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“Bigger Than Anything We Understood:” Cathy Wilkerson On The Political Culture of SDS

Student radicalism and the New Left contributed to the rise of a “counterculture” during the 1960ís, as millions of Americans questioned traditional forms of monogamy and family, suburban life, materialism, and scientific rationality and emotional repression. Outwardly, this cultural shift was marked by the rise of rock music, the growing use of marijuana and other drugs, and the end of many sexual taboos. For some, like SDS organizer Cathy Wilkerson, drugs represented a distraction from more serious cultural and political questioning and activism. Wilkerson edited the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes, and opened a regional SDS office in Washington, DC in 1968. [The material in brackets was added to the transcript shortly after the recorded interview.]

Listen to Audio:

WILKERSON: What was exciting about SDS was that we didn’t know what it was that we were doing on some level, but we had a handle on the guts of it [the times] and a way to run with it. But there were people who always wanted to be able to name what it was we were doing and by naming it they limited it, because what we were doing was really much bigger than anything we understood. Really what we were doing was a reaction to the fifties and a generation waking up to their [our] relationship to the world and their [our] social responsibility and the discovery, the excitement of the discovery of that [that we could become part of history]. And the kind of recklessness that comes from being a student that allowed us to jump into history, and then once we were part of history allowed us to run with it for a couple of years until it got too big for us. Then our ignorance became our downfall. I think that the reason SDS was able to run with it as long as we were was because there were enough people that didn’t need to name it, that could go with the, just the sense of the movement, to be a part of something and run with what felt right.

I mean SDS was a lunatic organization, especially during that period of ‘67, ’68, I think. Culturally it was, it included all of these different segments. There were wild debates on every subject, and anybody could participate, and we had crazy people in the organization. Everybody was listened to, everybody, because this whole participatory democracy thing was very strong. So in these little chapters and the national office, people would show up from all over the country, you know, serious organizers to some runaways, and everybody would come in and talk politics. It went on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There were these giant cans of peanut butter, you know and gallon jugs of cheap wine and you would talk politics. People were into [listened to] jazz, people who were into acid. Although there were a lot of drugs in parts of the SDS, it was very anti-drugs in the sense of a consciousness that drugs interfered with organizing. I mean there was a real separation. Drugs were seen as a recreational activity, but there was a real anti-drug thing in terms of politics and organizing, from the very beginning. So that was a real contradiction with the Yippies on a fundamental level, the politics around drugs. You know that excitement about politics and the willingness to go anywhere and do anything. People would call up and say there’s a demonstration tomorrow morning. Who ever was there would jump in a car and drive four hundred miles to go to the demonstration all night, and then on the way back you would stop and visit somebody from the old left or somebody from the new left. It was like this tremendous curiosity and excitement and openness about the politics.

Source: Interviewed by Ron Grele 2/17/85
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection