Heroes of the 60s
Heroes of the 60s
I had several heroes in the sixties. There were political heroes, Jack Kennedy, and his brother Bobby. There were also civil rights activists who were my heroes, Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
Just what is a hero? The dictionary defines a hero as a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength. Another definition is, a person noted for special achievement in a particular field. For me a hero is someone who I can identify with. He is someone who brings positive change and is willing to undergo change himself. He is someone who makes a unique and lasting contribution to society.
I could really identify with Jack Kennedy. He was young, handsome, and had an air of confidence and culture about him. I enjoyed his political speeches and felt that he had a vision for America that would lead our country in the right direction. I felt that he was in favor of equal rights for all Americans, and would support the working class. I didn’t really get into the details of his political decisions, but felt he was moving the country forward. I was devastated by his assassination.
President Kennedy’s brother also met my definition of a hero. When he was running against Eugene McCarthy in 1968, I heard him speak at Chabot College and was very impressed. However, I was torn between him and McCarthy. Both Kennedy and McCarthy were opposed to the war in Vietnam, but I felt the McCarthy has begun his opposition earlier and that he was a stronger opponent of the war.
Then, I heard Bobby Kennedy speak in Chico. His speech at the Civic Center knocked me off my feet. I was convinced that he was the right man for the job. I saw that Kennedy had grown after the assassination of Dr. King. He had gone into the ghetto and listened to the cries of the affected African American population. His attitude towards civil rights and the war had changed. He was firm in his support of civil rights legislation, and firm in his opposition to the war.
I was so impressed by Bobby’s speech that I went to the local democratic organization in Willows and asked what I could do to help with the presidential campaign. They turned the whole campaign over to a fellow teacher, Mike and me. We set up outside the storefront campaign headquarters and passed out posters while encouraging the locals to vote for Bobby Kennedy. It was the first and last time that I worked for a political candidate. Bobby’s assassination completely turned me off to politics. Though, I still consider it a civic duty to vote.
Cesar Chavez was another of my heroes. I’m not sure if he should be considered a civil rights activist or a union organizer, but he had heroic qualities. He grew up working in fields along with his parents and siblings. He knew how hard it was to work in the fields, what a burden it put on you. After he finished his enlistment in the navy, Chavez married and began his family. He moved back to San Jose where he met Father Donald McDonnell who introduced him to St. Francis, Gandhi and nonviolence. He became a community organizer working voter registration.
In 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association. Later it becomes the United Farm Workers, the UFW. Chavez used tactics that he had learned from reading Gandhi like the boycott, picketing, and strikes to force the farm owners to recognize his union. He also was able to force the California legislature to pass laws that were design to protect the farm workers from pesticides and poor working conditions. Though some in the farm workers felt that they must resort to violence to meet their ends, Chavez insisted that they use non-violent means to gain reforms. Though the grape-boycott and speaking engagements, Chavez was able to show the public the injustices that the farm workers endured and win public support of his people.
I heard Chavez speak at the Tracy High School in 1988. He maintained that though the farm workers had made many gains though out the last couple decades there was still much work to be done. He explained that many good laws had been passed in the 60’s and 70’s to protect farm workers against pesticides and poor working conditions. However, he told us, the present administration in Sacramento was not enforcing the laws. Farm workers were still forced to work in the hot sun without shade or water breaks. “Good laws do not work unless they are enforced,” he told us.
Chavez spent his life working for the good of the people he grew up with, and was true to his belief in non-violence. He proved that much could be accomplished though non-violent tactics. Chavez acquired most of his belief in non-violence from studying Gandhi.
Gandhi, another of my heroes, was the pioneer of resistance to unjust laws through mass civil disobedience. This disobedience was founded upon total non-violence. Through the practice of non-violent passive resistance, Gandhi gained independence for India, and inspired civil rights movements throughout the world.
Gandhi organized protests by peasants, farmers, and urban laborers concerning excessive land-tax and discrimination in India. After assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns to ease poverty, expand women's rights, build religious and ethnic amity, and do away with other inequities. He practiced what he preached spending a number of years in jail in both South Africa and India for his protests. I remember a scene from a film about Gandhi that showed pickets in front of a factory who were being beat with sticks. When one line of pickets fell to the ground, the next line stepped up and when they fell another line replaced them. The strike breakers wielding the sticks began to suffer guilt feelings and began to admire the men that they would have hated more in they had fought violence with violence. The hardest heart is often melted when it witnesses non-violent action.
Dr. Martin Luther King was another of my sixties heroes. He talked the talk, and he walked the walk. He showed by example, and the example was worth following.
Dr. King walked and went to jail, and he never said an unkind word against his enemy. True, he was very critical of the white power structure, but he criticizes out of love. He saw that he was not separate from the white world. If you hate your enemy, you hate yourself. He taught his followers how to react nonviolently to hate and cursing and beatings. He drilled fellow marchers in how to lay limp and cover up and fight against the natural instinct to strike back at those who are striking you.
Even those who taught death to the white devil where modified by Dr. King's non-violent passive resistance approach to needed reform. Even some red-necked white cop bully sheriffs had their eyes opened. Just think what might have happened in America if the young had followed the black militant groups and fought fire with fire. Think how much more freedom the people of the South enjoy now that they can work together for the common good.
To me a hero is someone who brings positive change to his people and is willing to under go change himself. Dr. King set in motion change that will withstand every act of violence. With his actions and words, he changed the thought patterns of Middle America. He helped many of us to see that love can do more than violence. He actions lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to other civil rights legislation. Proving again that more can be accomplished by non-violent efforts than by efforts of violence.
My heroes from the sixties have taught me that there is no excuse for violence in our lives. They have taught me that if you want to see change you have to get involved and lead the way. No one else is going to make change for you. I have learned from these heroes that nothing is impossible if you believe that it is right and that you can do it.
Who are your heroes? What have they taught you? Can you live up to the expectations that they have given you?
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