transported back to my own 1950s' childhood in the South and realized anew that people's views of history are shaped by their individual and group experiences.

For most blacks and other minorities, the 1950s were not Ike's paradise. For many blacks, especially the migrant farm workers in my life, the 1950s were pure hell. This was the heyday of Jim Crow, when racial separation was the law, when each ingredient in the so-called melting pot (salad bowl) settled into its own niche. Allen writes: "Amid the Ford Country Squire station wagons and slate roofs, wealthier homeowners boast that neighborhood covenants still keep out Jews and Negroes."

While whites enjoyed the mid-century euphoria, most blacks cast their lot with the likes of Rosa Parks -- who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man -- and a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr., who led the boycott that ushered in the modern civil rights movement.

Were I to have telephoned Talk of the Nation, I would have embraced the 1960s as the century's most significant time for me. Although many racial barriers began to fall during the 1950s, the 1960s codified change and brought widespread hope.

In 1963, the year of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I went away to college. For the first time in my life, I had white teachers and white classmates. And for the first time, I had white friends, male and female. We hitchhiked together across the country, slept in the same beds and sleeping bags, ate from the same plates and bowls, drank from the same liquor bottles, toked together, took turns urinating behind bushes and watching for cops.

Remarkably, nine of us -- five blacks and four whites decked out in dirty bell bottoms and smelly sandals -- traveled to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to register black voters. I am still in awe of these white students for voluntarily putting their lives on the line.

They gave me hope. With Bob Dylan crooning a novel vision and Allen Ginsberg taking the imagination to new places, my white friends were motivated by outrage and a profound sense of justice. Even the death of our president, John F. Kennedy, did not extinguish their zeal for freedom and equality. Real or imagined, Camelot gave us, black and white, a desire to serve. Some volunteered for the Peace Corps; others, like me, the Marine Corps. The 1964 Civil Rights Act made me a legitimate stranger.

Then, of course, the folly of Vietnam spoiled the party forever. We went our separate ways. Malcolm X, King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down. Kent State took life for granted. Charles Manson murdered the young and the beautiful. Black Panthers redefined revolution. Riots in Washington, Newark and Detroit scared white America and upped the ante for racial tolerance.

Many people, especially conservative Republicans, still believe that the 1960s ruined the nation. For me, the 1960s, even with the many contradictions and paradoxes, offered hope to the dispossessed. This was a pivotal moment during the American century -- when blacks forced white America to reckon with them as real people for the first time.

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