Inside the Student Movement in the Sixties: An Interview with Renowned Seattle Municipal Leader and Author Nick Licata on His New Memoir
tags: education,1960s,SDS,student activism,Students For a Democratic Society
Nick Licata, former Seattle City Council President and Author
Education at every level must allow students to openly express their opinions on taking responsibility for becoming citizens in our nation. Only when an engaged citizenry makes the government accountable to all without bias or perpetuating privileges can a democracy survive. That challenge is as real today as it was in the sixties.
Nick Licata, Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties
The nineteen sixties in America: a time of turbulence, activism, protest, and rapid change. Citizens came out of the seemingly quiescent fifties and woke to stark examples of corruption, inequality, and injustice. Many came to advocate for civil rights or women's liberation or environmental preservation or resist US militarism as a dubious and bloody war flared in Southeast Asia.
And students on campuses across the country also cried out for their rights as they challenged archaic policies and rules and fought for democratic processes and inclusion in decisions that affected their lives. The student power movement charted a new course for accomplishing change and provided a template for action. And students today overwhelmingly believe that they can change the direction of our troubled nation.
In his riveting new memoir, Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), acclaimed municipal leader and author, Nick Licata, chronicles his experience as an undergraduate student activist and leader in the sixties at the Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which he describes as "one of the most conservative public universities outside the Deep South."
With lively prose and humor, Mr. Licata takes the reader into his college experience with the student movement at Bowling Green, from his wide-eyed first year of acclimation to his embrace of "participatory democracy" as proposed by the Students for a Democratic Society. He led a chapter of the SDS by his second year, an unlikely progressive organization at his hidebound college. Licata became a campus leader determined to help students challenge restrictive school policies from dress codes to curfew hours to beer and even sex. He also illuminated discrimination and injustice on campus. And students at this conservative college responded to his activism. They elected him student body president in his senior year—a tribute to his astute activism and his understanding of how to advance social change with an inclusive, enlightened student movement.
In his book, Mr. Licata shows how a 99-percent white student body from working-class and middle-class families spoke out and accomplished lasting change. Among other things, Mr. Licata's efforts helped end discriminatory university practices affecting minority and women students. Beyond that, he showed how his fellow students could each become active citizens in a democracy.
Students and other readers are sure to find inspiration and wisdom relevant to today's struggle for a more just, healthy, and peaceful world from Mr. Licata's words, experience, and unfailing optimism for the future of democracy.
Mr. Licata is an acclaimed progressive grassroots leader and an accomplished local official. He served as a Seattle City Council member for 18 years, eventually becoming Council President. During his tenure, he was named Progressive Municipal Official of the Year by The Nation magazine, and the Seattle Weekly named him Best Local Politician. He wrote or supported legislation for the $15-dollar minimum wage, paid sick leave, housing for the homeless, immigrant rights, environmental protection, arts and culture, and police accountability, among other issues. Eric Liu, author and founder/ CEO of Citizen University, has described Mr. Licata as "a rare combination of things: a thinker who knows grassroots activism, an idealist who can pragmatically wield power, and a politician who knows how to change culture."
Mr. Licata earned a MA degree in Sociology from the University of Washington and has been a Guest Lecturer at many universities. He also was the founding Board Chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,000 urban elected officials, and served on the board of National Municipal Democratic Officials. His publications include his previous book that encourages civic engagement, Becoming a Citizen Activist, which won the Gold Medal for Social Activism. He also writes his newsletter Citizenship Politics, covering political and social issues, with 10,000 national subscribers and more than 70 percent teaching political science or sociology in 262 universities and colleges in all 50 states. He also wrote Princess Bianca and the Vandals, a children's book dealing with environmental issues.
Mr. Licata generously responded to a series of email questions about his new memoir.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations, Mr. Licata, on your fascinating new memoir Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. What sparked your book now, more than a half-century since the events you describe?
Nick Licata: Releasing the book was unplanned. I had written it about eight years ago and had only shared it with a handful of friends since then. One of them passed it onto his publisher in England that specialized in academic books. They read it and were excited to publish it. They recognized that the current student movement is like the mobilization in the sixties and, therefore, would be an informative textbook for today's students.
Robin Lindley: How did you research this very personal account of your life in college? The details you recall are fascinating.
Nick Licata: I had saved a massive number of issues of my college's student newspaper along with alternative newspapers and the national paper for Students for a Democratic Society, New Left Notes. They all contained articles covering the day's social conflicts and political events. It was a dormant pile of papers until I stumbled across it and started reading them. I realized that they provided an inside narrative on the emergence and growth of student activism on my campus and other university campuses through the last half of the sixties' decade. I then interviewed former students and dug through the university's archives of internal memos among the administrators.
