Politics, and an interest in what was happening in the rest of the world, have been a part of my life for a long time. In my Cleveland, Ohio, elementary school, we had air raid drills, in case of “the bomb.” We sat under our desks, covering our heads, or we filed down to the school basement in orderly lines, and in silence. I remember feeling a mixture of curiosity and fear. And I felt fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I was only ten years old, but I was terrified by the possibility of the world coming to an end. I was afraid of Krushchev. I hoped Kennedy would save us, and he did.
It so happened that I was the first person in our junior high school to find out about the Kennedy assassination. I had volunteered, for one of my classes, to go down to the school office to call the city newspaper to find out what year Gabon had gained independence from France (it was 1960). When I called the Cleveland Plain Dealer to ask my question, I heard chaos for a few seconds, people running around and yelling. “The president has been shot,” someone wailed, and hung up. I went back upstairs confused, only to hear it confirmed over the PA system some 20 minutes later. I may have been only eleven years old, but this incident changed my life (and ultimately everyone else’s). I was shaken. I started reading the newspapers in our library and began to closely follow national events.
A few years later, in 1967, Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city, and I worked in his campaign office, painting and putting up signs, and answering the phone. I was only fifteen at the time, but my parents let me take public transportation into the inner city of Cleveland, an area unknown to me previously, and one very different from the quiet East Side suburbs where I had grown up. It was an opportunity to make new, interracial friends and opened my eyes to how other people lived.
High school brought a heightened awareness of the Vietnam War, and I went to protests and demonstrations to voice my outrage at our involvement. We were all very worried about the draft; I remember hoping fervently that my friends and family members would not get low numbers in the draft lottery. After graduation, I had trouble settling on what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to be. I moved many times. I started at the New England Conservatory, in Boston, where I studied music. After a year, I was fed up with the routine as well as with my fellow students. We were expected to do nothing but practice, practice, practice! Nobody read a book, or a newspaper. No one was concerned about what was going on in the world, and these were days in which the news from Vietnam was becoming unavoidable, all of it bad. I felt boxed in, and left school to take a year off to think and regroup.
The following year, I went to Hampshire College, in Amherst, MA, a radical and free-spirited place full of people who were outraged about the state of the world and concurrently devoted to passionately to their studies. After two years there I graduated. Still, I missed music and, having changed instruments, I wanted to study with a well-known teacher and performer. I also wanted to go back to a big city, so I went to New York City, to the Juilliard School, and got my master’s. After that, I spent a year in the city, working for a music publisher (in New Jersey). I was building a musical career, and becoming a quasi-adult. My next move was to Stonington, Connecticut, to take a job at a musical instrument factory, where I met my future husband. In time I became an adjunct professor at a liberal-arts college, where at long last, settled down, spending the next 42 years teaching, performing, and going to political protests. I now live in Maine, teaching music privately.
Everywhere I lived, at every school I attended, I was a non-violent activist. I didn’t make or throw bombs, like some of my old high school friends who had joined SDS, but I protested the Vietnam war, was incensed by Watergate and the corruption in federal and local governments, and advocated for civil rights and women’s rights. I marched and participated in rallies and demonstrations, like the one held on the Boston Common during my early college years, where many participants were milling around and then running in all directions when mounted police were called in to break up the crowd. In fact, a horse carrying one of the policemen stepped on my foot! My left pinky toe was broken, but I was able to limp home! At other times I carried signs, wore incendiary buttons, wrote letters, shouted down pro-war speakers at rallies, and was arrested for civil disobedience at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts for protesting the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. I had been part of a human chain blocking a runway, but the charges were eventually dropped.
I did all of this because I felt I had to speak up, to make myself heard. And in those days my fellow protestors and I were sure that we were being heard, that we had a voice, that someone was listening, and that we could make a difference. I felt strongly that we could change people’s minds, change the way things were, and in the long run I think we did, helping to bring about laws protecting civil rights, and giving rights to women (I have always been a feminist). I think we helped end the Vietnam War and bring about the end of the Nixon presidency. We felt powerful, necessary, and that we had indeed made a difference.
These days, I have found myself wondering if things hadn’t changed. I’ve questioned who, if anyone, was listening, and have sometimes felt that today’s protesters have been rendered helpless and voiceless. This, however, is a short-sighted view. After all, in the days of the 60s and 70s counterculture the virulence of the opposition was just as intense, but the passage of time tends to make us forget the reality of those troubled times. Meanwhile, recent signs of a resurgence of democratic principles are becoming more apparent. Women are suddenly being heard again, not just in street protests, but in Kansas, for example, where they turned out in droves to vote in favor of the right to control their reproductive lives. The Supreme Court decision to deny such rights, overturning 50 years of judicial precedent, has galvanized women all over the country, and amplified their voices, making it plain that the women’s vote will be a major factor in the midterm elections.
At the same time, President Biden, despite scurrilous opposition, has assumed a bolder, more aggressive role in response to the country’s increasing opposition to the rampant corruption of the Trump years. The will of the people is being heard, in the peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protests across the country calling for sensible gun laws. Despite the deliberate noise and distraction of those seeking to escape their own culpability in the coup attempt of January 6, the wheels of justice have hopefully begun to turn in the pending prosecutions of the key players in the conspiracy. We as Americans need to continue to speak out, to stand up for the country’s most sacred principles, as we have done throughout our history. And, above all, we need to exercise our right to vote as the best possible answer to those who have sought to undermine confidence in our electoral system. Only then will we be able to restore the sense of self-assurance I remember taking in the successful protests of the past, the feeling that someone is listening!