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Remembering activist Todd Gitlin, who helped lead the '60s antiwar movement

Gitlin was part of the tumultuous student protest movement of the 1960s, and continued his commitment to social change through teaching and writing. He died on Feb. 5. Originally broadcast in 1987.


Other segments from the episode on February 11, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 11, 2022: Obituary for Todd Gitlin; Review of Joseph Hansen crime novels; interview with Art Spiegelman; Review of film 'Kimi.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today we remember activist, scholar and writer Todd Gitlin, who was part of the tumultuous student protest movement of the 1960s and who continued his commitment to social change through teaching and writing. He died Saturday at the age of 79.

Todd Gitlin was elected president of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, when he was only 20 years old. He helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War. He ran through tear gas to escape police billy clubs during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and in People's Park in Berkeley in 1969. His 1987 book "The Sixties: Years Of Hope, Days Of Rage" was part memoir, part history and a sometimes critical examination of those activist years. He was particularly critical of the violent protest tactics of the Weather Underground.

During his decades-long career as an academic at UC Berkeley, NYU and Columbia, he was prolific, publishing many well-respected books. He wrote about journalism and social movements, identity politics and a very influential book about the cultural and political context of primetime television. Last year, he organized a politically diverse group of writers and activists to oppose efforts by the Republican Party and Donald Trump to undermine voting rights and free and fair elections.

Terry interviewed Todd Gitlin in 1987 when he published his book "The Sixties." He told her that there were cliches about the 1960s he wanted to dispel.


TODD GITLIN: One is that everything that happened was wonderful. Another is that everything that happened was catastrophic and ruined America.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

GITLIN: A third is that everyone was larger than life and strode through in an incendiary way, burning everything down. I call it the Big Bang Theory of history - the notion that everything happened at once. You know, hey, it's John Lennon and Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam and Martin Luther King, brought to you by Ed Sullivan or something like that. The '60s took 10 years to happen.

GROSS: Is there a memory that crystallizes for you some of the commitment and excitement that you felt in the 1960s?

GITLIN: Many - I tried to organize the book around such moments. I'll just give you one that comes to mind.

GROSS: Yeah, fine.

GITLIN: I don't know that it's more representative. I wrote about the Chicago street demonstrations in '68 at the Democratic Convention. And I - on the great day, when clouds of tear gas were spewing through the streets - Bloody Wednesday, I think it was known as later - I found myself running through clouds of tear gas and stopping to mop my eyes and looking up at the water fountain and seeing that the person standing next to me was Jules Feiffer. And we decided to run together. And we ran down Michigan Avenue a while longer. And then he took me by the arm and said, let's go in here, and ushered me into the Haymarket bar in the Hilton Hotel, which was the center of the demonstrations 'cause all the delegates were staying there.

And we sat down in this bar. I think I probably hadn't changed my shirt in a couple of days, and it was very hot. And here were the waitresses in low-cut dresses and bringing us daiquiris. We sat down with William Styron and Studs Terkel. And outside, people are streaming by in clouds of tear gas, and I'm sitting there drinking daiquiris. And the television is on. And Paul Newman, who was a McCarthy delegate from Connecticut, was talking about the war. And it was the height of surrealism and sleeplessness and a little drunkenness. People are still streaming by outside, and inside is this Gay Nineties decor. And we're all talking about how awful everything is.

And I knew that Feiffer was a McCarthy delegate from New York. And I turned to him. He was my hero. I had read him in high school in the '50s. And I said, more or less, do something. And he said that he was scared. And I thought to myself, my God, Jules Feiffer is scared, you know. Then things are really serious. Meantime, the gas is still streaming by, and I'm feeling very much out of place. And there comes a moment when I decide I simply have to be out there.

And I get up after my two daiquiris and stumble out through the lobby, which is full of stink-bomb fumes - deposited, as it turned out, by some of my friends - and ran back out into the tear gas. I mean, I suppose that story symbolizes both - you could call it - the commitment and the insanity and the sense that I had that however crazy was what was going on in the streets, it was where I had to be - at least to have played a part in that.

GROSS: I want to get back to Chicago in a few minutes. Let me ask you first - you became the president of SDS when you were 22 years old.

