As I see it, America started “celebrating” this year’s Fourth of July holiday on May 26, when the first protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis to denounce the police murder of George Floyd. Those earliest actions have since led to nearly 5,000 protests in 2,500 towns and cities with an estimated 20 million people participating. It is, simply put, the most massive protest movement in the history of the nation and it is revolutionary, a fitting tribute to our Founders.
The revolution that is taking place in our streets, in our schools, in our churches, in our homes, is not the armed revolution of popular imagination. It is instead a revolution of values, the very sort of revolution called for by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous Riverside Church speech in April of 1967.
Although I had spent most of the previous year working for the Gene McCarthy for president campaign — the leading anti-Vietnam War candidate of the 1968 election — I didn’t get to personally participate in a mass anti-war demonstration until April 5, 1969, fifty-one years ago. As a 17-year-old, I was impressed.
The march was held in New York City. I and two friends drove up together from our New Jersey suburbs. We rented a double room at a YMCA (in or near Greenwich Village, as best as I recall). We managed to increase the sleeping capacity of the small room when we came upon another room that was in the middle of being cleaned. The door was wide open and the beds were stripped. Most importantly, no one was around. So we grabbed one of the mattresses and ran down the hall to our room. Voila! Accommodations for three.
On Saturday the 5th, we protesters gathered in Bryant Park and eventually marched up Sixth Avenue (the so-called Avenue of the Americas) to Central Park, where the rally was held. The march was kept to one side of Sixth Avenue so traffic could continue to flow. Every once in a while, police would hold up the march to allow crosstown traffic to cross the road. It was all very polite. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated.
I don’t recall any of the speeches or speakers. I don’t recall any of the musical performers, although I’d bet that there were some big names involved. It was New York City, after all, in 1969. What I do remember quite clearly is feeling something I’d never experienced before — the feeling of being part of a movement. A mass movement. It felt powerful. It was exhilarating. It was inspiring. I wanted more.
The arc of my life started taking shape in 1968 during the McCarthy campaign. The anti-war march in New York cemented it. I’ve been marching ever since. And when this coronavirus thing is finally over, we all better be marching again.
This past summer was defined by 50th anniversary commemorations. First out of the gate was the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, a historic event certainly worthy of review. And did it ever get reviewed — TV specials, newspaper inserts, even a commemorative coin issued by the U.S. mint.
Then came August and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The Woodstock celebrations were personal for me as someone who had actually gone to Woodstock. More commemorative events and publications. Even a stamp. But no coin as far as I know.
Coming up soon is another significant 50th anniversary event, another one with deep personal meaning for me — the anniversary of the massive Vietnam War Moratorium March on Washington, which took place on November 15, 1969, exactly three months after Woodstock. I was there, too.