Frye Gaillard was a senior at Vanderbilt University when Robert F. Kennedy came to speak a few days after announcing he was running for president in March 1968. As a member of the program committee, Gaillard joined the welcoming delegation that met Kennedy at the Nashville airport. He was astonished by the crowd of thousands that turned out to see the famous candidate, a frenzied throng that pressed against his slender form and almost trapped him against an escalator. As Kennedy extracted himself from the terminal one deliberate step at a time, Gaillard couldn’t help but think about what had happened to his brother, the president, little more than four years before.
When they finally got into their car, the student looked at the senator and said, “It feels a little safer in here.”
“Yes, it does,” Kennedy replied, and they both laughed.
We all know what happened three months later.
A profound sense of loss fills Gaillard’s excellent popular history of the 1960s, “A Hard Rain,” a title that recalls Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Some decades are remembered for a dominant leader, others for their distinctive style. The ’60s are remembered for those things, but more for the traumas and the turbulence. It’s the decade when many of the divisions that still bedevil us first burst into view, the decade that continues to haunt America.
Gaillard, a journalist who covered the South for years at The Charlotte Observer and is now writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama in his native Mobile, was inspired to write about the ’60s after reading David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties.”
“A Hard Rain” by Frye Gaillard. Contributed by New South Books
Photo: For Cox Newspapers
It’s a hard assignment, surveying an entire decade while trying to keep a narrative cantering along. Think of the many events and people that have to be mentioned to do justice to the ’60s: the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, Vietnam, My Lai, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Dylan, Motown, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Charles Manson, Chappaquiddick, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catch-22,” “The Graduate,” the pill, Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, Mister Rogers … did we leave out Johnny Cash?
With so much ground to cover, “A Hard Rain” occasionally feels like a greatest hits collection. But whenever the book seems to be touching bases, Gaillard skillfully reels the reader back in with an in-depth story. Some of the most compelling ones have to do with the civil rights movement.
Gaillard begins his chronicle in February 1960 with the first great protest in a decade of them, the sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, N.C., and spread to other cities and college campuses in the South. He comes back to the epoch of racial justice time and time again, sometimes weaving in his own personal recollections as a sensitive white child of Alabama.
In spring 1963, for instance, Gaillard was on a high school field trip in Birmingham around the time demonstrators were beginning to confront Bull Connor’s police dogs and water cannons. As he was leaving the hotel one morning, he saw King a few feet away, two policemen pushing him roughly up the sidewalk.
“I remember thinking that he looked so small, and there seemed to be a sadness in his deep, expressive eyes,” Gaillard writes. At the age of 16, he understood for the first time that the social order he had grown up in was headed for a long-overdue reckoning.
A few years later, Gaillard made another Forrest Gumpian appearance in the Black Power era when the activist Stokley Carmichael came to Vanderbilt to deliver a speech — a controversial invitation that was condemned by the Tennessee legislature. Gaillard helped negotiate the ground rules with Carmichael and one of his party, the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
“Although some of my memories of the moment have faded,” Gaillard writes, “there is a grainy recollection of bandoliers crisscrossing chests and cold, hard stares aimed at a skinny white boy from Alabama.”
The hardest stare belonged to Cleaver. But a couple of nights later, when a small riot broke out on the other side of Nashville, the phone rang in Gaillard’s dorm. It was Cleaver asking for him.
“How are things where you are?” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you guys are OK.”
Of all the tragedies of the ’60s, the one that clearly affected Gaillard most deeply was the assassination of the candidate he met at Vanderbilt, Robert F. Kennedy. During their 20-minute ride from the airport, Gaillard asked about one of Kennedy’s children, who was ill, and the senator thanked him for his concern.
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He thought about that ordinary conversation 11 weeks later when he heard the news that Kennedy had been shot at a hotel in Los Angeles. “It injected something personal into the hemorrhaging sadness I shared with millions,” he writes.
Gaillard’s account of the assassination provides the emotional climax of the book. He lingers on one detail, Kennedy’s exchange with a 17-year-old busboy from Mexico, Juan Romero. Kennedy shook his hand and spoke with him on the way to the meeting hall where he declared victory in the California Democratic primary. On the way back, Romero was about to shake his hand again when he heard the popping noise of a pistol. He knelt beside the wounded man and cradled his head as blood pooled on the floor. Kennedy uttered his final words to the busboy. “Is everybody OK?” he asked.
It was Romero, Gaillard writes, who offered the “truest, most wrenching summation” of what the political violence of the ’60s had meant: “No matter how much hope you have, it can be taken away in a second.”
Frye Gaillard. The author will talk about "A Hard Rain." 7 p.m. Sept. 12. Free. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, 441 Freedom Parkway N.E., Atlanta. https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/events/. Also 7 p.m. Oct. 4. $10. Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave. N.E., Atlanta. http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/programs/category/author-programs.