GITLIN: Twenty.

GROSS: Oh, 20 years old.

GITLIN: Twenty and a half.

GROSS: Even younger - looking back, do you ever think to yourself about how young you really were when you were the head of SDS?

GITLIN: Sure. I've thought (laughter) often. Yes, I have. What did I know?

GROSS: Did you feel young at the time? Did you assume that you had a better kind of grasp of the world than, looking back, you think you really did?

GITLIN: Sure. Although I think, actually, I wasn't quite so dumb. And maybe I got dumber later, from time to time. But I had already maybe 2 1/2 years of political, three years of political experience at that time. And it was Harvard in the early '60s. And there were people around - our professors - who were plugged into the Kennedy administration. And I had been around Washington for a couple of summers. And I had met lots of officials. And I read a lot. And so I think I knew a thing or two. I also was aware that it was - I was out of place here. I had only been in the organization for a few months. I had only been to one meeting before. And it was kind of a fluke that I submitted to this election. It felt like submission because I didn't want to be a leader. But, of course, we didn't believe in leadership. Nobody wanted to do it. And so I stepped forward onto the gangplank.

GROSS: Now, you were pretty full-time devoted to politics. And being the head of SDS meant a full-time commitment without pay, right? You didn't get paid for being the president, did you?

GITLIN: Are you kidding?

GROSS: Yeah, right. So what I'm wondering is, did you or did a lot of your friends end up going to graduate school or staying around the universities so that you could stay committed to the political cause, which was so centered around student politics and university organizing? After a certain number of years, you're not a student anymore. And I think a lot of people became graduate students more to stay politically active than to attend graduate classes.

GITLIN: That's true in a sense. Although it's also true that in my generation in SDS, we had concluded by '65 - well, two things, actually. One was that we should all leave the campus and go out into the so-called real world.

GROSS: Into the community.

GITLIN: Yeah, that was the first thing we did, was to try to organize an interracial movement of the poor. But also, we had in the back of our minds that SDS was only a student organization, and there ought to be a sequel. There ought - and what - we didn't know that people stop being students. And so starting in '64, we started paying lip service to the idea that there should be a post-student general, radical ecumenical organization. And in fact, in the book, I tell the story of what happened when we tried to organize a conference to do that.

We organized in '67 something called the Back of the - Back to the Drawing Boards conference in a campground in Michigan. And we had 150 or 200 people who were already getting old enough to thinking about being lawyers and doctors and teachers and so on. And the thing was disrupted by the diggers, who were these countercultural wild men - very interesting - could have - very smart anarchist druggers from San Francisco who drifted in. They'd heard about this thing. And they'd basically drifted in and took over, turning on Abbie Hoffman in the process, who was visiting. And it would arrive there with Paul Krassner of The Realist to look into this thing. And they paralyzed us. They mau-maued us. They basically baited us as a bunch of middle-class panty waists and so on.

GROSS: Tell the story of what - yeah.

GITLIN: We let them do it, amazingly enough.

GROSS: Tell us, what are some of the things that they said to you when they - when the diggers crashed this meeting?

GITLIN: Well, they barged in, and they said, you know, you're a bunch of middle-class kids. And, you know, first they needed a lawyer because that - one of them had driven the car into a canal, so they needed a straight person to help. So a straight person went off to help one of them. And then the rest of them, they kicked over tables. They denounced us as rich kids. They said that where it's at is going actually into the community and giving people free food. And so when they read a poem by Gary Snyder cursing the white man in the Pentagon and so on, it was quite wild. It was a kind of pseudo fight. There was a terrorism - somebody said that she was a mother and they denounced all mothers and so on. It was right out of central casting. Quite ingenious of them to have tied us all up in knots.

GROSS: Well, I think that that story really illustrates one of the themes of your new book, "The Sixties," which is some of the conflicts between the cultural radicals and the political radicals.