Robin Lindley: A remarkable project. Your book focuses on the student power movement of the 1960s through your experience. What was the student power movement?
Nick Licata: The student power movement began with the Free Speech Movement (FSM) on the Berkeley University of California campus in the fall of 1964. There were sit-ins in response to the administration banning organizing and soliciting funds for off-campus political action groups. Police subsequently arrested 773 students, and a student strike shut down the campus for five days.
The core movement philosophy was that students, and workers by extension, should have some say over the governance of the places where they studied and worked. That belief spread across the nation's universities resulting in student organizing for institutional changes on and off-campus for a decade.
Robin Lindley: You detail your undergraduate odyssey at Ohio's Bowling Green State University from a quiet first-year student to student body president your senior year. When you were a small boy, did you see yourself as a future activist and political leader?
Nick Licata: Not at all. I just wanted to go to college. I didn't have any ambition other than to learn about the world outside of my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
Robin Lindley: You overcame many obstacles to achieve academically and get to college. Readers may be surprised that you were failing in early elementary school because of dyslexia. How did that condition affect you, and how was it treated in the 1950s?
Nick Licata: Dyslexia was not a commonly recognized affliction, so anyone who exhibited its characteristics was assumed just to be a "slow learner." I couldn't read until the fourth grade. I had the fear that I'd never be able to graduate from high school. Neither of my parents did, so I knew that was a real possibility. Going to college was like a utopia that seemed unreachable. But by my senior year, I got barely above average grades and was admitted into a public university.
Robin Lindley: When we spoke a few years back about your previous book, Becoming a Citizen Activist, you mentioned that a nun at an elementary school you attended failed to intercede when you told her about a bully abusing another student. Was that the origin of your belief in questioning authority?
Nick Licata: It was probably more motivated by self-preservation. There was a game called "pile-on." Essentially a roving band of hyperactive boys would swarm through the playground and spot some weakling or fat kid or someone that stood out. There were no minorities, so that wasn't a factor. Then they would pile onto the kid. I figured I would probably end up looking up from the bottom of a pile. So I felt there had to be some way to avoid such a fate.
Hey, it was a Catholic school; the nuns were in charge. So, I approached one and suggested she do her job and get some control over the playground. She looked around, shrugged, turned to me, said, "Good luck," and walked off. That's when I figured out that authority had to be achieved by uniting the weaker ones to form a group for protection.
Robin Lindley: It seems you've always exhibited a concern for others, a willingness to question the status quo, and a sense of fairness. What was the origin of those values for you?
Nick Licata: I think the above story best illustrates how I've come to see that through unity, there is strength; without an agreement, there is chaos. Suppose the status quo doesn't allow for fairness in how we should all be treated, then by necessity, that status quo must be challenged and changed. And a united front is the best chance of achieving that change.
Robin Lindley: Were you involved in activism or student politics before college? It seems you were almost apolitical when you entered college at Bowling Green in 1965.
Nick Licata: I wasn't political in the sense of joining student government in high school. But I had started organizing back in junior high. So I formed different clubs: an astronomer's club, a coin collectors club, and finally, a small, printed paper that didn't last long.
Robin Lindley: How did your parents influence your decision to attend college? You note that they were not college-educated.
Nick Licata: Both saw college as a ticket to getting a better job. They didn't have the slightest idea of what was taught at a college. But they firmly believed that if I could get in, I would try my hardest to graduate. And then I could have a good-paying job.
Robin Lindley: You stress that Bowling Green was extremely conservative when you attended and that there were virtually no minority students. You also write that segregationist George Wallace and Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell attracted more interest than moderate voices. How did you cope?
Nick Licata: I was familiar with conservative politics because the anger of feeling ignored and disrespected was what I experienced in my youth. My parents and neighbors usually voted for Democrats, but they were very socially conservative. They were afraid of how other ethnic groups, which they thought of as races, were getting favors from the government while they weren't. When I went to college, I saw how many of the students came from similar social-economic backgrounds as mine. So, I was very familiar with that political point of view.
Robin Lindley: How did you learn about Students for a Democratic Society, and why did this organization appeal to you as a young college student? Many now recall SDS as extremely radical and associated with bomb-makers and loud revolutionaries.
Nick Licata: The image of SDS as a radical, disruptive movement was stamped in the public's mind because of widely covered events like the students taking over Columbia University in New York City.
SDS began as a very democratic organization that rejected ideology and violence. Its main philosophical underpinning was "participatory democracy," which was a term that became popular in the early sixties. Students were attracted to it because it offered an opportunity to influence their lives. It motivated students to challenge and demand changes at universities in their curriculums and eliminate many restrictive social rules.
