Great 1960’s Icons Live on Through Their Words, Their Deeds & Their Actions.
After the appalling treatment of Judge Ketanji Jackson by Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, & the staunch defence of her provided by Sen. Cory Booker, her confirmation as the first black, female Supreme Court Justice is a triumph. Wins such as this for the black community are few & far between, & ride on the backs of many who came before, leaving behind a legacy of wisdom & a vision for unity that still resonates decades after their passing.
“I’m so great, I even impress myself…It’s hard to be modest when you’re as great as I am…They all must lose in the round I choose…I’m a perfect role model for children. I’m good-looking, clean-living, cultured, and modest.”
Cassius Clay, 1963.
On September 5th 1960 a gangly, young 18 year old African-American named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. won the light-heavyweight boxing Gold medal at the Rome Olympics. Less than 4 years later he defeated the undefeatable Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time.
He was a sensation.
There was only one problem. He wasn’t white.
If America is indeed in decline then there should be some sort of measure of that decline. Economic performance is perhaps the most visible measure of how a nation is doing, and a close look reveals that America’s share of the global economy has dropped from a high of 40% in 1960 to just under 25% now.
But money isn’t the be all…is it? What about democracy?
Freedom House rates the United States as ‘free’ in 2022 with a score of 83/100. Not bad!
But in 2017, a year after Donald Trump was elected, that score was 89. So America’s democracy, and by extension, its freedoms, are also waning.
But this is a relative measure, surely? Well, by comparison to Russia, or to Myanmar, then America is the place to be, right?
We could go on of course, but you get the idea. The decline is real enough but is perhaps felt most keenly in the way America’s rivals are pushing back against America’s waning hegemony in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to perhaps 25 years ago.
So why talk about this now? What has changed that warrants this examination of America’s decline?
Well, in truth nothing specific has changed in the last few days, but the subject of American decline has been on my mind for some time now — in fact I wrote about what I called ‘The Fading Myth of the American Dream’ a few weeks ago in a post here on Medium.
The reason America’s position in the world matters is that for all the measures of this putative decline, and what they may or may not say about America’s standing in the world right now, the fact is that America remains the most influential nation on the planet. Where America goes the West, and many other nations, invariably follow, if not wholly, then in part.
And that worries me because the freedoms and rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution are being undermined, supplanted and weakened before our eyes and there seems to be no end of it.
Gerrymandering, radical laws restricting who can vote or who is eligible to vote, a reduction in personal freedoms, declining press freedoms, surging rates of hate crimes associated with racist agendas, increasing political divisiveness and violence, an attempted coup, and the gradual but inexorable erosion of the legitimacy of American democracy (1) until the hard fought, hard won freedoms that inspired George Washington and that drove Abraham Lincoln to declare that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ are being washed away in a right-wing populist tide of lies, misinformation and hatred, and all because some white men fear the loss of their sacred, divine status as rulers across that great nation, and that, my friends, is something most definitely not enshrined in the Constitution of the United States anywhere.
These are just a few of things that make me concerned for the future of America, its democracy, its political stability and its future, and by extension that concern touches me, and almost everyone else in the West whether they are aware of it or not.
So is there any going back? Now America has reached the edge of the democratic precipice, is it possible to reverse these worrying trends? Can America be led out of the impending gloom, back into the light of a full democracy again, or has that light been extinguished by the lies, the cancel culture, the misinformation and the increasingly virulent and toxic nature that prevails across so much of the American political arena right now?
“//…(Al)though America’s hegemony has declined, its ambition has not.”
Noam Chomsky, 24th August 2011.
I don’t have answers to those questions. I’m not sure there is a leader in America right now with the resolve, the strength, the power or the necessary empathetic character to pull the American people, kicking and screaming and wailing, back together again. To be honest, I don’t think there has been one in the last two generations.
For me American decline began shortly after the end of WWII, but accelerated in the 1960’s when we saw the loss of hope and the loss of truth.
The 1960’s, in the midst of free love, in the midst of civil rights marches, Birmingham, Selma, the March on Washington, in the words of the songs, in the paragraphs of iconic American literature, in the Vietnam War, in the tragic loss of so many icons of freedom and civil rights, the elation and optimism delivered by LBJ when he signed and ratified The Civil Rights Act into law live on TV on July 2nd 1964, we watched, and we witnessed, as unseen in the background, hope, hand in hand with truth, began to fade away.
How can that be?
There was so much hope, so much love; outpourings of it as social barriers, taboos and conventions were not just pushed aside; they were pulverised.
Woodstock and the Summer of Love. The Mamas and the Papas. Bullitt. Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali. Man’s first steps on a world other than earth. Bob Beamon’s astounding, superhuman leap in Mexico. Black Power. Bell-bottoms and mini skirts. Billie Jean-King and Arthur Ashe. Twiggy. Funny Girl. In the Heat of the Night. The Supremes. Bob Dylan. Free love. The birth control pill.