GITLIN: Right. We often thought of trying to find a way to fuse or harness or marry the politicos and the hippies, and it was like the holy grail that everybody was looking for. And at various times, various people thought they had found it. I mean, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman thought they found it in their way. And there were a lot of people around Berkeley who thought - and I suppose I let myself think in giddier moments that there was this creature stalking Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, who was super-hip and super-savvy and at the same time politically radical and serious. And this was some sort of new creature like something - someone had walked out of the pages of William Blake. I confess, I let myself think such things at times.

GROSS: Do you think that there were conflicting goals between the political left and the cultural radicals?

GITLIN: Yeah. In fact, you could put it starkly. It would be a bit of an exaggeration, but you could put it starkly by saying that the politicos believed in creating something that was going to happen later, and the counterculture people wanted to bring God to be present now. Now, it's actually more complicated than that. I mean, part of the genius of the new left and the civil rights movement was that they were in themselves countercultural. I mean, when you sat down at a lunch counter to integrate it, you were saying the present is the future. I'm going to abolish segregation, not by making a demand or knocking on somebody's door or writing to my congressman, but by abolishing it right here and now.

So there was actually a countercultural thread in the civil rights movement. The first people I ever heard use the language do your thing were people in SNICC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, southern civil rights organizers. And they were already talking about soul sessions, which were later, I guess, sensitivity groups and so on, in 1965, if you can believe it. So there were - it wasn't entirely crazy to think about bringing these two things together. Nonetheless, there was always this tension. Politicos wanted to have meetings and organize organizations and make something happen later on down the road.

GROSS: And hippies wanted immediate gratification.

GITLIN: Yes, and they wanted to shake it out, you know, express yourself. That was the other thing. Political radicals wanted to discipline themselves in order to make something else happen. And freaks wanted to undiscipline themselves and shake, rattle and roll. So there was always that tension.

GROSS: Now, I found it interesting in your book, which has bits of autobiography interspersed, you say that you smoked your first joint about two years after you became the president of SDS. So really, political radicalism came first in your life, I mean, chronologically, first.

GITLIN: That's true. And a lot of the people in my crowd in SDS were very suspicious of that. And I think I also mentioned..

GROSS: Suspicious of you smoking?

GITLIN: Dope, yeah. And I remember at a party during the SDS convention in '67, when I was a little high, and a quite well-known leader of SDS came into a room where I was being that way. And I was having trouble, I think, finding the doorknob or something like that. And he looked at me and rolled his eyes as if, you know, a noble mind was here or a throne. Of course, later on, he was doing the same. I think - and I know - I also tell the story in there of how I was really fairly puritanical about this stuff. And when - a Be-In was organized in Chicago in 1967, an echo of the San Francisco Be-In on the shores of the lake, where one of the people who came down there with her legs painted in psychedelia was Bernardine Dohrn, then a law student.

I felt really quite troubled by the hippie organizers of this thing, because I thought it was sort of a delusion to think that you could simply go off and have a good time. I mean, maybe worse than a delusion because, after all, there was this hideous war on. And I actually toyed with the fantasy, believe it or not, of distributing a leaflet. There was this - there was a lot of talk in the media about getting high by smoking banana peel. This was the mellow yellow period.

GROSS: Right.

GITLIN: And I had this crackpot idea that I should make up a leaflet that alerted potential banana peel smokers that, in fact, the people who picked bananas in Guatemala make 2 cents a day or something like that, and that would somehow turn them around. In retrospect, I think that I was simply trying to ward off the siren song of the counterculture myself because a few months later, I was living in California and growing my first beard.

GROSS: So even the conflicts between the politicos and the hippies were happening inside of you.

GITLIN: Yes. And in many people, in fact.

GROSS: That's right. That's right.

BIANCULLI: Activist, scholar and writer Todd Gitlin speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 1987 interview with Todd Gitlin. The author, scholar and activist died Saturday at age 79.


GROSS: Let's talk about confrontational politics, which was one of the really major issues for the new left in the 1960s. And I'd like to go back to Chicago, which was the location of one of the first stories that you told during our interview. You described being in Chicago during the convention with tear gas in the streets, and it was a time when you really - when people were forced to decide what their tactics were, if they were comfortable with confrontation, if they were comfortable with violence, if they were willing to be tear-gassed, if they were going to wait inside until that blew over. You write in your book that you had no illusions of being a street fighter, that you were somewhere in between not believing in it and not feeling tough enough. And I thought, well, that is probably such a typical feeling that so many people had, the kind of ambivalence that they felt about the confrontational tactics that were happening.

