A culture of resistance also needs the ability to think long-term. One study of student activists from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement interviewed participants five years after their sit-in. Many of them felt that the movement—and hence political action—was unsuccessful.54 Five years? Try five generations. Movements for serious social change take a long time. But a youth movement will be forever delinked from generations.
Contrast the (mostly white) ex-protestors’ attitude with the history of the Pullman porters, the black men who worked as sleeping car attendants on the railroad. The porters were both the generational and political link between slavery and the civil rights movement, accumulating income, self-respect, and the political experience they would need to wage the protracted struggle to end segregation. The very first Pullman porters were in fact formerly enslaved men. George Pullman hired them because they were people who, tragically, could act subserviently enough to make the white passengers happy. (When Pullman tried hiring black college kids from the North for summer jobs as porters, the results were often disastrous.) Yet the jobs offered two things in exchange for the subservience: economic stability (despite the gruesomely long hours) and a broadening outlook. Writes historian Larry Tye:
The importance of education was drilled into porters on the sleepers, where they got an up-close look at America’s elite that few black men were afforded, helping demystify the white race at the same time it made its advantages seem even more unfair and enticing. That was why they worked so hard for tips, took on second jobs at home, and bore the indignities of the race-conscious sleeping cars.… It was an accepted wisdom that they turned out more college graduates than anyone else. And those kids, whether or not they made lists of the most famous, grew up believing they could do anything. The result … was that Pullman porters helped give birth to the African-American professional classes.55
The porters knew that in their own lives they would only get so far. But their children were raised to carry the struggle forward. The list of black luminaries with Pullman porters in their families is impressive, from John O’Bryant (San Francisco’s first black mayor) to Florynce Kennedy to Justice Thurgood Marshall. Civil rights lawyer Elaine Jones, whose father worked as a porter to put his three kids through prestigious universities, has this to say: “All he expected in return was that we had a duty to succeed and give back. Dad said, ‘I’m doing this so they can change things.’ He won through us.”56
One reason the civil rights struggle was successful was that there was a strong linkage between the generations, an unbroken line of determination, character, and courage, that kept the movement pushing onward as it accumulated political wisdom.
The gift of youth is its idealism and courage. That courage may veer into the foolhardy due to the young brain’s inability to foresee consequences, but the courage of the young has been a prime force in social movements across history. For instance, Sylvia Pankhurst describes what happened when the suffragist Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embraced arson as a tactic:
In July 1912, secret arson began to be organized under the direction of Christabel Pankhurst. When the policy was fully under way, certain officials of the Union were given, as their main work, the task of advising incendiaries, and arranging for the supply of such inflammable material, house-breaking tools, and other matters as they might require. A certain exceedingly feminine-looking young lady was strolling about London, meeting militants in all sorts of public and unexpected places to arrange for perilous expeditions. Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building—all the better if it were the residence of a notability—or a church, or other place of historic interest.57 (emphasis added)
Add to this that they performed these activities—including scaling buildings, climbing hedges, and running from the police—while wearing corsets and encumbered by pounds of skirting. It’s overwhelmingly the young who are willing and able to undertake these kinds of physical risks.
A great example of a working relationship between youth and elders is portrayed in the film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.58 The movie documents the Oka crisis (mentioned in Chapter 6), in which Mohawk people protected their burial ground from being turned into a golf course. The conflict escalated as the defenders barricaded roads and the local police were replaced by the army. Alanis Obomsawin was behind the barricades, so her film is not a fictional replay, but actual footage of the events. Of note here is the number of times she captured the elders—with their fully functioning prefrontal cortexes—stepping between the youth and trouble, telling them to calm down and back away. Without the warriors, the blockade never would have happened; without the elders, it’s likely there would have been a massacre.
Youth’s moral fervor and intolerance of hypocrisy often results in either/or thinking and drawing too many lines in the sand, but serious movements need the steady supply of idealism that the young provide. The psychological task of middle age is to remember that idealism helps protect against the rough wear of disappointment. Adulthood also brings responsibilities that the young can’t always understand. Having children, for instance, will put serious constraints on activism. Aging parents who need care and support cannot be abandoned. And then there’s the activist’s own basic survival needs, the demands of shelter, food, health care. The older people need the young to bring idealism and courage to the movement.
