I first became aware of Quakers back in the 1960’s when I was trying to escape the military and the Vietnam War. However, as a pathologically shy and extremely serious student at UT Austin, I avoided Friends, Students for a Democratic Society, and Hippies. Now, in my old age, trying—I guess—to expiate my guilt at not having risked anything in that conflict, I’m writing a short history of the Counterculture at UT. I’m still not an activist in the sense of chaining myself to fences at nuclear sites, but I hope my writing will be a kind of vicarious activism that serves some larger purpose. As T.S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I vaguely recall walking on the UT Mall, seeing Gentle Thursday activities, and thinking that it was all a waste of time. The words below—as well as my belated participation in the Society of Friends—are an effort to come to terms with a less-than-courageous past.
These days students walk on pebbled concrete as they hurry to class along the West Mall, but in 1966 the Mall consisted of grassy rectangles bordered by sidewalks. Students were forced to press together four or five at a time to stay on the sidewalks and avoid stepping on the grass. Clearly today’s paved West Mall is an improvement from a practical point of view; and yet there’s something to be said for grass.
On November 3, 1966, students were able to sit and even dance on the grass. A time traveler to UT on that day would have seen college kids picnicking on the Mall and sharing sandwiches, cigarettes, and conversation. Children played on the lawn while balloons bounced along the ground. Amateur artists with colored chalk drew flowers and a Mickey Mouse face on the limestone buildings and their identifying signs. Slogans like “Kiss Someone” and “Why Love?” were chalked onto signposts. “Love was the universal thought of the day, with guitar music and poetry reading in the background. Bubbles filled the air, dogs slept, and the tower chimes gently moved the afternoon on.”
It was the very first Gentle Thursday. The day had been planned by members of the Students for a Democratic Society. In an SDS meeting at the beginning of the Fall Semester, Jeff Nightbyrd proposed the event after reflecting on German revolutionaries who wouldn’t walk on the grass. Although blowing soap bubbles and playing with balloons seems innocent enough, these and other fun activities were a veiled criticism of the University community, whose administrators were serious people dedicated to making UT “a university of the first class.” According to Nightbyrd, “The idea of Gentle Thursday was to create a counter-mentality manifested in action. We didn’t just think the revolution—we lived it.”
Nightbyrd’s counter-mentality consisted of two quite different philosophies, one held by “peace-and-love hippies,” the other espoused by more conventional political radicals. For the radicals, a better world could only come through political action and unremitting hard work. For the hippies, the new world came first. Just live by spiritual values, by love and togetherness, by truthfulness and simplicity. When enough people had embraced this way of life, this culture, this “consciousness,” then—and only then—would power politics complete a revolutionary transformation of the whole society.
Gentle Thursday with its music and childhood games was a symbolic preview of New Age consciousness, certainly with elements of political confrontation. The very fact that SDS planned or sponsored four of five Gentle Thursdays alarmed UT administrators, who saw SDS as a threat to the social order. Drawing chalk peace signs was a challenge to U.S. policy in Vietnam, if not the government itself.
But the peace sign was also used by hippies as a symbol for a life at peace with nature and other human beings—a life lived outside the competitive American rat race. One purpose of a UT education is to prepare students for victory in that very competition. Thus, UT officials also disliked the hippie elements of Gentle Thursday. Balloons and soap bubbles recall the innocence of childhood that many hippies idealized and that savvy college students were supposed to have long outgrown. And so, the five Gentle Thursdays at UT became annual struggles between American capitalism and countercultural values.
Locked wheels scraped on gravel shoulder
and skidded to a sudden stop.
Clouds of dust billowed all around,
and a hard rebound of door on leg
tore flapping trousers--
no protection for a tender shin.
The man’s wife followed as best she could,
her skirt a concave sail,
her arms an awkward cradle
that almost dropped the babe within.
Golden fields of wheat rose and fell in the wind
and sometimes flattened before a sudden gale.
A broom of rain swept ever nearer,
and lightning danced to thunderous applause.
A thin black funnel hung in distant view
and puffed from whirlwind tip
a cloud of dust and dark debris.
Man and wife stood transfixed,
awed by the tempest’s power.
The child squirmed and kicked,
but somehow slept in weathered arms.
Squashed flat to earth like a punctured ball,
the sun spread laggard rays beneath the storm.
In this last light the infant’s hair flamed radiant white,
angelic halo in the gathering night.
Man and wife = The Founders
Tornado = Donald Trump
Child = Joe Biden
(other, more spiritual interpretations are possible)
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