Nick Licata retired from the Seattle City Council in 2015 after 18 years of service. In his new memoir, “Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties,” Licata tells the story of how he initially became politically active during college at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), a conservative school in north central Ohio. He was there during the tumultuous second half of the 1960s, when baby boomers were first becoming young adults, the Vietnam War was raging and a new student power movement was born.
When Licata entered BGSU, he was quite conservative, but he soon discovered a small bohemian crowd at the school. It was this crowd that inspired Licata to become politically active, but he was never a revolutionary. Rather, his big issue was much tamer: letting students have a say in the school rules that impacted them. Gradually, Licata became a campus leader advocating for student’s rights, expanding student powers and exposing wasteful administration spending. He constantly sought methods to motivate other students toward political activism and participatory democracy.
Licata describes the student power movement as giving him “a sense of hope that marked the sixties and shaped [his] life,” and that it left “a legacy that permanently improved our society.” In the 1960s, students began to question historical norms and believe they “could make a difference on campus and across the country.” They began to demand societal changes. Licata describes the ’60s counterculture in extensive detail, including its “underlying belief in humankind’s ultimate goodness.”
Licata joined the group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national organization that pushed for change, and helped form a chapter at BGSU. SDS organized rallies and marches to end the war in Vietnam, leading local governments to fear SDS, considering them radical. Licata became president of his school’s chapter in his junior year. As membership grew across the nation, SDS became more extreme. Although Licata opposed this extremism, he describes how SDS became synonymous with students rioting. Internal friction led to SDS dissolving by the end of the decade.
Licata’s prime focus during this time was on student government, and he writes that his aim was for students to “develop the skills to be thoughtful citizens both on and off campus.” He continuously worked to promote free speech and freedom of assembly. In his senior year, Licata ran for student body president as an outsider and surprisingly won. As president, he contributed to a new students’ bill of rights, as well as other advancements for students. A budding activist, Licata learned many political insights that would help him throughout his long political career.
It’s fitting that the book is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in that, although a quick and enjoyable memoir, it also serves as a textbook for aspiring future politicians. Licata’s insights are too numerous to list here, but include many simple concepts for political success. These alone are worth the read.
Licata’s book delves into many of the hot-button topics of the ’60s, with the war in Vietnam arguably at the top of the list. Licata describes how opposition to the war increased during his college years and how students, directly impacted due to the military draft, led the opposition.
Licata also describes how the issues of race and racism gained attention and how Black students slowly began to reshape the university. This shift was an example of what Licata was advocating, displaying “how students could reshape their political environment if they were willing to rise to the challenge.” Protests gradually led to ethnic studies courses being offered at universities around the country.
The issue of women’s rights also became a hot topic. Historically, female students endured far more restrictive rules than males. In 1969, the Women’s Liberation Movement arrived at BGSU. In time, women gained rights closer to those which men had historically reserved for themselves.
Interspersed throughout the book, Licata shares fun stories, such as learning to hitchhike, the rise of the drug culture and other life lessons that college students of that time went through. In the summer after his graduation, Licata went to Woodstock, having no idea just how big this event would be. Advertised as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” Licata had his own crazy experience there; the festival was, to Licata, “the embodiment of the peace and love ethos that permeated the sixties.” He shares that “the Woodstock generation brought hope for a much more peaceful, clean and fair world” and writes that “all we had to do was sustain that hope for the rest of our lives.” Licata considered Woodstock to be “the most successful political expression of the sixties.”
I enjoyed this memoir. Although at times the stories were quite funny, the primary thrust of the book is to share political lessons. Becoming and remaining politically active is arguably more critical today than it was back then, and Licata’s simple lessons will be useful to both experienced and new activists.
Finally, I’d like to see a sequel written. I couldn’t help but think: If baby boomers created an ethos of peace, love and fairness as they bloomed into adulthood, then what went so wrong as they aged into leadership roles? Sure, lifelong activists such as Licata worked for social justice, but overall, from 1980 through today, America has taken a severe turn to the right, beginning with President Ronald Reagan. The wealth gap has exploded. An outrageously expensive and needless war was waged in the Middle East for 20 years. Whereas President Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and many new environmental regulations, these acts have been severely weakened, and climate change denial has inhibited needed, urgent changes.
With baby boomers in charge, an ethos of peace, love and fairness has given way to an increasingly divided country, a soaring hatred of fellow Americans and a truly perilous state for our democracy. How did the youthful hope of the ’60s end up here? What led the baby boomer generation to fail us so badly? A sequel telling this story could serve instructional for turning America back towards the ideals of the ’60s.
Read more of the Mar. 9-15, 2022 issue.