NEW YORK (AP) - Carl Oglesby, a dynamic activist in the 1960s who headed the campus organization Students for a Democratic Society and gave an influential and frequently quoted speech denouncing the Vietnam War and those who broke his “American heart,” has died at age 76.
Oglesby died Tuesday at his home in Montclair, N.J. Todd Gitlin, a friend and fellow activist who went on to write several books, said Oglesby had been fighting lung cancer that spread throughout his body.
Born in 1935 and an undergraduate at Kent State University, Oglesby was years older than Gitlin and other ‘60s student radicals he befriended and was living a more conventional life at the time he met them. He was married, with three children, and was working for a defense contractor. But while studying part time at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, he was so disgusted by the Vietnam War and so taken with the then-emerging Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the society with him, that he soon became its president and most memorable orator.
“The only other person who compared to him was Martin Luther King,” Gitlin says. “He had the mastery of vivid phrases and also the power of mobilizing people.”
The SDS had been founded in 1960 at the University of Michigan, and its early declaration, the Port Huron Statement, helped embody the idealism of the early ‘60s. The SDS supported civil rights and opposed the nuclear arms race. It was strongly critical of the U.S. government and called for greater efforts to fight poverty and big business. By the mid-‘60s, when Oglesby joined, the United States had committed ground troops to Vietnam and the SDS had expanded nationwide, with a more radical purpose, one well captured by its new president.
The earnest and bespectacled Oglesby helped organize teach-ins and rallies, and his stature peaked in November 1965 at an early, and massive, anti-war rally in Washington. In an address titled “Let Us Shape the Future,” Oglesby spoke as a disillusioned patriot and liberal who rejected not just the war, which liberals had escalated, but much of American foreign policy since the end of World War II and the free enterprise system he believed demanded endless conflict. He was equally critical of Republican and Democratic presidents as victims, and enablers, of the corporate state and insisted the country’s founders would have been on his side.
“Our dead revolutionaries would soon wonder why their country was fighting against what appeared to be a revolution,” he declared to ever growing applause
In his most memorable phrase, he challenged those who called him anti-American: “I say, don’t blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart.”
Activist and fellow SDS leader Tom Hayden called Oglesby a “radical individualist” in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. He remembered Oglesby as a “brainy,” self-taught man whose research into the Cold War and national security had convinced him that Communism was not the enemy and that change in the United States would have to reach far beyond getting out of Vietnam.
“He used to think you could argue with Pentagon intellectuals like (Secretary of Defense) Robert McNamara and get them to change their minds,” Hayden told The Associated Press. “But he later decided there would have to be a fundamental power shift.”
Gitlin noted that part of Oglesby’s appeal was his own story, one millions of people could relate to. He wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer or angry rich kid. He grew up working class, from the Midwest, in Akron, Ohio, and had far more experience than his fellow activists. He had given up a safe, comfortable life, much to his father’s anger, to change the world. He also knew how to communicate, having briefly tried a career in New York in his 20s as an actor and playwright and attempting to write a novel.
But the ‘60s proved an unfulfilled dream from which he never recovered, Gitlin says. By the end of the decade, King and Robert F. Kennedy had been killed, the Vietnam War was still on and Oglesby was being thrown out of the organization he helped grow. Violent activists such as the Weathermen dismissed Oglesby as a “hopeless bourgeois liberal.” Oglesby labeled the Weathermen’s politics as “road rage and comic book Marxism.”
“He suffered greatly from that, maybe more than anyone else of the older crown, from being targeted by the Weathermen as a bad guy,” Gitlin said. “He used to say that the Weathermen were like the children of his generation, dismantling what had been achieved.”
In recent years, Oglesby became obsessed with the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He wrote the books “Who Killed JFK?” and “The JFK Assassination” and contributed an afterword to Jim Garrison’s “On the Trail of the Assassins.” In 2008, his memoir “Ravens in the Storm” was published. He recorded music and taught at Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also was featured in the 1991 television documentary “Making Sense of the Sixties,” which he didn’t know how to do.
“We had an experience, which I suppose is unique in American history and which nobody who ever went through it will ever forget, an experience filled with treasured moments and nightmares alike,” he said during the documentary. “The ‘60s will never level out. It’s a corkscrew. It’s a tailspin. It’s a joy ride on a rollercoaster. It’s a never-ending mystery.”