So much hope. So much love.
But so much loss as well.
Soviet power began to challenge the U.S. led West almost before the Nuremberg Trials had concluded. The world started to fracture into two spheres of influence; one led by a repressive Soviet regime that encompassed Russia and much of Eastern Europe, whilst the other, led by the U.S. comprised most of the rest of the world.
But even before the 60’s American hegemony had seriously declined. In 1949 the revolution in China and the rise of Mao created a rift in Roosevelt’s post-War order that has only continued to widen over time. Further ‘territorial losses’ across Indochina occurred as the Cold War took hold and the West fought against the ominous rise of Communism.
The contraction of both the British and French empires further reduced the influence of a US led world order. As the world re-industrialised after the end of WWII and colonial independence gathered pace, new centres of economic wealth grew in Asia — first focused on Japan, and much later on China — and also across a recovering Europe, meaning the post-war bipolar world was fast disappearing.
It had lasted, at best, maybe 25 years.
The loss of truth came about when Vietnam was invaded by the U.S. in the name of freedom, based on a pack of French lies, concocted evidence and half-truths (2), in the process becoming the slaughter house of powers far bigger, far greater than themselves, and culminated in the eventual loss of American exceptionalism and dignity when the truth was finally aired (3).
The loss of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of JFK and for me, perhaps most of all, the loss of Robert Kennedy were tragedies no country could stand. Yet in 1960’s America they seemed almost commonplace.
A softly spoken, gentle, peace loving man, who to me seemed almost painfully shy at times, Bob Kennedy was campaigning to win the Democratic nomination when he was so cruelly taken.
As an adult I read much about Robert Kennedy and I still marvel at the timeless quality of his words. Here was a man, a politician who was humble enough to admit when he was wrong, or when he didn’t understand something; a depth of humility and empathy that today’s egotistical, image driven politicians with their weaponised, partisan comments would do well to learn from.
Very much a product of the 60’s, Bob Kennedy abhorred violence, making the irony of his passing feel so much more tragic. Speaking so prophetically the day after another needless slaying, that of MLK, he talked about the violence of institutions with words that still resonate today with strength and timeless wisdom, reaching out across the tens of years since his own tragic demise…
“For there is another kind of violence (than physical violence), slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Robert Kennedy, at the Cleveland City Club, April 5th, 1968.
Two months later he too was dead.
Not a victim of institutional violence, but of man’s inhumanity to man. The manner of his murder, despite a controversial conviction, remains shrouded in mystery; conspiracy theories regularly do the rounds and questions remain unanswered after all these years.
The fact remains, that he was lost on that awful day in California to his family, to America, and to the world.
Boris Yaro, an LA Times reporter, witnessed the killing and says all he could think at the time was, “My God, not again.”
I was only a kid at the time, still in short pants, but I knew about the tragedy of the Kennedy’s even then. ‘Why are they always being shot?’ ‘Why are they always being murdered?’ ‘What had they done to deserve this?’
A child’s questions that adults couldn’t fathom nor answer.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
Robert Kennedy’s statement on the assassination of Martin Luther King. Indianapolis, April 4th, 1968.
One much under appreciated legacy of the Cold War is America’s aversion to anything approaching a socialist agenda. Trump routinely weaponised the term ‘socialist’ to use as a bludgeon with which to beat any Democrat or indeed, any Republican, who promoted any form of social agenda.
Since Trump paved the way of course, such tactics have become mainstream for many conservatives who seem to readily make the giant leap from any proposed social policy to communism, and sometimes even more weirdly to fascism, as a matter of course.
The mind boggles, and I can only wonder at the level of personal insecurity these mostly of these white, right-wingers must feel at the prospect of becoming a minority in the nation they feel they own by right — Brookings report this may occur as soon as 2045.
It is this insecurity, turned inwards as hatred for anyone different from themselves that drives the political and social violence that today threatens the very security, the very well-being and future of the United States right now.
On social media one day not long ago at the height of the panic over Covid-19, I suggested that the U.S., as the richest nation on the planet, should provide universal health care for all Americans.
The abuse I was subjected to was almost immediate. Honestly, it made me laugh! The egotistical selfishness of those Americans, that any sort of pretence at universal social care of any kind, of helping someone less privileged than themselves, warranted such a heated response was, from my perspective indicative of where America is right now.
I can only imagine and sympathise with Bernie Sanders and AOC for the abuse they must receive on a daily basis. I digress…
For them, I imagine, it isn’t so funny.
Noam Chomsky, writing of the 2008/9 financial crisis, said in that dry, miserly syllabic prose of his, that “the (U.S.)deficit crisis (was) largely manufactured as a weapon to destroy hated social programs on which a large part of the (U.S.) population relies.”
