What happened to the activist solidarity of the 1960s?

A 2010 Minneaplis protest against Arizona's law SB 1070. Photo by Fibonacci Blue (Creative Commons).

I always love getting email from Peter Rachleff, my friend and mentor who has recently begun contributing to the Daily Planet. At the end of each e-mail, he writes, “solidarity”—which I’ve always enjoyed, though I would never feel comfortable writing myself. It makes sense that he uses the term as a historian of labor, immigrant, and African-American history, as it clearly has historic meaning both within the labor movement and also amongst various civil rights and other activist struggles over the years.

I’ve been thinking about the term even more in the past few weeks as I’ve been doing interviews prompted, in part, by Rachleff’s suggestion. It started when I wrote two articles around the same time a few months ago about conflicts that were happening in the local Liberian community as well as the local Eritrean community, where the politics of refugees' home countries were the cause of conflicts here in the Twin Cities. Rachleff has given me suggestions for a couple of other people to talk to whose work has crossed over from “old country” to “new country” and how that plays out in different ways.

So far I’ve interviewed Teresa Ortiz, who was involved in the student protests in Mexico City in 1968, and has spent a lifetime of activist work both in the Central America and in the United States; as well as Mike Whelan, a fourth-generation Irish immigrant and Vietnam veteran who was very involved in united Ireland struggles. Both of those pieces are coming, but in the meantime, I’m struck by one thing that has come out of those conversations as well as other interviews I’ve done with various activists who were around during the 1960s and 70s, and that is, there seemed to be more of a sense of people fighting different struggles working together than perhaps there is today. 

I remember interviewing Ricardo Levins-Morales (another Daily Planet contributor) a few years ago, and he talked a lot about how people working with feminist causes would help out with the Black Panthers, and how various groups in civil rights, labor, and anti-war movements would all have a sense of working toward similar goals. Others whom I interviewed for my research project about Minnesota theater in the 1960s and 70s also talked about the collaboration among causes but also among artists working in different mediums.

Of course I wasn’t alive during that period, and perhaps I have an idealized version in my head of what it was like, but the more I talk to people who were there, the more I believe there really was more of a sense of unity amongst members of different movements than perhaps there is today. I’m not sure why that is, but I wish that there was more of that today—where people advocating for the arts, for example, would also lend their support toward anti-racism initiatives, where activists fighting for LGBT, labor, civil rights, housing rights, immigrant rights, etc., could have more of a sense of collaboration. I’m not saying it’s not happening at all right now, but I have a feeling it’s not as much as it once was. Perhaps some of you who were around in the 1960s and 70s could weigh in on my theory; if you agree that there is less “solidarity,” why do you think that is?

  • In the 1970s, a politically savvy and hard working neighborhood organization, the Seward West Project Area Committee (PAC), out-maneuvered the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s renewal plan to demolish approximately 70% of a 35 block area neighborhood in South Minneapolis. Demolition would have included all of the houses on Milwaukee Avenue, a half-hidden, very narrow two block-long street, flanked by small brick houses, many with look-alike gingerbread porches. Milwaukee Avenue’s similarity of forms, the narrowness of the street with its 1,400 foot length, provide a distinct beginning, middle and end, evoking a sense of intimate and human scale quite different from the surrounding neighborhood. Built in the 1880s, many of these houses were the first homes in Minneapolis for immigrant families of Northern European workers who labored in the nearby Milwaukee Railroad yards and industrial shops. Jeri Reilly and I were staff workers for PAC. Our research led to Milwaukee Avenue’s historic district designation for its role in immigrant housing and its importance as unorthodox residential architectural environment. We then began the urban design process for Milwaukee Avenue. I led the architectural drawings process for the walkway and related open spaces, restoration of its houses, and new compatible infill structures within its four block area. Eventually, PAC’s rehabilitation-oriented program preserved the neighborhood’s traditional character, accomplishing basic governmental objectives of attractive and affordable housing, desired by young upward households, with many of the houses rehabilitated by the homeowners’ own hands. Bob Roscoe - by Bob Roscoe on Sun, 09/15/2013 - 9:33pm
  • Where there was much cooperation between various antii-establishment groups in the 70s (too young to know about the 60s), there was also a lot of strife between groups. Annie Young I think could talk about the "Coop Wars." In the case Bob mentions below, there was some significant support to demolishing "the blighted part of Seward" from some people in eastern Seward. The anti-war movement had more factions than could be counted. One case of cooperation was that representatives from just about all Minneapolis neighborhoods were involved in an effort (including legal action) to get Minneapolis to spend more of it's federal "Community Development Block Grant" funds on housing. This cooperation included Phillips, Near North, Seward, Powderhorn, Central, Willard, Wittier and the n'hoods around the chain of lakes. I think it is always mixed. People just tend to remember the good parts. - by Sheldon Mains on Mon, 09/16/2013 - 1:18pm
  • I think red-baiting has been used as a tactic to break up the solidarity of many groups - the labor movement (which highlighted the concept of Solidarity in Ralph Chapin's song from the turn of the last century, Solidarity Forever) in both the 19-teens and the 1950s. I saw this as well when 'mainstream Left' groups would turn their back on their more radical fellow-Lefties. The Right uses the hard right to push the conversation to the right; the liberal/establishment Left, under pressure from the right, denies and undercuts the radical right (or at least they have, off and on, as long as I've been active, from the 80s to today.) In the Unify University campaign, we talk about racial solidarity being necessary for the east end of University Avenue. It's certainly an explicit goal and value of ours. I am seeing more reference to the term (our usage, as well as a lot of the Wisconsin Uprising against Walker's over-reaching) in public and I think that's an indication that it's on the upswing. - by John Slade on Sun, 09/29/2013 - 8:20pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.