By Michael Kenney
February 5, 2008
Ravens in the Storm:
A Personal History of
the 1960s Anti-War Movement
By Carl Oglesby
Scribner, 336 pp., $25
SDS - Students for a Democratic Society - was written off, a victim
of changing political times and its own self-destruction, a generation ago.
There was the Vietnam War, which radicalized its mission from
community organizing to antiwar militancy. Then there was its
tendency for internal feuding. And finally, as if some punctuation
was needed, there were the robberies and the bombings.
But from a graveyard of failed hopes and crushed dreams, SDS appears
to have been quietly reborn - pulled together at a national
convention in Detroit last summer.
And coincident with that revival comes "Ravens in the Storm," a
measured account of its rise and fall by Carl Oglesby, one of its
Oglesby, married and a technical writer at a defense contractor, did
not fit the profile of a '60s student radical when he connected with
the SDS chapter in Ann Arbor, Mich., in December 1964.
It is an indication of just how fast events were moving that at the
SDS's national convention, just six months after that first contact,
Oglesby was elected its president. And, to jump ahead, he was voted
out of the leadership in March 1969, his proposal to recruit students
to cut sugar cane in Cuba having been dismissed by the militant
leader Bernadine Dohrn as "recruiting for the Peace Corps."
In between, Oglesby was a participant in those SDS-organized events
that seemed to signal to its members, at least, that a revolution was
in the making - the trips to Vietnam, the antiwar marches on
Washington, and the stormy protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
And, after several weeks at a crash pad in Cambridgeport, Oglesby was
at the demonstration against the bombing of Cambodia that, harried by
mounted police, swept along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and
Central squares on April 30, 1970.
He recalls how a female comrade "gracefully stepped through the
broken window" of the Design Research store to loot a crystal
wineglass from an elegant table setting. " 'There!' she said proudly,
holding up the glass to be admired. 'We've looted!' "
Oglesby's insider accounts are valuable for understanding how the
revolution seemed to be happening, and how it all ended. As he
writes, "SDS had three enemies" - the Marxist Progressive Labor
faction, the FBI, and SDS itself - "and the most dangerous of these
enemies was SDS."
Oglesby now lives in Amherst, and "Ravens in the Storm" - the image
is from Noah's Flood - is at heart a personal memoir.
It was clearly his then-wife, Beth, who was the catalyst for Oglesby
to "turn around" from his comfortable middle-class professional life.
As he was debating whether to leave his defense contractor job, he
writes, he found that "she was even more strongly for it than I was."
As he recalls her saying, "I don't think we can take care of [the
three children] the way we want to if we don't do this."
Two other recent books are also of interest for readers who would
turn back the clock to the heady days of rallies and marches, or to
young people curious about just what their parents (or grandparents)
were up to.
"Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History" by Harvey
Pekar and Gary Dumm is a punchy history in comic-book style. Of
particular interest are the personal, we-were-there accounts, which
range from forays into Kentucky coal-mining towns to an all-women
sit-in at a Texas draft board.
As a member of the underground Weathermen, Cathy Wilkerson was one of
the movement's self-destructors, escaping from the blast that
demolished the "bomb-factory" in the basement of her parents'
Greenwich Village townhouse in March 1970.
As Wilkerson puts it bluntly, her memoir, "Flying Close to the Sun,"
"is an investigation of how my friends and I came to be there at that
moment and what I believed we were trying to do."
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.