Harsh, but this would seem to be the new American way.
And so the institutional violence that Robert Kennedy spoke of, and that Chomsky mentions above, continues to this day, driven by the fear inherent in some men that they might lose their ‘rightful,’ ‘designated’ spot in the queue, a fear that manifests itself as a need to keep any non-whites, or people who may not fit their image of what an American could, or should be, firmly in their place.
Muhammad Ali, as he became, was only too aware of his blackness. But he was also aware of the power he possessed and of the place he had constructed for himself in the world, and that place was not under the heel of anyone other than Allah.
Jack Newfield, a renowned (white I might add) journalist, said of Ali, “If I had to put one label on him, it would be as a symbol of the 1960’s (4).” He went on, “Ali, like Robert Kennedy and the Beatles, was full of passion and willing to challenge authority. In a rapidly changing world, he underwent profound personal change and influenced rather than reflected his times.”
That profound change was of course a jail term for refusing the draft.
“I’m expected to go overseas and help free people in South Vietnam,” Ali said, “and at the same time my people here are being brutalised and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. So I’m going to fight it legally, and if I lose. I’m going to jail.”
And then stripped of his title, stripped of his living, but not stripped of his dignity and pride, Ali went to jail.
Whilst waiting for his case to come up Ali had travelled across the U.S. giving talks and lectures. But everywhere he went he was heckled, called a ‘coward’, called a ‘n888er draft dodger.’ It rankled, but he took it until…
One night, speaking at Syracuse University, somebody called him just that, a draft dodging n888er. Ali shook his head, turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you know, a long time ago when I was a little boy, I used to throw rocks at this donkey. And my Grandma would say, ‘Cassius, quit throwing rocks at that donkey.’ I’d ask, ‘Why Grandma?’ And she’d say, ‘Cause someday that donkey is gonna die and come back and haunt you.’ ” Then he paused, looked out at the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I know now that my Grandma was right, because I believe that ass is in here tonight (4).”
It brought the house down.
Of himself, Ali was more self deprecating than many believed. “I never thought of myself as great when I refused to go into the army. All I did was stand up for what I believed. There were people who thought the war in Vietnam was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted just as brave as I did. There were people who tried to put me in jail. Some of them were hypocrites, but others did what they thought was proper and I can’t condemn them for following their conscience either.”
“Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.”
I just wanted to be free.
Just as Abe Lincoln had affirmed in the Gettysberg address. Isn’t that what all men truly want I ask?
To be free.
And yet today’s conservatives want to take that freedom and manipulate it, box it up, close it down, and give out pieces of it to those they deem worthy, not by their actions, not by their words, but their social standing, by their net worth, and by their race or colour.
And that cannot be right in a country that calls itself the land of the free.
We need to take on board the fight of the Ukranian people, of their leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who know as a nation all too well the horrors of living under an authoritarian, repressive regime.
Yet these loud mouthed Trumpists want to trick their followers into believing that such a world is a white utopia, where elections will be fair and free, where people will be safe to walk the streets, where their well being will be catered for, and nurtured by a caring, kindly state that has only their best interests at heart.
It is a lie I tell you.
The cold, callous murder of George Floyd was an outrage, and was regarded as such around the world, and rightly so.
But in what world did we all live that we could not see this coming? We knew it was coming because it had happened before, time and time and time again, too many times to mention.
Robert Kennedy said, “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”
Yes Sir! Right on…!
The 60’s was brimming with righteous men, great and good men, men from whom we could all learn. But sadly, in any age where good men reside and exist, there also exists in parallel an equal or unequal number of bad men.
All the other great heroes of the 60’s are dead, Jack Newfield later said, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, all dead, but Ali (still alive when Jack wrote this), ‘stayed in the hearts of everyone’ who lived through those turbulent times.
Ali wasn’t perfect. Robert Kennedy wasn’t perfect. But they were both wise enough and humble enough to acknowledge such.
Aristotle said “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
As a child, Ali was my hero, and as an adult Robert Kennedy has become one too. For me, great men both. Shining lights that beam beyond the short span of their own lives.
And for me, and now I hope for you, the words and messages brought by Muhammad Ali and Robert Kennedy will help you to pass on their messages of hope that we may renew this world and make it a place of equals for everyone, where all men are free, and where hatred and racism and jealousy are banished from our hearts forever.
Thank you reading.
- Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump; Karen J. Greenberg, 2021.
- The Road to Vietnam: America, France, Britain, and the First Vietnam War; Pablo de Orellana, 2021.
- The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War; Neil Sheehan, Hendrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy & Fox Butterfield, 1971.
- Muhammad Ali. His Life and Times; Thomas Hauser, 1988.