The Birth of the New Left
Later, people would say it began in 1960, with the events I‘ll describe. But I think the New Left was well begun by 1958, when I came to Berkeley, drawn by the music of her twilight streets and by the news of a new activism quickening on the campus. The year before, the first broad-spectrum student political organization formed at Berkeley: TASC, Towards an Active Student Community -- soon renamed SLATE, on running the first slate of activist candidates for student government. Out from under its umbrella we tiptoed, a few dozen strong, to nibble at the issues of the day: civil rights, capital punishment, nuclear disarmament.
The chill of the long winter of McCarthyism was still upon us. During the early Fifties its glaciers had ground the American Left down to demoralized disintegration, leaving radicalism to be born again, and differently, through the young. Our pickets announced its springtime. We were in the unfolding bud of a new consciousness, an Awakening in white America, touched off by psychic contagion from the black Awakening. But in 1959, when I wrote the poem above, we were still very cold and lonely. Ours was still called the Silent Generation. We had no way to know how many were coming to feel what we felt -- or that already a dozen groups like SLATE were forming on campuses up and down the West Coast and in the East.
In May 1960 we came together for the first time, from all around the San Francisco Bay, in two major demonstrations. In our protests against an execution and a witch-hunt hearing, History was to discover the birth-cry of the New Left. For us, the discovery was of each other. We began to realize we were not alone -- and then began the arduous process of finding out who we were and entering into a Marriage, still scarcely begun.
But that is a long story. Here are accounts of our first experiences of coming together in force –- records from the moment itself, before we realized its implications. (*) In this my accounts are typical of the consciousness of the white Movement at the time (black consciousness was always somewhat more developed). Our attention was still all focused outward, on what we were protesting. We had not yet gotten interested in who we were and the changes our actions were putting us through, or realized how weirdly different we might be -- we were not yet engaged with the introspective core and vision of Revolution.
So perhaps the true testament of these accounts is the way their consciousness is limited. But I include them for a different reason. Since their time a million kids have gathered in force to protest, have failed or won partial success, have encountered the police, have lived the first bright flare of moral indignation transcending into social action. I don't know how else to say this: younger brothers and sisters, these tales are scraps of our common history, you will recognize their experience, archaic as some of its aspects may seem. You are not alone, least of all in Time. You share a heritage of developing struggle which stretches back continuously through these events, and through earlier roots we have all but forgotten -- we who were born in the landscape the glaciers scoured clean.
I think it is time to remember, well beyond the memories written here. As much as our difference, our roots are our strength.
(*) [2008 note: this is too modest. See here.]