|Date(s):||1969 to 1973|
|Tag(s):||Counterculture, Weather Underground, Shirley Chisholm|
|Course:||“United States Since 1945,” Rollins College|
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The War in Vietnam was finally over, Shirley Chisholm became the first female African-American elected to Congress, and Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office. Then again, the Watergate scandal destroyed whatever faith was left in the federal government, the Vietnam War had taken its toll on the American people, and radical left-wing groups terrorized citizens for years.
Perhaps it was the worst of times.
The disillusionment associated with the 1970s would never truly go away. No one would forget Watergate or the Vietnam War. Instead of throwing such events of the past by the wayside, the American people decided to reinvent themselves. Gone were the days of standing on the steps of high schools to protest integration. Gone were the deathly fears of communism and all that it stood for. Gone were the glances outward to the international sphere. For the first time in decades, Americans put domestic issues at the forefront of problems to be fixed. By changing the focus away from the ever-present threat of communist takeover and toward the challenging problems at home, America moved forward so that it could now be as advanced socially as it was militarily and economically.
The Weather Underground certainly was a low point in the 1970s. This group epitomized the stereotype about the 1970s being the “Me” generation; its explosive acts of domestic terrorism, rather than underscoring the war and racial issues, caused them to be overlooked. By fighting the system, the Weather Underground made it impossible for any sort of gradual change or compromise. It was either the violent overthrow of the capitalist system or nothing at all. This could also mark the end of the previous era, where everything was zero-sum: one was either communist or western, segregationist or integrationist, bad or good. The death of the Weather Underground marks the end of this black-and-white view of the world as well as the crushing antagonism against anything even remotely related to the negative events of the past.
Shirley Chisholm marked the beginning of the end for broad, generalized racism against African-Americans. Lyndon Johnson knew that he had just lost the South when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet during the 1972 Democratic primaries two of the three states she won were in the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Jersey. Though she did not take the Democratic position that year, she proved that the age in which both African-Americans and women were blindly ignored in the political sphere was drawing to a close.
Whereas Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn recorded a declaration of war only to bemoan the “frustration and impotence that comes from trying to reform this system,” Shirley Chisholm sought to advance social causes from within the government rather than outside of and against it. Until the very end, the Weather Underground movement operated in secrecy, exposing themselves only to release communiques or admit their part in bombings. Chisholm, on the other hand, embraced who she was and used her unique qualities (her African-American ethnicity as well as gender) to serve her interests. While the Weather Underground bombed the Pentagon to protest the US bombing Hanoi, Shirley Chisholm hired only women (half of whom were black) for her legislative office. This gradual loosening of old trains of thought, rather than the abrupt style that the Weather Underground preferred, made much more meaningful impacts on each of Chisholm’s causes.
The Weather Underground did not make the Vietnam War end any sooner. They themselves were only a part of the international protest against the war. Nor did they succeed in overthrowing the capitalist American government and instituting a Marxist-Leninist regime. One could argue that perhaps the 1970s were not the worst time in American history. But the Weather Underground certainly didn’t make it any better.
Shirley Chisholm, on the other hand, promoted both African-American and women’s rights. Having been discriminated against her whole life, and in fact surviving three assassination attempts during her presidential bid in 1972, she made it imperative that she visit the infamously racist George Wallace after he was shot. Her method was conciliatory, not vengeful. Much like Gerald Ford officially pardoned Nixon to end the Watergate scandal, she chose to make amends rather than keep a lifelong enemy. She was truly a pioneer for both women and African-Americans.
One could correctly argue that the Weather Underground epitomized the “Me” generation, that though it was part of the counterculture it still followed the zero-sum ideology of the past twenty years. Shirley Chisholm, by contrast, fought for incremental increases, baby steps into her movements and ideas. Yes, her efforts were revolutionary; but they were revolutionary specifically because they did not adopt revolutionary ideologies.