Johnson City Press Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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ETSU prof keeps things groovy with '60s-centered class

August 17th, 2014 9:48 pm by Carter Giegerich, Press Staff Writer

ETSU prof keeps things groovy with '60s-centered class

Crowds are shown in front of the Washington Monument during the March on Washington for civil rights, August 28, 1963. (AP Photo)

In an age of politically charged hashtags, viral video clips capturing blatant prejudice and social media accounts bristling with anti-discriminatory rhetoric, it’s easy to take part in online activism from the comfort of our own homes. The people that laid the groundwork for this generation’s ability to criticize these injustices, though, had to travel a much bumpier road.

“It’s much easier now whereas, in 1965 for example, you would have to wait until the next day’s paper or hear on the radio what happened. Today you can get on the internet or social media and, in a matter of minutes, you know what’s going on,” says Dr. Elwood Watson, a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.

Watson teaches a course titled “America in the 1960s,” which focuses on the sociopolitical climate in the United States during that tumultuous decade. With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s passing in early July, now is the perfect time to reflect on how far the country has come in such a short time.

“It had a profound impact on America, in the sense that it basically outlawed all forms of discrimination, whether it was gender or racial,” says Watson.

Much like the technological advances that fuel today’s activist movements, the people involved in the civil rights movements of the 1960s received an unprecedented boost from the widespread adoption of television in America.

We’ve always had groups of people that are culturally expressive,” says Watson. “What I think made it much more so in the sixties was the invention of television. Television made it much more exposed. A lot of these situations kind of expedited a lot of advancements and gave a lot of attention to these causes — the counterculture, the hippies, the civil rights movement.”

There have always been advocates for the civil rights movement in this country, according to Watson. Extending all the way back to the Revolutionary War, with the efforts of Crispus Attucks and his contemporaries, thousands of people have worked tirelessly to seek true equality in this country. With the dawn of the television age, this work became massively more efficient and led to the explosion in activism that defined the political climate of the 1960s.

Watson’s course delves into the political nature of the decade, while also offering a look at the cultural revolution taking place at the same time. Musical and visual artists, writers, filmmakers — all of these and more fall under the scope of Watson’s course, demonstrating how artists’ commentary both fueled and drew inspiration from their rapidly changing world.

“It was a decade that, you could say, was chock full,” says Watson. The class covers topics ranging all the way from the British Invasion, to the birth of the modern feminist movement, to the space age, to the Kennedy administration and everything in between.

Watson has always been drawn to the culture in America during the sixties, even during his undergraduate work some 20 years after the famous summer of ‘69.

“I took an English class at my university, and I wrote short stories about the 1960s and my professor was always saying, ‘why are you so fascinated with the 1960s,’ you know, because it was the late 1980s by that time,” says Watson.

He says that the ‘60s speak to him for the same reason most historians are drawn to their field.

“If we don’t study history, we’re bound to repeat it,” he says. With such profound changes developing in the political structure of our country, and the social constructs that defined life for all Americans, it’s little wonder Watson would focus so much time and energy into understanding how and why these changes happened.

Watson says he will teach his course at ETSU again during either the spring or fall semester of 2015. The class is open to all students, and he says history students in particular would benefit from the in-depth discussion and analysis of this pivotal time in our nation’s history.

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