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Students for a Democratic Society and Atlanta's Fat Cats

On October 7, 1969, Atlanta held mayoral elections.  The candidates were Rodney Cook, a moderate Republican, and Sam Massell.  The only black man who entered the races, Horace Tate, did not stand for election during the primaries. Massell was elected Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor, and Maynard Jackson became vice mayor (four years later in 1973 Jackson would become the city’s first African American mayor).  

In this WSB clip, on the eve of the 1969 election, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members hold a press conference to denounce candidates for what they viewed as unfair participation in the democratic process.  Their comments focus on Cook, whom they accuse of raising funds from white business owners.  “Elections don’t serve the people, they serve the rich,” says the SDS spokesperson, “The only choices you have are the people that the fat cats put up.”

Wearing a button depicting a raised fist, and speaking with confidence, the SDS spokesperson evokes the militant rhetoric of such organizations as the Black Panther Party.  Originating on the west coast, SDS expanded across the nation’s colleges and universities to include over one thousand members. Its influence peaked around 1969 when this video was shot.  Like many other protest organizations of the 1960s, SDS members began with a primarily nonviolent focus but soon became jaded about this strategy and frustrated with the slow pace of change.  The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, the influence of the wealthy on national politics, racism, and socio-economic disparities were all issues that concerned SDS.

Yet SDS members were largely products of the Establishment they claimed to protest.  They were mostly white, middle-to-upper-class college students.  Bernadine Dohrn1, a lawyer, and Bill Ayers2, her husband, were both leaders of SDS who broke off from the organization in the 1970s to form a militant faction called the Weather Underground.  When they turned themselves in to authorities in 1979, though they had been featured on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for bombing the Pentagon and the Capitol building, all of the charges against them were dropped. They continued in the 1990s to pursue very successful careers. 

The ultimate collapse of SDS and the nation’s subsequent forgetfulness of it may represent the commoditization of dissent in recent American history: how American liberalism, while seeming to act against capitalism, ultimately perpetuates capitalism. Integration has, since 1969, been labeled by many people as a success in Atlanta. While SDS did not survive, its spirit, arguably, has been successful to the extent that the project of integration continues in America.  Its influence can also be seen today in Atlanta’s racial and ethnic diversity.  

1. A former leader of the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn (b. 1942) is Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and is the Founder and Director of Northwestern's Children and Family Justice Center.

2. A former member of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers (b. 1944) is a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.    He and Dorhn raised two children while in hiding.  

Discussion Questions

1) What is Marxism? How did this theory influence the SDS members?

2) Why do you think SDS collapsed in the late 1970s? Do you think that student organizations still play influential roles in American society? Can you provide examples from outside the United States of the prominence or impact of student organizations?

3) How did the image and rhetoric of the Black Panthers influence the white student members of the SDS? Do you think that the white students were justified in their imitation of Panther style?

Take it to the Streets!

In American popular music, white artists such as the rapper Eminem (Marshall Mathers) and the singer Elvis Aaron Presley have been criticized for copying the lyrical and gestural styles of African American artists.  However, both of these singers grew up in multicultural environments (Detroit, Michigan, and Tupelo, Mississippi) alongside African Americans, Native Americans, and/or Latinos. So, how do we determine who has a legitimate claim to forms of American music?  Is the question of legitimacy or authenticity even relevant? Choose one of the musical forms in the list below, and research its history, including its appearance in literature, film, and other popular media.  Then write a brief essay about whether the form you have selected is multicultural or monocultural.

Jazz    Country-Western   Punk  Rythm and Blues (R&B)  Swing  Rai  Go-Go   

Blues    Bhangra    Reggae    Salsa   Hip-Hop   Filmi Music (Bollywood Films)

Writers: Mark Anderson, Lee Fletchall, Sarah Hong, Chris Houck, and Erik  Smallwood in Professor Barbara McCaskill's AFAM/ENGL 3230 class (Survey of African American Literature) at The University of Georgia, Spring 2007.        

Editors and Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill     

Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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