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What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

Edward P. Morgan analyzes the effect mass media has had on public perception of social movements in the 1960s.

The following is an excerpt from What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy by Edward P. Morgan ( University Press of Kansas).

The Past as Prologue: Distorted History— Declining Democracy

History always constitutes the relation between a present and a past. Consequently fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past....If we “saw” the...past, we would situate ourselves in history. When we are prevented from seeing it, we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us. —John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1977

With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. For every imbecility presented by the spectacle, there are only the media’s professionals to give an answer. —Guy De Bord, Comments on the Society of Spectacle, 1988

The democratic that the people are capable of and ought to be making their own history....The reason that democracy persists as an ideal at all is that people at times have transcended their everyday lives in order to make history. —Richard Flacks, Making History , 1988

Forty years after the tumultuous year of 1968 ushered in an era of political backlash and market liberalization, Americans turned out in record numbers and elected Barack Obama as the first African American president. At the precise moment the national networks could officially declare Obama the winner, NBC anchor Brian Williams observed, “We have news. There will be young children in the White House for the first time since the Kennedy generation. An African American has broken the barrier as old as the republic; an astonishing candidate, an astonishing campaign. A seismic shift in American politics.” As Williams continued, viewers watched campaign supporters’ jubilant celebration in, of all places, Chicago’s Grant Park, where forty years earlier a phalanx of Chicago policemen, with billy clubs flailing, charged into a crowd of antiwar protesters in one of the sixties era’s pivotal events.

While the multiracial and multigenerational Obama crowd celebrated, tears streaming down the faces of young African American women, NBC asked for the thoughts of Congressman John Lewis, a former civil rights activist. Lewis’s words were poignant: “Well, I must tell you, this is unreal, it’s unbelievable. But I tell you, the struggle, the suffering, the pain and everything that we tried to do to create a more perfect union, it was worth it.” Recalling that Martin Luther King Jr. “had tears coming down his face” when President Lyndon Johnson concluded his historic introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with the movement’s credo, “We shall overcome,” Lewis continued, “I think about Robert Kennedy and the countless individuals that stood in those unmovable lines in Selma. I think about those three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, two whites from New York and an African American from Mississippi who was beaten, shot and killed. So some people gave their very life and some of us gave a little blood to make tonight possible. It is a night of gratitude. I tell you, I feel more than lucky, but I feel very blessed to live to see this day.”

Greeting his supporters a short while later, President-elect Obama used words that recalled King’s final public address the night before he was killed in April 1968: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even in one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”

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