May Day was on Friday this year, as it was in 1970. These two days, a half-century apart, have much additional in common. Two authoritarian, emotionally unhinged presidents had used heavy doses of racism and fraudulent claims to get into office. Richard Nixon claimed that he had a secret plan to end the Viet Nam war. Instead, he announced the incursion into Cambodia, widening the war. On April 28, 1970, the day he made the decision, three members of the National Security Council quit. The secretaries of state and defense were not even notified of the planned invasion until the public announcement on April 30.
All hell broke loose. Starting on May Day, there were strikes by millions of students at some 700 colleges; over 200 were shut down. On May 4, National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio killed four white students at a peaceful protest, stunning the nation. On May 15, two African American students at Jackson State College were killed when police fired into a women’s dormitory. Police had brutally beaten hundreds of protestors at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Yet, prior to May 1970, at least most young white people did not think that they could be killed while protesting.
These were intense times. Apart from the huge numbers of small and large anti-war actions, there were numerous other issues and struggles. Twenty million people had just created Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The Black Liberation Movement was a powerful force nationwide. Other racial justice movements were growing rapidly among Native Americans, Chicanos, and Asian Americans. The Women’s Movement was growing, with public actions and consciousness-raising groups. The Stonewall bar resistance in New York City, the opening round of the Out Gay Rights movement, occurred in mid-1969. The GI resistance movement, which helped end the war, was growing. Viet Nam veterans were demonstrating against the war in large numbers. Postal workers conducted a national wildcat strike in March 1970. Wildcats in auto plants were common in Detroit and elsewhere, and spread during the early seventies to many industries.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led the first major anti-Viet Nam War march in April 1965, with 25,000 people in Washington, D.C. SDS captured the imagination of a generation of students as an open and radical group, fostering participatory democracy and challenging U.S. society on many levels. It grew phenomenally in a few years. After the organization split at a convention in Chicago, in July1969, SDS never recovered the leadership it had exercised nor the excitement it had generated. Although the 1970 student uprising around Cambodia, Kent State and Jackson State was the largest U.S. anti-war protest ever, the student movement did not have clear direction.
In the meantime, the war was becoming highly unpopular, as working-class people in the United States turned more and more against it. Under threat of impeachment, Nixon resigned in August 1974. Remaining intact, however, was Nixon’s successful Southern strategy – dog-whistling racism to bring in the Republican Party as the instrument of white supremacy in the previously solid Democratic South.
What happened to our movements? We achieved many victories that have been incorporated into the fabric of society. Many activists continued doing good political work. Many did not continue doing political work explicitly, but our experience and consciousness informed our lives in our various workplaces. Many, like myself, started families.
Yet so many goals were not achieved, and activism hit various bumps in the road. Repression and government sabotage took a toll. Women in the movements faced sexism. Many white activists found it hard to look at their own racist patterns. Some left-wing groups were not able to achieve, or did not prioritize, the building of radical unity, human support, and solidarity.
A different problem occurred with environmentalism after Earth Day, where liberalism and national D.C.-based organizations predominated over grass-roots activism. What if a significant number of the 20 million Earth Day participants had seen racism and classism as key issues to take on as environmentalists?
What if they had prioritized being allies to, and following the leadership of, indigenous people and people of color who were fighting corporate pollution in their communities? What if they had prioritized being allies to workers in their struggles for occupational health, such as against black lung and silicosis? Can we imagine these groups – Native communities, communities of color, labor and environmentalists–being in long-standing alliance? If it were combined with the huge upsurge of youth and young adults around climate issues, would we be able to stop corporate climate criminality?
With the COVID pandemic, the illusion of normality is hard to maintain, as was also true in May 1970. We are in crisis: many are economically desperate, and the recorded U.S. deaths from COVID-19 are now at 70,000. Yet we also have opportunities for radical change – to decide what types of work should be done, to create a socialized health system, and to organize the resources so that all can prosper. These issues are now on the table. Even if we are sheltered at home, there is much we can do.
In movements to address COVID, the climate crisis, and prioritizing human well-being over capital, women’s leadership needs to be highlighted and supported. Many of the most successful responses to COVID-19 have been in countries led by women, such as New Zealand, Taiwan, and Denmark. Women in leadership and membership among teachers, nurses, fast-food workers, Amazon workers and flight attendants, have been the leading edge of U.S. worker militancy in the last few years. Especially with teachers and nurses, strength has come through their own demands as workers, coupled with community needs and alliances. White men such as myself and many DSA members may be fully committed activists; but we still need to hone our skills in functioning in authentic solidarity with women, indigenous people and people of color.
The alliances that should have been nurtured fifty years ago didn’t happen. Building them now is our work.