The Golden Age of May 1970

Phil Allen
Thursday May 14, 2020 - 11:07:00 AM

Another bright May, always a dependable blessing. Under the sun and with the time to do it, I am musing on bygone days..

It seems like only yesterday. In rainy autumn of ’64, I was a high-school sophomore who’d read the accounts of the burgeoning Free Speech Movement—before the name was coined—in the Chronicle I threw each dawn. Gratis the UC administration.

It seems like only yesterday, long before lower back pain made my first dozen steps out of bed taken carefully. In the smoky May of ’69 and now a sophomore in a nearby college I drove up to Berkeley to witness the wake of the establishment of People’s Park, and to march on Memorial Day with over 30, 000 others in protest of war in Southeast Asia and the death and blinding of two young observers by police on Telegraph Avenue. Gratis the UC planners.

2014 and 2019 saw the respective golden anniversaries of both seminal events, with activities well attended by veterans of both causes. They knew one another, some convening for signal observances all along, and many of the non-attending public had heard of a few by name. I declined to join the schmoozing, however, as I’d had no direct connection with either nor a desire to be an envious wallflower.

It seems like only yesterday, during the few weeks of another sunny May, in 1970, fifty years ago, that the last of Cal and Berkeley’s Sixties turmoils played out; by fall term, the cushion of summer months dissipated a lot of physicality in protest, as it became clear that Nixon & Co. were unmoved by demonstrations opposing the on-going Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia and the half-dozen student killings by armed authorities on two campuses, except as expletives. The drama I was now a part of as a transfer student did not include the several sieges of window smashing on campus by crowds of unknown origin. It did include campaign work for our earliest radicalized political candidates, and the election of Ron Dellums to Congress and Ken Meade to the Assembly. (Alas, George Brown lost his primary bid for the Senate to John Tunney, one of a string of dimwits California has sent to that august body.) But this time, UC came through. 

As one of over 500 ‘reconstituted’ colleges nationwide, Cal was deemed effectively closed by if you will common fiat, but unlike today’s necessary ‘We Mean It’ strictures, her borders were quite permeable. As an art major, I not only attended classes given by department greats Karl Kasten and David Simpson (and the irrepressible anthropologist Andre Simic), I participated in the most tangible result of that long-ago island month: the creation of a body of anti-war posters that stand alone in the history of the form and the annals of collegiate agitation. Daily Cal Arts Editor Sherrie Rabinowitz noted in the May 13 edition, “The posters pouring forth from the CED and the Art Department are marked by an immediacy and power unprecedented in the political movements of the Bay Area.” 

Setting up in Kroeber (partly) and Wurster (mostly) Halls just after the Kent State killings on May 4, with the tacit approval of the Art and CED faculties, an amorphous group of students and community artists drew on other recent poster influences— those of the Bay Area’s music and rock-ballroom scene, of the ’68 Paris demonstrations, and the overnight wall plasterings of Mao’s young Red Guards—to spontaneously silkscreen a colorful, hortatory and remarkably pacific collective body which disinvited violent calls but encouraged both committed activity and introspection. Children, mothers, rice-paddy farmers, and flowers were as prominent as flags, bombs and clenched fists. Many were run off on frail end-hole computer paper; mine were ‘screened on the back of Print Mint calendar boards. A few transcendent examples have tagged along the many subsequent eras and moments since. 

Collections of these gems reside in The Bancroft Library and at the Univ. of Washington. At the time, visiting rhetoric professor Thomas Benson collected what became Penn State’s trove; his appraisal is found in Posters For Peace.Visual Rhetoric and Civic Action (PSU Press; 2015). 

But darn, once again there is no anniversary gathering to attend! The artists whose work is now displayed in the Berkeley Art Museum as this year’s ‘Art for Human Rights’ series event, worked anonymously; I have never met up with a single one, nor have any announced themselves to the community lately. Furthermore, from 1970-2 many grads were denied the rite of cap-and-gown commencement due to possible insurrection in the Greek Theater and so moved into the larger world as if from an academic aerosol. The closest thing to a collective name or identity was the so-called registration number—4973—demanded by some authority to allow, well, posting. And, although it runs until July 20, the exhibit is understandably closed as well! 

Posters are run off today mostly as souvenir promotions and collectibles, as the need to publicize a ‘rally’ or a position has been inherited by non-paper means which have the added advantage of instant update. But have they met true extinction? Is there any message that has lent itself to posting, almost to the exclusion of other forms of announcement? One does come to mind. Created in Chicago but modified in Berkeley, it is displayed in windows all over town.  

All three golden observances have invited reflection on times when the world was simpler and easier to deal with, for we—planet, populations, country—were not remotely at the precipice at which we now stand. Beyond the hugs and memories, they have also obliged that ancient cry, ‘What next for us to do?..’