For those unaware, or for whom memories have faded, the 1960s were perhaps our most turbulent era since the Revolutionary War. The political and social changes that resulted came at a great cost. JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X were assassinated; Vietnam tore the country apart; unarmed college students at Kent State were gunned down. There were church bombings, fire hose attacks, lynchings and brutal murders of blacks and whites.

The ‘60s extended far beyond civil rights. The feminist, Chicano and Native American movements galvanized their constituencies. The anti-war advocates had universities all across the country under siege. Many innocent people didn’t survive. Reading Tom Hayden’s latest work, “The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama,” it’s a wonder how the nation did.

Bill Clinton observed that those who thought that the ‘60s created more good than harm were likely to become Democrats. And those who felt the opposite were likely to be Republicans. Either way, the period is so relevant to understanding today’s struggles.

It is difficult to imagine anyone more qualified than Hayden to document the era. Remarkably, he was present at so many crucial moments, I’ve joked that he’s reminiscent of the character Zelig in Woody Allen’s 1983 movie of the same name.

Hayden authored the Port Huron Statement, long considered the founding document of the ‘60s movement. He was also one of the defendants in the infamous Chicago 8 trial. (Chicago 7 when Bobby Seale’s case was separated.) In 1972, all of the convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Among Hayden’s many insights is that Barack Obama’s election would not have been possible without the ‘60s. Obama was conceived because of changing mores on interracial marriage; was electable because of the civil rights movement and voting rights laws; and was successful because of a new social movement that applied participatory democracy online and door to door.

Hayden’s meticulously researched history includes the many, often forgotten achievements and is valuable for activists, journalists and historians. Reading the 50-page timeline is an eye-opening experience.

On an almost daily basis, there were huge, dramatic events of major social and political significance. (Protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, many citizens immolated themselves.) Today “major events” are more likely to be about Paris Hilton’s lack of underwear or the “balloon boy,” reported on TMZ or in the National Enquirer.

There are also touching moments in Hayden’s book as when he describes visiting Vietnam after a 40-year absence. Remarkably, many of the innocent Vietnamese he met were still alive, greeted him warmly and vice-versa.

Whether one agrees with Hayden’s politics or not, any reader of this book will better understand the era that left a critical imprint on America. A century after the Civil War, the ‘60s saw the passage of civil rights laws, the birth of the environmental movement and forced open the political process to women and minorities.

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