A Little Austin History – D. Niemann, J. Jones, M. Wizard, H. Ellinger, A. Embree, D. Schweers

I’ve come to understand that “history” is important. It defines the context in which those who come after (and even those who were present) extract the “meaning” of events after they have passed.

The phenomenological (what a word) process through which we “create” our interpretations of the past influences (if not determines) our sense of the possibilities for the future, our sense of the wisdom of various strategies and courses of action, and, indeed, our personal philosophies of life and how we live day-to-day. That’s why it is so important to have these historical debates and go through the process of reexamining and reinterpreting the meaning of past events.

From the review, I suspect I might have a different perspective on the “roots” of the new left movement. I can’t remember, for example, any explicit discussion of Christianity (liberal or otherwise) in most of what we did. Still, there is probably value in looking at the moral and intellectual underpinnings of what we thought and did in those days.

Without thinking much about it, I think three things were at work.

1. The beginnings of an understanding of what ultimately came to be embodied in the expression that “the personal is political” (and vice versa). This is where all the discussion about philosophy (existentialism, for example), religion and morality (doing the right thing long before WWJD was ever envisioned), and the many and varied movements that emerged for self determination, self-awareness and self-expression came into play.

2. The development of a historical understanding of what our nation (and US and multinational corporations) actually were doing in the world, starting with the War in Vietnam but going on much further. I remember Carl Oglesby’s insightful analysis at the time as to the roots of the War in Vietnam, for example.

3. The coming of age of the baby boom generation and the emergence of “youth culture” that was, simultaneously, both an opportunity for youthful rebellion and expression and a reflection of the natural development of a mature national economy in need of new customers and products. (Rebellion never had a chance in that mix.)

4. The “structural” fact that we (youth, the new left, etc.) had no real power and little ability to change the balance of power in the society we faced.

Somewhere in the interaction of all this — and many other things — the history of the ’60s and ’70s was written.

Doyle Niemann

… it was kind of surreal—I don’t ever remember any of us ever having anything positive to say about organized religion — even though the YMCA/YWCA buildings were our base of operations. I think most of us were — and maybe still are — basically pagans. Christianity was never mentioned at any of the hundreds of meetings I attended at these venues.

I too have acquired a profound sense of the importance of history, but I’ve probably arrived at a different set of conclusions. I think artists are the engines of social change; the Harlem Renaissance artists of the Twenties and Thirties opened the way to the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties.

Allen Ginsberg declared he had a constitutional right to take drugs and to sleep with any man he wanted to in the 1950’s, more than 20 years before Harvey Milk galvanized San Francisco’s gay community into a political force to be reckoned with.

Jack Kerouac pointed out “the road” and the “Rucksack Revolution” to millions of disaffected Americans in the late Fifties, even though they didn’t achieve critical mass for another decade. I think Janis Joplin had far more more influence on late Twentieth Century American culture than any other woman. These artists contributed more to the way we Austinites of the sixties led our lives than any group of religious liberals. Maybe all reality and our personal identities are, in the final analysis, socially constructed; perhaps the personal in fact turns out to be the political (and vice versa).

Jeff Jones

With all due respect, Doyle, you are a year or two too young. I believe the Rossinow book concentrates, when digging up roots, on an era which was already fading when I came to Austin in ’64. Certainly George Goss, Val Liveoak, both Frances Barton and Elaine Brightwater if I’m not mistaken, Benny Adams, and George Vizard were Christian-motivated activists at first, anyway, and this is not to diss Jewish-motivated activists (Austin had a few; oh man, Thorne, Alice, help me out, the beautiful, big, red-headed woman from Houston who played guitar?) George Vizard seriously considered the Episcopal priesthood at one point. Chet Briggs, who spearheaded Vietnam Summer here in ’67, was a religious activist, I think, and I’m sure there were many more.

“Half-Asbury House”, named for Asbury Methodist Church in East Austin, which Goss, Adams, and others attended when Delwood was still a “black” (if middle-class!) neighborhood (before Jim Simons moved there!), was a hotbed of radicalism in West Campus, on a par with the Ghetto but shorter-lived, where late-night “rap sessions” over wine and weed earnestly examined Christianity in a social context, i.e., racism, as much as tactics for the next sit-in. Non-violent resistance was certainly rooted in Christianity as much as in Ghandian philosophy.

The Methodist Student Center was a seminal gathering place for activists, as was the old YMCA, that’s “C” for “Christian”, which of course you will recall well. Later on the Catholic Student Center south of campus also got into the radical events/philosophies act. I met the first person who turned me on to pot at the Meth. (I was living in the Methodist dorm, a year after Alice and Terry Martinez were there; nobody stayed any longer in that dump than they had to!) The workbooks for the first Vietnam Teach-in, spring of ’65, were mimeographed, collated, and stapled at the Meth; Bob Speck recruited me to help. Bob Breihan there was, of course, a stalwart supporter of peace and justice for many, many years.

But the dominance of religiously-motivated activists in campus peace (ban the bomb) and civil rights activity was, like I say, already fading by spring of ’65, as more people got involved, with different, and equally valid, motivations.

Mariann Wizard

What makes the artists so important is that the spread of truth in the world is limited much more by lack of demand than by lack of supply. To open the mind, you have to wake the spirit with stories, songs, poems, proverbs, and images. Or a good slogan or Rag headline.