Robin Lindley: And how did you become a Bowling Green SDS chapter leader at this conservative college?
Nick Licata: I became the leader of the Bowling Green State University SDS chapter mainly because I had perfect attendance at our meetings, and the other prominent leaders had been arrested or feared being arrested. But to be fair, we did rotate being the president of the chapter regularly. In addition, we practiced participatory democracy, and as such, we shared decision-making as much as reasonably possible within the organization.
Robin Lindley: Didn't you face tremendous opposition from the administration and fellow students?
Nick Licata: Before forming our SDS chapter, the most radical organization on campus was the Young Democrats, an official part of the Democratic Party. No independent Black, gay, or women organizations were represented on campus. So, we were the first one depicting a national organization that espoused fundamental change in government. Given that message, we were accused of being communist sympathizers by some students, faculty, and administrators, and a considerable debate started as to whether we should be allowed to exist. Finally, one professor gladly stepped forward to be our sponsor, and SDS was not on the US Attorney General's list of subversive organizations, so we were sanctioned.
Robin Lindley: Who were some of your political allies as you led the SDS chapter? You've been recognized for your collaborative style as a local leader in Seattle.
Nick Licata: Most anyone could become an ally if they felt something was in their effort. Conservative students were as bored with classes as liberal students were. So, we talked about changing the content of courses. All students were opposed to the extreme social restrictions, and they united in changing them. Many conservative students became more open to national issues by working together to understand how people wanted more freedom.
Robin Lindley: How did you see the growing counterculture and the seeming embrace of free love, drugs, rock, and roll? A time of many temptations, as I recall.
Nick Licata: The counterculture was an explosion that shocked the very foundations of a stolid status quo that was no longer relevant to most students' lives. For instance, it required women to wear a dress or skirt to eat dinner in the cafeteria. The counterculture press offered multi-colored covers that often presented sexually liberating imagery out of character from any other publication with wide circulation. The music was as liberating as the imagery. Sometimes, the open-air gatherings were nothing more than gathering folks together to play games and have picnics, even without a band playing.
Robin Lindley: In the rapidly changing world of the sixties, you led efforts to assure student rights to free speech, beer, sex, and other issues. What do you see as some of your successes?
Nick Licata: We opened the dorms to allow both men and women to visit each other. We helped introduce new programs, like Black Studies and Women Studies. We got speakers on campus that talked about the outside world that was not just a promotion of a business-dominated one. We got birth control information freely distributed where it had previously been banned.
Robin Lindley: Those were sweeping changes. You noted too that the campus newspaper was helpful in your efforts to speak truth to power, to officials such as the administration and college trustees. How did you see the role of the free press during college?
Nick Licata: It was critical. Without a newspaper willing to print something that covered national social justice movements and our foreign wars, students would have been ignorant of them or just would have received one-sided views.
Robin Lindley: And the press remains critical. You write that the SDS did not focus on the issues of student rights. What happened?
Nick Licata: SDS initially did address the issues of student rights; it was one of the primary reasons it became the largest student organization in the nation. But other events that were more important in the national arena, like civil rights, stopping the Vietnam War, and protecting worker rights, eventually overshadowed the more prosaic issue of student rights on campuses. But that was fine because the students began to think of themselves as citizens of a larger national community.
Robin Lindley: You vividly describe how the war in Vietnam affected students when you were in college. How did opinions evolve as the war widened?
Nick Licata: Initially, pretty much all the students were supportive of the war. It seemed like we were doing a good thing stopping the communists from taking over a poor little country. But as the war continued, students, like many adults, began to question why are we there? The difference between the good guys and the bad guys was blurring. And then it was announced that college students would be drafted to fight in the jungles after they finished their four years or if they dropped out. So, as a result, while our campus remained still overall supportive, other campuses saw resistance to the war grow.
Robin Lindley: You were very aware of racism and unequal treatment in college. How was it that a Black Student Union formed at your conservative, more than 99 percent white college? Did you have a role in recognizing the BSU?
Nick Licata: Bowling Green's BSU was formed about the same time as ones were created at other college campuses. On our campus, it was a local effort, although the national fight for civil rights and Black identity were the movements that prompted local organizing. Our campus held its first Black Cultural Week in 1968. Some hostility from white students met it, but most students were either oblivious to it or curious. I persuaded the student council to amend our rules to seat two Black students immediately on the council. That generated a lot of very racist propaganda from disgruntled white students. But no violence resulted.
Robin Lindley: It's hard to believe now, but when you started college at Bowling Green, women students had a much more restrictive code of conduct than men. What were some of the rules that bound women students, and were those sexist strictures eliminated by the time you graduated in 1969?
