A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||NamedWork: A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Barber, David|
A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed. By David Barber (Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 2008. xi plus 286 pp.).
In 1960 a small number of young white activists created Students for a Democratic Society. These idealistic radicals called themselves the New Left, a name that proclaimed separation from an older generation. Some SDS members participated in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the civil rights group organized by southern black college students. Inspired strongly by SNCC's commitment to social change, SDS in 1962 defined its mission in the Port Huron Statement, largely written by Tom Hayden. Borrowing non-violent strategy and sit-in tactics from the southern black movement, SDS's middle-class college students resolved to remake America by challenging racism, economic inequality, and the Cold War. After organizing an early protest against the escalating Vietnam War in April 1965, SDS as a whole backed away from the war to put most of its resources into the Economic Research and Action Project, which stressed community organizing among the northern urban poor. ERAP, however, failed. From 1965 to 1968, SDS mushroomed in size to thousands of members and gained national influence amid rising racial tensions and the growing Vietnam War. On many campuses, the war was especially important in drawing students to SDS. In 1969, SDS disintegrated. This book is less a comprehensive history than a thoughtful extended essay examining why the robust SDS of 1965 crumbled so quickly.
At the heart of the meltdown, David Barber finds the issue of race and the specific way that SDS handled race. While SDS students were eager to adopt SNCC's pattern of sit-ins and participatory democracy, they were less willing to acknowledge an intellectual debt to African Americans. Furthermore, when later Black Power leaders such as Stokely Carmichael urged whites to organize their own community, SDS was reluctant to heed this advice. Even after ERAP foundered, SDS continued to try to organize African Americans in northern cities and largely ignored the white working class, because, frankly, college students did not know how to talk to uneducated whites. Of course, SDS did not know how to talk to uneducated blacks either. Barber argues persuasively that whiteness, that is, an unexamined white racial consciousness, prevented SDS leaders from understanding the racial nature of their own preconceptions. While SDS in the late 1960s gave lip service to the Black Panthers as a vanguard of revolution in the United States, SDS offered little practical cooperation, since SDS could not truly accept black leadership.
In the most innovative chapter, Barber shows that whiteness also hampered SDS in understanding the Vietnam War. Although SDS declared that it opposed anti-communism and called the war imperialist, the group found it hard to grasp that whites inside the United States were beneficiaries of a race-based empire. Thus, SDS opposed the war as an imperial misadventure rather than as an expression of imperial white supremacy. This failure to understand the connection between empire and race proved costly, since it inhibited a full appreciation of both categories and left SDS with insufficient analytical tools to push beyond narrow considerations in evaluating either the war or non-white Vietnamese. African Americans, on the contrary, identified themselves as a colony within the United States, recognized the Vietnamese as oppressed fellow colonials, and saw their own struggle as part of a global revolt against colonialism.
Barber also argues that SDS never solved the problem of the oppression of women, which became an issue inside an organization rampant with male supremacy, sexism, and male sexual exploitation. The women's movement can be traced to a memo written at a SNCC conference by Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white women who worked inside that mostly black organization, hut Barber suggests that the cool reception to the memo by black women in SNCC shows that Hayden and King misunderstood what was happening. They ought to have complained about increasing disdain for whites inside the organization. Instead, the pair misconstrued racial tension as disdain for women. Many feminists will find this argument unpersuasive. In the aftermath of the Hayden-King memo, radical white women in SDS quickly developed a feminist critique of SDS, but in doing so, according to Barber, they began to ignore race. For a couple of years the white men who dominated SDS tried to dodge the gender issue. In 1969 rising feminist anger had a lot to do with the collapse of SDS, as the Weather faction's macho leaders, determined to maintain their hold, pushed followers into sporadic acts of violence. That group also attacked monogamy ostensibly to free women but in reality to provide easy sex to favored male leaders. A one-time member of a Weather collective, Barber, now a professor, notes that sexually transmitted diseases were common. Radical black women also resented the way in which radical white women tried to equate gender and racial discrimination. To Barber, racism was the larger problem because it produced families and communities segregated from mainstream life in a way that gender did not.
As intellectual history, the book provides a nice overview of the many dilemmas and contradictions that, surrounded SDS. Student movements are inherently unstable, as younger radical underlings constantly challenge established leaders. Such movements are always shifting around as leaders and members continually change, and SDS was no exception. Within SDS, specific goals varied over time and were often hotly disputed. Local chapters differed in concerns, in quality of leadership, and in effectiveness. Because it is difficult to describe SDS as a single entity, previous studies have each conveyed only part of a complex story. David Barber's insightful and able book joins accounts by Kirkpatrick Sale, Jim Miller, Tom Hayden, and Todd Gitlin. Barber tries to locate a sensible overall pattern that fits all the details, and he has succeeded in doing so. Themes about race, empire, and gender are traced in multiple directions, and this study is especially useful on the final days, when fragments of SDS warred with each other. Reflecting a lifetime of thinking, Barber is persuasive that whiteness played a major role inside SDS. The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the 1960s.
W. J. Rorabaugh
University of Washington, Seattle
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