Recently I watched a PBS documentary on Daniel Ellsberg and his seemingly suicidal attempt to make the government accountable during the tumultuous sixties. For reference: Daniel Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers – which exposed massive governmental misconduct all the way up to the Presidency – to the New York Times. It was sort of the opening act to Watergate. I lived through that whole thing but it was instructive to review the events again through both the prism of time and the presumably dispassionate eyes of someone who wasn’t there.
I was struck by how very serious the charges against Ellsberg were – adding up to a prison sentence of over 100 years. I must have known this at the time, but I don’t remember thinking it was a such big deal to go to jail. Everybody was going off to jail in those days. The list is long, and many of them became famous for their civil disobedience if they weren’t already famous to begin with. Dick Gregory practically made a career of going to jail, and when that became stale, he proceeded on to hunger strikes. These people became our heroes: Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Harry Belafonte, newsman Dan Rather, who was assaulted while reporting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and TV anchorman John Chancellor as he was hustled off the convention floor: (“This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody”).
It was mostly about Viet Nam, of course, but there were other issues as well: the Women’s Movement, racial equality, government corruption and subsequent coverups. It too, is a long list.
Protest marches, sit-downs, sit-ins, were a way of life. For good or ill, we were used to seeing demonstrators and bystanders alike being clubbed, beaten, sprayed with mace, and shoved into paddy wagons on national televison.
Taking a stand was not considered fool-hardy but patriotic and very, very necessary. We should have all been doing it. But of course, we weren’t. Those who did were brave then, and still are in retrospect.
The case against Daniel Ellsberg and his co-conspirator, Anthony Russo, was eventually dismissed but – and this was new to me – he never stopped agitating against government corruption, and according to the documentary, is still at it.
It left me feeling a little like I did a couple of years ago when I was touring the new Holocaust Museum in Philadelphia with a friend. There was a temporary exhibit and film about the Freedom Fighters – college kids from the North (mostly white) – who climbed aboard Greyhound or Trailway Buses and headed South to provide support and whatever aid they could to young people (mostly black) protesting the racial inequality then rampant in the region. It was dangerous. Those kids were putting their lives on the line and some of them died. One entire bus was set on fire. I had often thought about joining them – but I didn’t.
My friend did. I had never known that about her before. I talked the talk, but she actually walked the walk. I was awed. And not a little chagrined. Of all the regrets I have about my life, that is probably the most important that I would change if I could. But I can’t.
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Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in th