After Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963 and the near immediate killing of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, my classmates and I began to take much greater notice of the world around us. Perhaps this was because we were now 16, or perhaps it was the times, but many of us became politically aware for the first time.
Up until now, I had enjoyed folk music, largely consisting of old English and Irish ballads. Now I became aware, first through Baez and Dylan, of the way music could be contemporary social commentary. And that led me to Pete Seeger and his album, pictured above, of freedom songs recorded in June, 1963. I bought this album that winter and listened to it obsessively.
I was introduced to the civil rights movement through music. I didn’t learn about Oregon’s racial history until later in my life, so I focused on the struggle for school integration and voting rights in the southern United States. It was a purposefully nonviolent movement, buoyed by songs, many of which I learned from this album by Pete Seeger and a crew of other singers.
The next year, 1964, Alabama’s governor George Wallace ran for the Democratic nomination for President and visited Portland. I joined many others in picketing the hotel where he was to speak. We waited in vain for his appearance, while he was whisked into the venue through an underground tunnel. He failed to win the nomination, losing to Lyndon Johnson. Protest music about Johnson had yet to be widely sung. That would come in my college years through such bands as “Country Joe and The Fish.” But I was still in high school singing “we shall overcome,” not knowing what we might have to overcome in subsequent political struggles. Our U.S. Senator, Wayne Morse, was one of only two who had the foresight to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August of 1964 which was our entry into the Viet Nam War. I knew nothing about it. That would soon change.