Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INTERVIEW WITH RENNIE DAVIS
INTERVIEWER: I want to take you back to the 1950s; in that time you grew up. What was it like to live in America in the 1950s?
RENNIE DAVIS: Well, some of it's memories, some of it's reading, you know. What's really interesting to me is the switch, you know, that occurred. I mean, one moment you've got a whole intense commitment to military intervention around an Iron Curtain, and that's the policy of broad containment; and the next there's, you know... I would have to describe it as political witch-hunting going on, you know, throughout the society: different Senate and congressional committees, primarily located around the House un-American Activities Committee, but creating a culture that was very much like everyone wanting to fit in - you know, you wanted to be a prude, you wanted to know that you were OK, and so it made for a... you know, the American expression here is "goody two-shoe": you know, it was very much looking over your shoulder. Fear dominated society, I would say. And, you know, that characterized pretty much the whole post-World War II period, right up to the moment of 1960. And then four students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and it was just like the entire culture of the society didn't count; it wasn't just the four people: it was like suddenly full-blown everywhere, all across the country, definitely oriented to college students and young people in the beginning. But you just had this, all of a sudden, outrageousness going on. I mean, overnight you had freedom marches, overnight you had anti-war protests, overnight you had recreational substances as an experiment, overnight you had people wanting to go into nature, overnight you had young people who could(n't) care less about being validated or approved by their parents, by institutions, by anyone, and it just came out of left field - it was a boom!, it was like suddenly there. To me it was as interesting what turned it on as what turned it off, you know, because it ended just as suddenly as it had begun, and it's one of the things that has fascinated me this whole time: what is it that ignites that kind of curiosity and passion for life and suddenly not needing approval from anyone else, to be yourself, to have your own expression, and then to join with literally millions of other people. I mean, a common occurrence would be to get up in the morning - you're a college student, let's say - just walk out on to the street, stick out your thumb; you're in Boston and you're intending to go to San Francisco, and your total possessions are probably a toothbrush in your pocket, and you know totally well, with absolute certainty, that it's a matter of moments before a painted van's going to come around the corner - and it does, you know, and it comes right to you, and you get in, and there's a whole party inside and you're just having a great time. (Clears throat) And you go across the country without any idea where you're going to land, and you know that at your destination are people just like you left in Boston, you know. And to have that kind of cultural, I don't know, it's a sense of trust, innocence, passion for life, excitement, a sub-culture within a larger dominant, fear-based culture; and then suddenly to have the whole society just literally shaken down by this explosion of... I would call it passion and energy coming out of left field, nowhere, you know. Why did it happen? Why did it happen, and why did it go away? You know, if your series can answer that that question, that'd be quite fine, you know.
INT: The early 1960s sees someone like Kennedy coming to power, and the Kennedy's were seen as...
(Interruption - Cut)
INT: You talked about the cultural sense of change. Some people ascribe that to specific political factors, like the Kennedy's being in the White House. What did Kennedy do for you - anything?
RD: Well, Kennedy brought in a sense of excitement and youth after the kind of the sleepy Eisenhower years, and almost seemed to symbolize this, you know, youth passion, you know, curiosity, willing to go on to new possibility thinking. But it was interesting to me because in one way it was a symbol of what was occurring; on the other hand, it didn't seem to co-opt or affect at all the passion of young people. It really didn't matter. I mean, you know, the fact that the Kennedy's would send their emissaries into the south to, you know, check into stories of abuse, you know, racial things that were going on, injustices, was appreciated but, you know, basically it was a generation willing to really step outside of governmental circles. There was still the constraint of reality, of governing a society and all the political conventions, you know; also, a first-time Catholic President who tried to operate with a new agenda, but still very much rooted in the traditional American institutions, and the young people in the Sixties were not. And so, in one way it symbolized and reflected what was happening, but on the other hand it was not a co-optive force in any way whatsoever in the early Sixties.
INT: How important to you was the civil rights movement?
RD: Well, I think it was the launch-pin [sic] for the whole thing. It still doesn't explain why it occurred. You know, there had been... you know, Ku Klux Klan rallies that ended in lynchings for, you know, 100 years, that didn't trigger the young people in America to come into the (unclear) protest. So (Clears throat) you can't really say that it was a particular incident that got things going; something else was going on, an energetic, you know, I mean... you know, it almost takes on a mystical quality to me. I mean, we want so much to root these things in the social conditions; and not to say social conditions don't create protest, but there was something else happening here. You know, it was very similar to the Renaissance, I would say: you know, you got a society that's very structured, closed down, everybody again looking over their shoulder in fear about what other people think, and then suddenly this passion and curiosity and intellectual willingness to explore new paradigms and thinking. It's that kind of energy that... I don't know ... I... quite honestly, you almost feel like it's more on a metaphysical level; it just does not root itself in political institutions or any easy explanation. Suddenly there is a birth, you know, and then it takes on a form; in this case, it took on the form of civil rights, then into community organizing projects, and then from there, as the Vietnam War started to come into the decade, especially with the landing of Marines in 1965, you know, then the great coming together was really around the war. But (Clears throat) what was the energy that was underneath all of that? That's really still the mystery, I would say, of the Sixties.