Nick Licata: The rules were so restrictive that even though BGSU was a public institution, its social rules would have mirrored a strict Christian college's. Women had to return to their dorms by 11 pm on weekdays and one or two hours later on weekends, or they could be suspended. I knew of one or two who were. Men, of course, had no hour restrictions. Women also had a dress code, and men did not. There was a department of Home Economics, which I think was about being a good housewife. By my senior year, it was transformed into a general economics department.
Robin Lindley: What tactics successfully challenged the college's rather hidebound administration and board of trustees?
Nick Licata: The tactic was to appeal to students' most immediate and basic needs if they did not infringe on the rights of others. In taking that approach, our SDS chapter became a champion of all students, not just the bohemians and hippies.
Robin Lindley: As a vocal SDS leader, it seemed unlikely that you'd be elected student body president at Bowling Green. But you won. How did that happen? What were some of your achievements as president?
Nick Licata: I won because, as an activist, I promoted legislation in the student council, even though I did not have any elected position. I also wrote a column in the student newspaper about campus and national issues. And I frequently gave talks in the dorms about the politics of running a university that must involve student participation. I was openly and vocally opposed to the Vietnam War, but it wasn't the central theme of my campaign.
I was surprised that I won; so was the president of the university, who couldn't believe it. I just seemed to have tapped into a sense of needing change, and given my record, I'd be a good person to lead what had been a somewhat dormant student council.
One of my achievements was writing a Bill of Student Rights, which the student council endorsed overwhelmingly. I also supported efforts to start a Black Studies Program, offering birth control information on campus and having a counselor available on being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Robin Lindley: Your book concludes with your summer of 1969 trip to the Woodstock Rock Festival just a few weeks after your graduation from college. What did you learn from that experience? You're notoriously optimistic. Did Woodstock contribute to that attitude?
Nick Licata: Woodstock was a fantastic event, not just for the phenomenal artists who appeared there but also for the overall spirit of community that enveloped the gathering. For three days, people were spontaneous helping each other. Over 500,000 kids lived on the grounds in rudimentary tents, some even in cars. I did part of the time. Amazingly for the entire time, I never saw a police officer. Nobody was searching for alcohol or drugs. It was probably the largest peaceful concert gathering with a political message to have ever occurred in the US.
Robin Lindley: How would you summarize the legacy of the sixties' student power or student rights movement?
Nick Licata: It altered the minds not only of the participants but of those who just stood were watching. It allowed everyone to think about what they needed from the "system." It led them to ask questions that they might not ever have asked. They began challenging the immediate university educational environment. Still, their energy burst across the nation within a few years, linking to the already existing civil rights movement. Students moved on to fuel the movements pushing for recognizing the rights of all minorities, women, and gays. It also opened opportunities to live within intentional communities by encouraging communal living.
Robin Lindley: You are a champion of democracy and building coalitions through compromise. Now it seems that we have two parties: the Democratic Party and the Anti-democratic Party. Democracy in the US seems imperiled. How can we save democracy? Where do you find hope?
Nick Licata: Democracies throughout history have been limited to an upper class of property owners. America began that way and was that way for the first hundred years. Our democracy was a unique experiment. It was conducted by the largest populated country ever to have gone down that path. Now we just need to stay on that path because democracy is fragile. It can crumble.
My goal is to spread the understanding of what it means to be a citizen by preserving individual rights while protecting the broader community's welfare. Unfortunately, ignorance of the need to balance those objectives feeds the fear of the unknown and dependence on simple solutions that usually weaken, not strengthen, a nation.
Robin Lindley: How did the lessons you brought from the sixties inform your work as one of the most admired local politicians in Seattle history?
Nick Licata: It taught me not to be afraid of failure. Funny, I supported so many lost causes during my five city council terms that I dubbed myself the saint of lost causes. But in those efforts, strangely, I grew more optimistic. I survived. Life did not end. There was always another day. And if you enjoy the game of life, making the most of it not only for yourself but for all that you encounter, then you are indeed not only pursuing happiness but appreciating the time you can spend doing so.
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you'd like to add for readers about your new book or your concerns today?
Nick Licata: I often end my letters with "Ever Onward," which is my version of "Further," the nominal name of Ken Kesey's 1964 psychedelic hippie bus, which drove across the nation, being the freeway that led from the corporate world to counterculture world. Enjoy the trip. Don't grind your teeth. Keep your eyes open for something different. Learn from looking back but keep moving forward.
Robin Lindley: Thank you, Mr. Licata, for your insights and comments. And congratulations on your new book, Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. Your book sparked many memories for me, and I think young and old alike will appreciate your observations. Best wishes on the book and your continuing work.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin's email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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