Sometimes life has to smack you on the noggin to get your attention. Other times something as simple as a song from the past makes you sit up and take notice of roads you have traveled, and places yet to go. Last week I was driving in to Portland to work with an African American prevention coalition when a blast from the past came rolling over the airwaves and upset my sense of serenity. It was a Pete Seeger song of the ‘50s, sung by The Byrds in the ‘70s, inspired by a biblical passage written centuries ago.
“To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, a time of love, a time of hate, a time of war, a time of peace.” Appallingly, 50 years later the powerful lyrics still have relevance. I shamelessly belted out the folk song in the sanctity of my car, words and melody as familiar as a childhood nursery rhyme. It was the anthem of my teens, one of many folk songs that fanned the flames of youthful outrage and injustice. Protest songs stirred our passion, moved us to service, and helped set our compass for where we wished to go on our life’s journey.
My generation, born in the ‘50s, coming of age in the ‘60s, would be on the front lines waging war on hunger and poverty, racism and apartheid, disease and discrimination. We would succeed in achieving world peace. The naivety of youth blinding us to the fact that our parents and theirs and untold generations before faced these very same challenges.
We sang the song as a protest against the seemingly endless stream of wars our generation had been exposed to. Although not particularly aware of World War II or the Korean War, the wars of our parents, we were raised in the shadow of nuclear war. We were taught in elementary school to hide beneath our desks if the blaring sirens signaled a nuclear attack. We practiced evacuation, and learned where local bomb shelters were located. Yet it felt like a game to us as children.
My generation’s war was Vietnam. Its inhumanity brought into our homes through television news coverage, into our personal consciousness through loss of classmates, friends and lovers. We believed we had brought the horrors of war to an end when the troops pulled out of Vietnam. This would be the end of all wars. Yet I can think of no time since, for my children or theirs, that our country has not been at war with someone, somewhere throughout the world.
We fought wars of a different ilk on our own ground, at Kent State, on the Birmingham Bridge, in Watts, in the fields of California and the wasteland of the inner city. We were moved by the music of other anthems performed by the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon.
We fought for civil rights regardless of race, religion, gender or socio economic status. We fought for clean air, clean water, toxic free plants, earth, carpets and toys. We fought against police brutality, encouraging neighborhood policing. Our leaders were articulate orators, John and Bobby Kennedy moved us to service through action and martyrdom, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela moved us to end racism and apartheid through peaceful means. Rachel Carson inspired us to save the environment. Shirley Chisolm and Gloria Steinem lifted up the rights of women. Mother Teresa was the personification of selfless service to those living in indescribable poverty and Mahatma Gandhi the voice of reason.
We raised our fists in peaceful protest, we sat in, lay in, sang in, to punctuate our passion. As we aged our protests turned to action. We built schools and hospitals, youth centers and homeless shelters, ball fields and food banks. We invented new vaccines that prevented disease, new forms of energy and transportation that were gentler on the environment. We recycled, banned pesticides, saved the salmon and the spotted owl. We became scientists and legislators, policemen and doctors, teachers and preachers. At some point we realized we had become the very establishment we fought so strongly against.
Ironically, the solutions we implemented have caused other problems that our children must solve. When you prevent one disease, another will arise often as a byproduct of what you have created. Eradicating the measles, polio, and tuberculosis gave rise to other diseases resistant to our vaccinations, more virulent, more invasive. Conquer HIV and Ebola raises its head. Decrease tobacco use in the US and it increases in third world countries. Legalize a more fashionable drug such as marijuana or deliver it in a hip fashion, vaporized, dissolvable, edible.
We have cleaner air, water and soil than we had in generations past, but have a climate that is warming, creating a very different world in which we live. We have increased the rights of people of all ethnicities, ages and genders, but those on the fringe continue to suffer inequity.
Women are serving in almost every workplace imaginable, but still paid less than their male counterparts. We have neighborhood policing and an honorable police force that are serving us well in most cities across the United States. But there still exists an underlying need for excessive force and imprisonment that flies in the face of service.
My passion for civil rights started at an early age, seeded by my aunt’s friendship with Martha McKeown and her recounting of the traditions of Chief Tommy Thompson at the Celilo fishing village. My outrage increased in the ‘60s, listening to speeches by Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. I participated in peaceful protests at Oregon State University, advocating for black power. When I returned to Hood River, I researched the evacuation and internment of the Japanese from this valley I called home. In the ‘80s, the focus shifted to work with Mexican immigrants and as of late, northeast Portland African Americans and natives in the Gorge. Ironically, 50 years after I set out to eradicate racism, it looms even larger. This is not to say nothing has been accomplished. It simply underscores the tenacity of some of society’s greatest ills.
As I listened to the anthem of my youth, I thought our children need some protest songs to stir their passion. Then I realized I am of my father’s generation. They are playing an anthem loud and proud on some iPod and I am just too old to understand the Rap, too deaf to hear the words, or too out of step to understand what they are saying.
I am thrilled that yet another generation has raised their voice against inequality, racism, poverty, war, and climate change. They are present with their signs, in marches, in song and on stage, tweeting and twittering, hash tagging and YouTubing their way to a better world.
I am saddened that these are problems never seem to be solved. But I believe that in facing our weaknesses we grow stronger and ultimately we change the world.