Last week I had the pleasure of returning to my old middle school to speak to its book club about SUSPECT RED and its two teenage best friends coping with McCarthyism and the Red Scare. (see the novel’s landing page and earlier blog posts to learn more about the paranoia and fear-mongering that overtook our nation in the 1950s.)
On the drive, I listened to news coverage of the impassioned and astonishingly articulate and logical speeches being made for gun control by Parkland’s teenage survivors, turned activists by tragedy. They moved me to tears with their courage, their positive, proactive protest, and their embodiment of our democratic philosophies—our reliance on our citizens to dissent with policy they feel does not promote equality for all. In this case—safety for our children.
Inside the school, I found myself talking in an unplanned mash-up of SUSPECT RED with HAMILTON AND PEGGY!, because the two novels are actually in many ways about the same theme—the world-turned-upside-down belief that founded our nation, that ALL individuals are born with the capacity to think and decide what we believe is right and wrong, and then to discuss and negotiate with our fellow citizens how to best achieve that. The one era proving the ideas of another could work—IF enough people of integrity and grit stood fast and raised their voices.
The Revolution: with all its idealism, its rising up against repression, and its gutsy stand-off with the most powerful empire in the world. McCarthyism: one of our darkest hours in terms of mob mentality, prejudicial labeling, and persecution of people with ideas that challenged the status quo, blacklists, “loyalty review” boards, and being hauled in front of Senate hearings and threatened with jail if you took the 5th or didn’t “name names.” BUT eventually the intricate system that Hamilton and his patriot colleagues had devised worked because we the people pushed it to.
Look up the Children’s Crusade of 1963 to know the power of young people. Organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., more than 3,000 black students in Alabama left their classroom to march quietly to downtown Birmingham to protest segregation. They were met with fire hoses and attack dogs held only loosely at bay. The images of these elementary and high school students being so violently attacked sickened the nation. Those children, their intrepid and peaceable demands for justice and opportunity, changed our culture and attitudes.
We should feel the same way about the equally vicious, viral attacks on Parkland teenagers who are exercising their constitutional rights. They have already survived a shooting spree that would leave many adults too rattled to speak and now are facing down today’s fire-hoses and attack dogs—tweets and manipulated videos to assassinate and discredit their character. Hired “crisis actors?” Really?
As he and his fellow survivors have said, cutting to the core of something as only teenagers can, 17-year-old David Hogg said Saturday on the Joy Reid newscast: “We don’t deserve to be attacked by adults, we are literally teenagers.”
Something I was so glad to learn about as I researched SUSPECT RED was the “Green Feather Movement.” Like today’s inspiring Parkland survivors, teenagers were some of the first to stand up to Senator McCarthy and the national suspicion of one other he’d drummed up in us that paralyzed elected lawmakers. I’d like to re-share that information today, as my way of shouting out encouragement to all these young people massing to push for what they believe in—sensible gun control.
Part of the tactics of Red-hunters during the 1950s was to censor art and books that seemed to question or undercut the America way of life. Dozens upon dozens of books deemed “subversive”—including works by Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, and Upton Sinclair—were pulled off library shelves. Some were even burned. If librarians didn’t comply, they might lose their jobs.
Emboldened by this fervor, an Indiana textbook commissioner sparked a nationwide ban of Robin Hood because the beloved and legendary protagonist “robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order,” she said.
That was the last straw for five Indiana University students. The co-eds had been looking for a symbol to use in protesting McCarthyism’s siege on freedom of speech. They found it in the legendary feather-capped green hats worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The IU coeds went to local farms with empty burlap bags to gather hundreds of chicken feathers, and then dyed them green in a dorm room bathtub.
In early March 1954—when McCarthy was in his height of power, arrogant and confident enough to accuse the Army and a decorated WWII general of coddling communists—these daring students proclaimed themselves “The Green Feather Movement” and spread their Robin Hood-defiant feathers across campus.
They were immediately attacked as being “radical long hairs” and “communist dupes” (i.e. manipulated pawns of left-wing groups). Hmmm, sound familiar? Newspapers and conservative editorial-writers denounced them. Some student groups jeered them. Hoover opened FBI files on the students and ordered surveillance of them.
But even with such intimidation tactics, the Merry Men protests spread. First to some other Big Ten universities, then to Harvard, then to UCLA. These students helped topple McCarthyism—and its loyalty oaths, blacklists, xenophobia, and taking innuendo and hate-labels as fact—to re-establish the American rule of law, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Many historians credit these five feather-wielding students with encouraging campus-activism that would prove so important to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. I can feel their legacy, a sweep of those feathers today, can’t you?
I plan to join the March for Our Lives on March 24. And I will be wearing a green feather, cheering on the youth that lead us.