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Some compare today's political divide to the Civil War. But what about the 1960s?


America is polarized over nonexistent election fraud, vaccines, gender politics, how to teach about race, an ex-president - the list goes on. You don't have to go back to the Civil War to find a time when we were such dis-United States. Look to the 1960s - there was political violence, rage in the streets, cultural convulsions. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, it seems we're back there again.


BARRY MCGUIRE: (Singing) Disintegrating. This whole crazy world...

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It was a time of change, of upheaval, of disunion.


MCGUIRE: (Singing) Tell me over and over and over again, my friend, how you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

BURNETT: In the late '60s, America reckoned with the war in Vietnam, racial apartheid in the South, environmental degradation, women's rights and students rights. In 1968, student activists at Columbia University were protesting plans to build a gymnasium in a public park in Harlem that had angered the neighborhood.


MARK RUDD: When we stand up and say the students of Columbia University will not be students in a university that exploits Black people, and we're not going to let anyone turn us around.

BURNETT: That's the voice of Mark Rudd, the 20-year-old leader of the student revolt at Columbia. He would go on to join a left-wing terrorist group called the Weather Underground that bombed banks and government buildings to spark a revolution. Today, he's an old hippie - a retired community college instructor living with his wife and dogs in an adobe house in Albuquerque. Rudd long since renounced political violence, but he sees that it's coming back into fashion.

RUDD: (Reading) Violence is once again threatening our social fabric, this time from the far right.

BURNETT: He's reading from an op-ed he wrote for The New York Times after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

RUDD: (Reading) There's constant talk of civil war. They have grievances, which I don't share, about the slipping away of what they have always seen as their country. Oddly, I get it. Take away the white supremacy and leave the pain, and it's not that different from my friends and me 50 years ago.

BURNETT: Though, the cumulative violence was worse a half century ago, with assassinations and bombings, Rudd says he thinks the divisions in society are worse today.

RUDD: There was one pop culture back then. Now, everything's totally fragmented. Music is fragmented and news is fragmented. So I don't know. I don't know how we're going to heal these divides.


ROBERT SIEGEL: The date - April 23, 1968 - acting dean of Columbia College, Henry S. Coleman, confronts demonstrators in the lobby of Hamilton Hall.

HENRY COLEMAN: Am I to understand, then, that I am not allowed to leave this building?

BURNETT: Chronicling the protests at Columbia University back in '68 was a student radio journalist named Robert Siegel. He would later have a distinguished 41-year career at NPR. Siegel remembers the '60s as a time of hugely rising expectations.

SIEGEL: Whether that was the energy of the Kennedy presidency, the civil rights legislation of the Johnson presidency, the great civil rights march in Washington - in the end, it ended on a very pessimistic note. It ended on the country being very fearful.

BURNETT: Fearful of assassinations, riots and cities ablaze. But Siegel says, at least back then, everyone understood the same zeitgeist. Today, it's all over the map.

SIEGEL: What's true? Whom can you believe? Believe your lying eyes, or you're going to believe some guy on a podcast telling you what he claims to be true. That's very undermining of democracy because people don't have a common basis - a common set of facts and truths from which they can proceed.


RUTH ROSEN: My name is Ruth Rosen. I'm a professor emerita of history at the University of California.

BURNETT: On the West Coast, back in the day, the center of the tempest was the University of California, Berkeley. Rosen was an impassioned grad student and an early activist in the feminist movement. She sits on a bench by a fountain, watching students hurrying past, eyes glued to their smartphones. Fifty-eight years ago, the university was roiled by protests over a ban on campus political activity.

ROSEN: There was a tremendous amount of energy in the antiwar movement and in the free speech movement as well.

BURNETT: She recalls how thousands of students would gather in Sproul Plaza, in front of the administration building, to listen to speakers and sing.


JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome...

ROSEN: And people would speak, and you would look up and see police from the Oakland Sheriffs who would be on top of these buildings with sniper guns. And that was very scary.

BURNETT: Rosen sees a direct throughline.

ROSEN: I would say that the '60s contributed to the incredible divisions, cultural and political, that we now see in our contemporary society. The contribution is enormous.

BURNETT: Consider the big issues they were fighting over then, she says. They remain raw and unresolved today.

ROSEN: If you look at anyone running for political office, they will have to talk about abortion. They will have to talk about climate change. And now we have a whole country that is trying to deal with racial reckoning.

DAN BALZ: Society is at war with itself right now. It is a deep and broad cultural war that's going on.

BURNETT: Dan Balz has been a reporter at The Washington Post for more than four decades.

BALZ: You could argue that, in some ways, what was going on in the '60s was also a cultural war.

BURNETT: In 1968, Balz was a cub reporter for an Illinois newspaper assigned to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When police brutally attacked demonstrators in the park outside the hall, it came to be known as the police riot. Today, he covers the political aftermath of the January 6 MAGA riot at the Capitol. He says both violent outbursts are emblematic of their times.

BALZ: In many ways, you could understand what was happening in the '60s. Depending on how you saw things, you might disagree with it, but you could kind of understand why it was happening. It's harder to understand that today, when you see people believing and accepting things that are just demonstrably not true.

BURNETT: Back then, the combatants, if you will, on both sides knew who they were. Students and counterculture marchers and peaceniks versus sprawling institutions like a university administration, a draft board, the Defense Department. Today, anyone can be on the front lines - a school board member, an election worker, a librarian.

BILL BROYLES: That didn't happen back then. It was more directed at policy and less personal in some ways.

BURNETT: Bill Broyles is a Hollywood screenwriter, author of an acclaimed book about his experience as a junior officer in Vietnam and a lifelong anti-war activist. He recalls a conversation he had with his daughter, who was at college when Donald Trump won the White House in 2016. She had a diverse group of friends - different races, different sexual orientations - and they were all panicked.

BROYLES: I said, well, look, it can't be as bad as the '60s - you know, riots in the streets and with people being assassinated and with the war going on. And I'm not sure I could tell her that now. I feel a potential for violence that I've never felt in my adult lifetime since the '60s.

BURNETT: This climate of seething animosity toward people with different beliefs is creating a sense of deja vu for many people who took part in the civil rights movement. They thought the nation had evolved since those days of marches and lunch counter sit-ins. Valda Harris Montgomery grew up in a prominent family in Alabama that opened its home to civil rights activists in the '60s. Today, she has a sense of dread.

VALDA HARRIS MONTGOMERY: We're so hate-filled that I'm just afraid that there's going to be some type of battle. That's a strong word, and I don't know a softer word.

BURNETT: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, we look at our current state of polarization through the eyes of those who lived through and struggled against segregation. John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.