The women’s suffrage movement started with a generation of women who asked nicely. In an age when women had no right to ask for anything, they did the best they could. The struggle, like that of the Pullman porters and the succeeding civil rights movement, was handed down to the next generation. Emmeline Pankhurst recalls a childhood of fund raisers to help newly freed blacks in the US, attending her first women’s suffrage meeting at age fourteen, and bedtime stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote,
Those men and women are fortunate who are born at a time when a great struggle for human freedom is in progress. It is an added good fortune to have parents who take a personal part in the great movements of their time.… Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words “slavery” and “emancipation.”59
Emmeline married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, who drafted the first women’s suffrage bill and the Married Women’s Property Act, which, when it passed in 1882, gave women control over their own wages and property. Up until then, women did not even own the clothes on their backs—men did. (The next time you buy your own shirt with your own money, remember to thank all Pankhursts great and small.) Emmeline and Richard’s daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, were the third generation of Pankhursts born to be activists. It was in large part the infusion of their youthful idealism and courage that fueled the battle for women’s suffrage. Emmeline wrote,
All their lives they had been interested in women’s suffrage. Christabel and Sylvia, as little girls, had cried to be taken to meetings. They had helped in our drawing-room meetings in every way that children can help. As they grew older we used to talk together about the suffrage, and I was sometimes rather frightened by their youthful confidence in the prospect, which they considered certain, of the success of the movement. One day Christabel startled me with the remark: “How long you women have been trying for the vote. For my part, I mean to get it.”
Was there, I reflected, any difference between trying for the vote and getting it? There is an old French proverb, “If youth could know; if age could do.” It occurred to me that if the older suffrage workers could in some way join hands with the young, unwearied, and resourceful suffragists, the movement might wake up to new life and new possibilities. After that I and my daughters together sought a way to bring about that union of young and old which would find new methods, blaze new trails.60
Emmeline raised her girls in a serious culture of resistance. As a strategist, she wisely understood that the moment was ripe for the young to push the movement on to new tactics. Thus was formed the WSPU. “We resolved to … be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. ‘Deeds, not Words’ was to be our permanent motto.”61 Those deeds would run to harassing government officials, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and arson. They would also be successful.
The transition from one generation to the next, and an increase in confrontational tactics, is rarely smooth. The older activists may try to obstruct the young. It often splits movements. When the WSPU embraced more militance, women who had been crucial to its founding had to leave the organization. Wrote Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence,
Mrs. Pankhurst met us with the announcement that she and Christabel had determined on a new kind of campaign. Henceforward she said there was to be a widespread attack upon public and private property, secretly carried out by Suffragettes who would not offer themselves for arrest, but wherever possible would make good their escape. As our minds had been moving in quite another direction, this project came as a shock to us both. We considered it sheer madness … Although we had been at one with Mrs. Pankhurst in her objective of women’s political emancipation, and for six years had pursued the same path, there had always been an underlying difference between us that had not come into the open, mainly because of the close union of mind and purpose … we found ourselves for the first time in something that resembled a family quarrel.62
These are painful moments inside organizations and across movements. But it is more or less inevitable. The overall pattern is one we should be aware of so we can work with it rather than struggling against it. This transition is likely to be linked with the ethical issues around nonviolence. As with those disagreements, we have to find a way to build a serious movement despite our differences.
Building radical movements has been harder since the creation of a youth culture. Breaking the natural bonds (could there be a deeper bond than the cross generational one between mother and child?) between young and old means that the political wisdom never accumulates. It also means that the young are never socialized into a true culture of resistance. The values of a youth culture—an adolescent stance rejecting all constraints—prevent both the “culture” and the “resistance” from really developing. No culture can exist without community norms based on responsibility to each other and some accepted ways to enforce those norms. And the “resistance” will never amount to more than a few smashed windows, the low-hanging tactical fruit for an adolescent strategy of emotional intensity.
Currently there are young people emboldened by a desperate fearlessness, ready to take up militance. I get notes from them all the time; each one both revives and drains my hope. Because, though they burn for action, they have no guidance and no support. This is the deep irony of history: the countercultures of the Romantics, the Wandervogel, the hippies—created by youth—have stranded our young.