Reading Radically: A Reading List of the 1960s and 70s Protest Movements to Understand Activism Today

On April 23, 1968, protesting Columbia University students took over Hamilton Hall, and over the next few days, occupied three more Columbia buildings and the President’s office. At issue were Columbia’s connection to the Vietnam War (through its affiliation with a weapons research think tank) and the construction of a new gym, which students argued would be functionally segregated on account of its two separate entrances: one for the largely black neighborhood community, and the other for the largely white student body.

The issues being protested were serious, but there was, by many accounts, a sense of exuberance and optimism to the protest. Two students got married inside an occupied (or “liberated,” in protest parlance) building by a chaplain who climbed in through a window. Others devised ways to send buckets of sandwiches on pullies to the students inside. There was agitprop theater and lots of singing.

In researching my new novel, Last House, which is set, in part, in this time and place and follows the journey of one young activist, I was struck by these protesters’ sense of passion and also agency. They seemed to see America as a still-malleable construct, a country whose history their actions had the power to shape.

Through the character of Katherine Taylor, writer for a radical underground paper, I wanted to write about this. And I wanted to explore the radicalization that occurred in some corners of the movement as this sense of agency diminished. As the 60s turned into the ’70s and the Vietnam War dragged on abroad, and racism and injustice persisted at home, frustration mounted.

There was disagreement in the movement about how best to persist: with the same largely peaceful protests of the 60s or with newer more aggressive tactics?

Out of this debate, small, radical splinter groups like The Weathermen formed; in one eighteen-month period from 1971 to ’72 almost twenty-five hundred bombs on American soil in acts of domestic terrorism. (The vast majority of these caused no human injury.) I wanted to consider how and why some people turned to violence, and how and why so many others—the vast majority, in fact—did not.

Last House follows the Taylor family over the last seventy-five plus years, beginning with a Greatest Generation couple, Nick and Bet, a WWII veteran turned oil company lawyer and his wife, and ending in the present. Nick and Bet’s children, who narrate the second half of the book, become enmeshed in the radical left at the end of the ’60s.

In my research, the following books were immensely helpful to me.


Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman - Wilkerson, Cathy

Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

On March 6, 1970, a bomb went off in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse killing three members of the Weather Underground. Two others, including Wilkerson, emerged from the house only to disappear. The bomb, as it turned out, was being built by the group to detonate at a soldiers’ dance at Fort Dix. Had it not exploded early, there would have been even more casualties.

Wilkerson spends the rest of her life—and much of her memoir—reckoning with this. The memoir charts her journey from naïve, middle-class girl, outraged by civilian casualties in Vietnam and civil rights abuses at home, to hardened revolutionary.

Strawberry Statement - Kunen, James Simon

James Kunen, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary

This is a funny, disarmingly written first person diary of the Columbia Student protests of 1968 written by then 19-year-old Kunen, who was a student at the time. “Who We Are” is the title of one section of his introduction.”We’re unhappy because of the war, and because of poverty and the hopelessness of politics, but also because we sometimes get put down by girls, or boys, as the case may be, or feel lonely and alone and lost,” he offers as part of his answer.

This is the endearing combination of conviction and thoughtful, self-deprecating sensibility that shapes the narrative.

A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story - Brown, Elaine

Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story

This memoir by the former Black Panther Party Chairwoman, sometimes lover of Huey Newton, associate of Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, and other famous personalities, gives an amazingly vivid account of what it was like to be inside the struggle of the Panthers, from the FBI assassination of Fred Hampton in 1969 to the successful campaign of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first black mayor.

It’s also a powerful story of coming of age poor, black, and female in a world largely dominated by men.

Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press

This is kind of a zany book about the history of the underground press during the 60s and early 70s. From The Rat to The Berkeley Barb and The Black Panther, Peck takes readers inside the counterculture papers that proliferated during this time, their wild headlines (“Heil Columbia” reads the cover of The Rat May 3-16, 1968) and grand manifestos, their arguments, their experiments, and their parties.

He also explores the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) as it honed in on the New Left and underground magazines like Ramparts, which were working to expose its operations. This was of particular interest to me for the plot of Last House.

1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies - Vinen, Richard

Richard Vinen, 1968: Radical Protest and its Enemies

Vinen puts the American protest movement of 1968 into a global context. This was the same year ten million French workers went on strike and Czechs took to the streets to demand democracy, only to have the Soviet tanks roll in. Vinen offers a counterpoint to the many memoirs and oral histories of the era (like the ones I’ve just sited), which he points out allow the primary actors of the protest movement tell their own story.

This is a dryer, more academic work than many of the other books listed here, but I liked having it in the mix.

Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul - Bingham, Clara

Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resistors, Vets, Hippies, and the Year that America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul

I absolutely love a good oral history and this one is both evocative and accessible. Bingham conducted a hundred interviews with people, from Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn (one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted People from 1970-73) to FBI agent Bill Dyson, to various less-well-known student draft resistors, police officers, and protest organizers across the country.

The interviews are broken up and organized into overlapping thematic and chronological categories (“Resistors,” “Moratorium,” “Kent State” for example) which builds a layered narrative of the major events of the era through multiple points of view. The resulting work feels like eves-dropping on a number of interesting, self-reflective conversations.

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the Fbi, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence - Burrough, Bryan

Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence

Burrough writes about the many bombs smuggled into police stations, government buildings, and restaurants (which he calls, at one point, “exploding press releases”), the politically motivated bank robberies, and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, among other largely-forgotten acts of homegrown terrorism in the 1970s. The book has the propulsive immediacy of a thriller, and offers a vivid chronical of the radicalization and evolution of various individuals.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale - Conrad, Joseph

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

OK so this book is obviously not about the protest movement of the late 60s and early ’70s (it was published in 1907). But it is one of my all-time favorite novels, and turns on a politically motivated bombing that could have come out of the Weathermen’s playbook.

Conrad’s exploration of terrorism and anarchism, the morality of violence and the exploitation of “useful idiots” (in today’s terms) feels highly relevant to the period I was writing about. And the tragic relationship between Winnie Verloc and her brother Stevie was, in some obscure and mostly subliminal way, an inspiration for the relationship between Katherine and her brother Harry in Last House.


Last House - Shattuck, Jessica

Last House by Jessica Shattuck is available via William Morrow.

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