GITLIN: I think it was, and that - what I said there was true. I think that I always - I did hate violence, and I never perpetrated any. On the other hand, you felt constantly that if you weren't going to do that, what else were you going to do? I mean, you were always beating yourself inside your head with the need to do something else, and...

GROSS: Because you felt that working within the system had failed?

GITLIN: Well, we felt we were getting nowhere. And in fact, we were actually just looking at our impact on the war. We were actually having an impact on the war that we didn't understand, and part of the reason we didn't understand it is that the White House was lying about it. That is to say they were saying always that we were having no impact. I mean, Nixon watched the football game instead of coming out to see the demonstration in 1969. In fact, we know now from documents that the White House was always looking over its shoulder, at the very least, at what was going on in the streets. Lyndon Johnson felt the pressure.

We were always a veto force, but that was invisible. It was hard to get a reading of that. What you felt viscerally and what you experienced watching television and reading the papers was they're sending more troops, they're dropping more bombs, there's more napalm. And what are we going to have to do to end the war? It felt - you know, again, you're in your 20s. The war now has become the central fact of your life. Whether you're a soldier or an anti-war soldier, that is the reality that you're living, and it swells. It eats you. It's eating away at your brain. It feels like this plague, and you can't stop it. And it was out of that pressure that you started making allowances for people who were bringing, let's say, ball bearings to throw under the hooves of police horses at one demonstration in Oakland, or people who were bringing little spike balls to drop in front of traffic in Chicago during '68. I knew people who did both those things, not that I wanted to do that. But I felt also, well, maybe there's something wrong with me that I'm not willing to do that. I think many people felt bullied in that way by the pressure to do something more.

GROSS: Well, the confrontational tactics of the left brought about more police repression, more tear gas, more billy-clubbing of protesters. But there was a shared feeling that this kind of repression was a good exercise in education about how repressive the government could really be. And you, for instance, say during Chicago that you were thinking, well, at least we've shown they can only rule at gunpoint. Do you want to explain that kind of thinking?

GITLIN: Well, it's so hard to recreate it, and I had to plunge back into that mood in order to write about it. But in a way, it seems not to make any sense. I think we felt that we were involved in a project of unmasking and that - there was a real rationalism behind that. In other words, we thought, well, if everybody else sees what we see, then they'll understand that the rationales for the war and for all kinds of other injustice are threadbare, and everyone will therefore be like us, namely disabused of wrong ideas and freed to turn everything upside down. There's a terrible innocence in that in an odd way. Now, of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that everybody sees the world we did. That's why it was a shock when after Chicago, we learned that most people, according to the polls, who had watched the spectacle on television thought that the cops had been right. See, we thought it would be obvious that anybody would side with us because we're the good guys. That sort of innocence was dangerous.

GROSS: Was writing this book an important personal experience for you? Do you feel that you've reconciled some things for yourself in having written it?

GITLIN: I actually do. I know that sounds a little pat, but it was not easy. It was painful in many places. It was sometimes hard. It was hard to crack into some of the old feelings and observations, and once into them, it was hard to crack back out. I do think that it's settled some things for me, and I recommend the process.

GROSS: Can I ask you in a couple of seconds to tell what one of the things that it settled for you was?

GITLIN: Well, it - I think it reminded me of how alluring some of that energy is. It made it clearer to me why so many people who at certain points knew better found themselves thinking three impossible things before breakfast, including that there was a revolution afoot. It also, I think, reminded me that it was right in many ways to think that you could change the world if you did the right things and were serious enough about it. And I think it's fine to remember that today, too.

BIANCULLI: Todd Gitlin speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The writer, scholar and longtime social activist died Saturday. He was 79 years old.

After a break, we revisit a conversation with Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel "Maus" is back in the news, this time as a book that's being banned. John Powers reviews a series of groundbreaking novels about a gay detective, which are being reissued, and Justin Chang reviews the new film "Kimi" by Steven Soderbergh. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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