Hunter Ellinger

— The Rabbi at Hillel was a big supporter too…. —

Yep. Not that I disagree with what Jeff and Hunter are saying about the importance of art, song, etc – (“everytime I go to town, the boys keep kickin’ my dog around!”) but look at Hunter’s choice of words – proverbs, awake the spirit, etc. – man, those are religious roots! That part’s all wrapped up in Roy’s Lounge for me, “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” send chills up my spine today, even if my participation came out of having a cute, black lab partner and, before that, reading Malcolm X, and, before that, watching the rise of Muhammad Ali, and the police dogs of Alabama, on the evening news.

I went to church all the way through high school – required in my mama’s house! – and it started there, too, wondering, “Why is everybody here white if Jesus loves all the little children of the world?”

I don’t think we will ever isolate the revolutionary germ that bit us – it was in the air, everywhere. MAD Magazine (sixth grade onward) was as radical an influence on me as anything after.

Mariann Wizard

Speaking of the New Left and Christian roots, George was an acolyte at All Saints Episcopal Church when I was still going with my family during my first years at UT. Recently, I have been involved with Austin’s Religion and Labor Network. The Network has been active here for about a year building bridges between the faith community, organized labor, and immigrant workers’ rights projects. I figure any bridge that takes you in a different direction than the fundamentalist (Timothy McVeigh and Osama) one is worth constructing at this point in the Empire’s bizarre declining years. Does anyone else find it ironic that the networks are doing shows on Rome while Bush is in Crawford fiddling? What a frat boy.

Peace, Alice Embree

The religion/politics connection that I found interesting during the civil rights movement was that many people raised as racist Baptists were troubled enough by “What would Jesus do?” concerns to seriously examine the issue, and to withdraw support from the racebaiting that had been very effective politically up until then. They never agreed with sit-ins or marches, but also not with the police dogs, and they voted for Ralph Yarborough in spite of the “nigger-lover” accusations that had previously been quite effective.

But it seems to me that most of the Christians who actually ended up as leftists were predisposed toward “nothing human is alien to me” and then found that Jesus was on their side (which I agree is a fair reading, but so are Buddha, Marx, and Bob Dylan), rather than being recruited into the revolution via Christianity. This became more obvious later, since the soundness of the gospels on peace and racial
discrimination issues is not at all matched on feminism, but the people of this sort kept pushing for progress.

Hunter Ellinger

The Catholic Student Center was a partner with The Rag in the mid-1970s, back when I labored as Hezekiah J. Funnel on the Letters page of The Rag in its later years. One of my enthusiasms was about letters we would get from people behind bars in state and federal prisons. They loved the Fabulous Furry Freak Bros. cartoons! No one objected to my encouraging prisoners to subscribe, which they did, by the hundreds, from all over the country. We even got subscriptions from military brigs in Germany and Japan!

Those hundreds of free subscriptions didn’t help The Rag’s bottom line and I always wondered if that drain of revenue hastened The Rag’s demise. At one time, I started a Pen-Pal project to match people outside prison with people inside; you know, “write your pal in the pen.” I asked all the local churches and one, the Catholic Student Center, responded. Father Robert Rivers, a Paulist priest, took this project on whole-heartedly. At one time there were 70 people at the Catholic Student Center corresponding with prison-bound Rag subscribers. The project ended when Bob was re-assigned. I was not then a Christian, but that was never an issue for Bob, who is now active in the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association.

Danny Schweers

The circles go round and round…. it’s amazing how the arguments of today mirror in so many ways the ones of the past.

For myself, I think the fight for social change, peace and justice is always a fight to win the support of 51% of the people. And they aren’t “bubbas.”

While it might truthfully be said that they are uninformed, uninvolved, unmotivated and even misguided, the “people” we all used to claim to want to speak for have their own ways of speaking and thinking. Unless we understand that — and learn how to define our issues in their terms and to correctly distinguish rhetoric from reality — we will continue to preach to the converted and whistle in the wind.

Having had the experience now of several times running for and winning (sometimes) elected office, I’ve had to confront this question head on. The district I represent now in the Maryland House of Delegates is among the most diverse in Maryland. It is made up overwhelmingly of low and moderate income households — 40% or more are first or second generation immigrants (the majority Hispanics, but also a lot of Africans, West Indians, Asians and others), plus young and older African-American families. Less than 20% whites (the majority being older residents). There is also a good sized gay community spread throughout the district and mixtures of lots of other cultures and groupings.

I’ve found that the critical issue is one of trust and the ability to establish a relationship feel that you will do a good job working for and, just as importantly, with them. The more I have gone out and interacted with people, the more I am convinced that it is possible to win people over. That’s not to say it is easy. Words alone rarely do it. And certainly ideology, rhetoric and political theory never work.

In an ironical way, I think it is a question of “values” — not the kind of moral values spouted by the religious right (or the left) — but the kind of values that people use to make decisions in their own lives. That is a debate that the left has too often foolishly abandoned in recent years, leaving the field to the right.

I recall a discussion we had on this listserv not long ago about the “religious” roots of activism in Austin. That’s an example of what I think is important. Not necessarily the “religious” part, but the kind of values that propelled people to action.

I believe change is a process — to borrow another term from the past, a dialectical process. I distrust anyone who says they know how it will develop, but there is no question in my mind that anything that moves people towards progressive involvement is part of that process. That includes Cindy Sheehan, Move On and even Howard Dean. As was true before, any role that we might have in providing leadership and direction depends on our ability to be engaged in the processes that move people towards action.

Doyle Niemann

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