The recent death of former congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis reminded me that it was a great privilege to be young in the 1960s.
Being young in a period of rapid change can be an inspirational experience — and in my case it certainly was. The 60s were turbulent years but the high points included numerous examples of great courage and much-needed progress on civil rights.
They also included tragedies like the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., two of my heroes. Their deaths saddened us all but their contributions to the world have endured as great examples for those who came after them.
And, of course, we had the Vietnam War, the misbegotten conflict that took something like 2 million lives including 58,220 Americans. I served six years in the Army National Guard but completed my service in 1965, before the war really heated up. So I followed it from afar.
The country saw many demonstrations against involvement by the United States in the Vietnam conflict. Those were in large part inspired by the demonstrations against racial segregation, which were already bringing great change to the way this country confronted its problems.
Growing up in Massachusetts I was unaware of things like racial segregation. My dad was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army and one of his best friends was a Black man. I can remember one day at the beach when the two of them were engaged in a friendly wrestling match with my mother cheering them on.
When I enlisted in the Guard I did my basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then went to signal school at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I took a train from Massachusetts to Georgia and when the train stopped to refuel at a terminal in the northern part of the state I got off to stretch my legs.
When I walked into the building I was shocked to see that one section of the lobby was labeled “Whites” and the other said “Colored” I had never seen such a thing, got my dander up and sat in the Colored section. A Black lady sitting there told me I should leave before I got us both in trouble.
When Martin Luther King and the other civil rights leaders began their demonstrations a few years later I was rooting for them. At that time I was working as a reporter at The Worcester Telegram. The big demonstrations were in the South but many people in Massachusetts participated with large supporting demonstrations in Boston.
Demonstrators from Worcester took buses to Boston for the big protests there and I was often assigned to cover them. The buses usually waited for their passengers in front of Atwood Hall at Clark University. The building was named for Wallace Atwood, former president of Clark and uncle of Alaska’s own Robert B. Atwood, the late publisher of The Anchorage Times.
The big decade also included the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. That was an international standoff by the United States and the Soviet Union after the Soviets secretly stationed missiles in Cuba. The crisis was a real hair-raiser and resulted in a face-off in which Americans for the first time came close to a battle involving nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
Many of the events of the 1960s, especially the civil rights demonstrations, were inspirational and provided convincing evidence that much of the world population consisted of good people willing to take on great challenge.
I’m convinced that the spirit of that time was what convinced my new wife and I to abandon Massachusetts in 1967 and set out for a cross-continent drive to Alaska. I had a job waiting here at The Anchorage Times and the newspaper’s leadership quickly realized that my wife Marnie was at least as good a reporter as I was. She soon became the women’s editor.
The 1960s were a unique time in this nation’s history and the events of those years have had an important and largely positive influence on many decisions made in the following years.
Institutional segregation is gone but the problem with racism is still with us. Past experience suggests good people are working on it and will ultimately prevail.
Tom Brennan is an Anchorage columnist and author of five books. He was a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times and an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times.