As the new century begins, America belongs to them. And you thought Y2K was frightening!
Up to now most of the speculation about this generational gettin’ here has focused on what these folks will do in Washington where, despite boomer-Bush's "over-the-hill-gang" cabinet appointments, his contemporaries dominate the second-tier offices (where the real work is done).
But don’t just sit there all smug, thinking that this is a federal problem. Boomers have also arrived in Alabama, and we should be concerned about them as well.
Take note. We have a Governor born in 1946, first year of the boom. Ditto for the Speaker of the House. And our Lieutenant Governor was delivered in 1949.
Get the picture?
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Of the 100 Alabama representatives whose dates-of-birth I could pin down, 49 of them are “boomers.” If you add to the list those members born since 1940 (who some folks consider part of the same generation), both houses of our legislature will be “boomer” controlled.
Chew on that for a while.
So what can we expect from this anxiously awaited generation? Chaos and confusion, conflict without resolution, social degeneracy, and moral decay, if you are to believe conservative talk-show hosts who blame everything from school violence to traffic congestion on boomer counter-culture and its “if it feels good, do it” philosophy.
And now the boomers are in charge. Can the Apocalypse be far behind?
Not necessarily. At least not in Alabama.
Often lost in all this decrying is the fact that there is another side to the baby boomer generation. It has been said that “if you remember the ‘60s you weren’t there,” but the truth is that most of this state's boomers do remember. Their recollections are clear because they did not “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Instead they went to class, worked hard (or hard enough), and stayed out of trouble (or at least did not get caught). What sex there was was pretty traditional, beer was the drug of choice, and rock ‘n roll had a country beat. Though pictures in their yearbooks might show longer hair, an occasional beard, and some funky clothes, these were not political statements.
Think back. Remember all those anti-war protests on Alabama campuses? No? Well that's because there weren’t many, and the few there were were poorly attended and of little consequence. Did the Berkley "Free Speech Movement" inspire our students? Not hardly. Did they rally on "Earth Day"? Sign petitions to legalize marijuana? Get real.
On most of our campuses, Young Americans for Freedom (the bassinet for baby Republicans) was the largest political organization. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, remember them) hardly existed. Same for Yuppies and Black Panthers.
What people recall about those days is how little impact these movements had. Instead everyone seemed to go about what they had always gone about. The great events, the aggressive organizations, the attitude-changing, mind-altering, politically passionate movements that churned up the air on other campuses, hardly touched them at all. With one exception.
Though at times we forget it, or ignore it, or minimize it, our boomers came of age during a social revolution more far-reaching in its impact than any of the teach-ins, be-ins, sit-ins or love-ins of the era. They went to elementary school, high school, and college in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and were on the front lines when those schools finally integrated.
Understand that, and you begin to understand the burden of history that so many of our legislators carry to Montgomery.
Here's what happened.
The oldest legislative boomers - those born between 1945 and 1950 - were among the last Alabamians to attend segregated public schools. When they finally sat in class with students of another race, they were in college. Integration was just one more new experience among many. And looking at the universities they attended, there was a good chance that they even made it through college segregated. Unless they happened to live in a town where there were protests and in some way or other got caught up in them, the "Movement" was a TV event. And even in those towns, most Alabamians (black and white) went about their daily routine, as they would have if history were not being made just down the street. This is not to say they weren’t aware, or affected, just that they weren’t directly involved.
Boomers born after 1950 are another matter.
Though they began in segregated schools, by the time they were in their teens it was apparent that integration was going to happen. And if they were born after 1955, it happened to them. They were the shock troops of desegregation. If they were black, they saw “their” high schools disappear, their traditions dismantled or turned over to the junior high or elementary school students who took over their building. Then they were moved to white high schools, where students whose world was also collapsing saw them as invaders. Today, when students are faced with a crisis a car accident that claims a fellow student, a suicide, or some other tragedy counselors seem to descend on them, ready to help them through. Back then students had to get by with a few friendly teachers who were probably as confused as they were.
So what did they do?
Although some white boomers left the public schools, most of our legislators did not. They stuck it out. And with their black counterparts they got a solid education despite all the turmoil. Then they went into the world to make their mark. But they were affected.
They had to be.
For some it was a miserable experience and it left them questioning just how far government could (and should) go in using public institutions like schools to address historic inequities. For others it was a great adventure, a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves. They came from it convinced that government could (and should) actively address societies’ ills, and that the schools were the best place to begin.
In the next few years the impact that this era had on our legislators will be felt by all of us.
Watch them. See what they want our schools to do. Take note of the reforms they advocate and the financial support they are willing to give to bring these changes about. Pay attention to their priorities.
History was real to this generation. It happened to them. Soon we will see what difference it made.
Hardy Jackson is head of the department of History and Foreign Languages at Jacksonville State University. He is currently working on a popular history of the state entitled "Inside Alabama." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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