By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Listening to the political rhetoric of this year and hearing over again that we need to “make America great again” has got me to thinking. How good were the good old days? When was America and our cities great or at least greater than today? We tend to harken back to a time gone by and think nostalgically about those days. The problems never seemed as bad as the current ones. But were they? If we turn back the clock was this country better off 50 years ago than today?
So think back to 1966.
There was a war in South East Asia that would kill American soldiers at a rate of about 100 per week and ultimately spark violent protests in cities and across dozens of college campuses. Segregation was still very much a fact in this country including Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Those of us who grew up in this community in the 1950s and 1960s never saw a black or Hispanic family unless we ventured below 14th Street. And speaking of Stuyvesant Town, there was no air conditioning in the hot summer months when temperatures sweltered into the 90s. But at least we had the fountains in the Oval to cool us, and of course the ever present Sam the ice cream man who stationed his pushcart on 20th Street across from Lenz’s.
We were allowed no dogs to be our wonderful companions, and you walked on the grass at risk of eviction.
This country was in the midst of seeing its leaders murdered. America in 1966 was just three years removed from the assassination of President Kennedy and just two years away from the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcom X had already been murdered. Baptist churches were being incinerated by white supremacists and civil rights demonstrators were being beaten and worse. Schools and public places were still racially separated. Scores of Americans were being killed or injured in the race riots that engulfed many large urban areas. And in just a few more years we would witness the shootings of Governor George Wallace and President Reagan.
John Lennon of Beatles fame would be cut down by a crazed person as well. The Charles Manson cult would soon go Helter Skelter and commit unspeakable atrocities in California.
Closer to home in New York City, in 1966 a newly elected Mayor John Lindsay would face public employee strikes from transit workers and sanitation workers. The New York City Teachers Union would soon shut down schools in two consecutive school years one strike which would last for six weeks.
And for New York baseball fans, it could not have been worse with both the Yankees and Mets finishing at or near the bottom of their League in 1966.
And it would not get better in 1967.
Internationally, the cold war showed no signs of thawing with nuclear arsenals being stockpiled. America watched as the rulers in the Soviet Union still imprisoned much of their population as well as Eastern Europe, and all of East Berlin. Uprisings in African nations and colonies was common place. And a war between India and Pakistan was a constant threat. The anti-Israel forces led by Egyptian President Nasser and other Arab countries were massing troops along their boarders in preparation for a military showdown with Israel.
So, was that the time and world when America was once great? Or was it 50 years earlier when the Ku Klux Klan was running rampant through the South and women were still denied the right to vote. Jobs were denied to blacks, Jews, Irish and Italians? Or maybe it was during the World War II years? It has been said of those men and women that they were the Greatest Generation, and for good reason. They sacrificed much for the common good and bravely fought a war against fascism and the evil Axis. But the living was hard and luxuries nonexistent for most. Our military was segregated and American citizens of Japanese descent were being forced into internment camps out of fear that they could be spies or saboteurs in league with Japan after having attacked Pearl Harbor. That paranoia gave way to the post World War II fear of Communism and the ugly blacklisting of American citizens who were charged with being un-American by Joseph McCarthy and others.
So I ask again… Just when was America better than it is today? Would we trade places with any previous generation of Americans? There will always be those who will peddle fear of the present and recall the good old days when all was (supposedly) well. But America has always been imperfect, a work in progress. The real question is do we wish to look forward, building on our experiences both good and bad, or do we wish to look backwards with blinders and rose colored glasses to a time gone by that was not all that great after all?