INT: At that time, people were beginning to feel confident about protesting, but surely there must have been a sense that you were sticking your heads above the parapet, that this was not a thing to do, to either protest for civil rights or, even more crucially, in favor of ending the war in Vietnam?
RD: But the sense of courageous leadership that, say, characterized certain people in Hollywood in the 1950s, where they took a principled stand, at risk to their livelihood, to their family, to their reputation (Clears throat), none of this existed in the Sixties. You know, when myself and other colleagues went into the House un-American Activities Committee, it wasn't that we were saying some courageous thing that might forever damage our reputation - I mean, we were just having a big party and just having a great time, and we were, you know, fearless in the most innocent, real sense. And it was our ... a fearlessness about it - I mean, we just didn't give it any credibility. It's the way humor works: you know, everyone's very uptight and, you know, the dictator is there, and if someone can get laughter going on a large level, it can just kind of crumble the whole thing. Well, it's like that: you know, there was an energetic here that made people really not care what anybody thought, you know, and there wasn't trying to fit in, and there wasn't... it was a very... it's a very beautiful, creative force when it exists in a society. And to whatever degree, we can learn from the Sixties. I mean, I think there's something about passion for life and curiosity for life, and the willingness to kind of explore new ground, that is very enriching and nourishing to any society that can encourage that. Anyway, it just came full-blown out of nowhere in the Sixties, and went away again; and underneath, you know, it is that passion that then gave rise to the particular issues and the particular focus. The Vietnam War obviously became the rallying point from about 1967 through '73; but all the other issues - women's rights and, you know, what was going on with civil rights and Black America and poor people - were very much alive and well underneath all of that.
INT: What importance do you attach to the rock 'n' roll youth culture to this process of...?
RD: It almost seemed again, like Kennedy, you know, to be a symbol of the whole thing; a little more rooted in the culture. I mean, it ... you know, the big rock 'n' roll stars were part of our coalition; they wrote songs to, you know, commemorate what was going on in Chicago, they... I mean, I organized a demonstration in Washington, D.C. with the purpose of creating non-violent civil disobedience in the roads and bridges of the city, to close the whole city down. And, you know, we had some very mainstream rock 'n' roll bands participa(ting), like the Beach Boys - I mean, you know, they were very popular and you almost would say mainstream within that cultural milieu, showing up, you know, to support an act of defiance and willingness to be arrested. Very, very unusual, really. So the artists were really the troubadours of the movement, and in many ways created the kind of the outpouring of energy that then allowed people like ourselves to mould and shape and to give some vision and direction to it.
INT: How important were people like Dylan, for example?
RD: A very important spokesman, I would say, for the... oh... you know, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. It was that type of thing - you know, pointing the finger at authority, not really buying into the goody two-shoe, not willing to really just say "I need approval or validation for me to exist and for me to express my passion for life." Especially the early Dylan, you know - he would show up at our meetings in 1963, in those years, and very much a beautiful expression of this passion that was just exploding shore to shore in this country among young people.
INT: And the lyric "All You Need Is Love", by the Beatles - is that important?
RD: Well, I think so; I think especially in the earlier period, that reflected a lot of the sentiment that was going. There was just sort of the innocence about the whole thing - Haight Ashbury or taking flowers and putting them in the rifles of people protecting the Pentagon in 1967. You know, again, the image of this painted van going across the country sort of symbolizes that. You know, you can't imagine that in this country. Like, imagine a 20-year-old female, you know, by herself just going out and hitchhiking and feeling fearless about it and feeling like there's no problem. There was literally a culture... there were two cultures operating, but the culture that would pick her up would be the painted van, and in that van there was a sense of family and trust: "This is going to work - no one's going to attack me or abuse me." Fear was largely absent in that culture for that period of time. It's one of the great social experiments, really, that that could occur. And quite honestly, my sense of it is that whatever that energy is, is about to occur again in the world. I don't have anything but my own intuition to make that kind of statement, but I knew it in January 1960, that the whole Sixties was about to explode, and I don't know. You know, I think a lot of people had that sense. And my intuition today is a lot better than it was then, you know, so there is another sense that we're going to have another round of this thing. I personally think it has something to do with the biology of the body itself being turned on, and it's quite a fascinating subject really. None of the accounts of the Sixties have ever really addressed it, other than to note that it was the common denominator, it really was. There was just a joy for life, a passion for life, a willingness to go into new ground, to not need approval, not need validation - you know, I'm my own person, and yet within it, very much a sense of community that went shore to shore again. And what is that, you know? So it's an intriguing question.