Todd Gitlin was a young founder and early president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a flagship organization of the New Left of the 1960s. In the 1970s, he began a successful career as a sociologist and in 2002 joined Columbia University as a specialist in journalism.
Letters to A Young Activist consists of Gitlin's counsel to the next generation of young activists, based on his own experience and observations. He gives a rousing account of the 1964 Free Speech Movement and then advises, "be alert to the novelty of your historical situation. When you search for right action, be original. ... Overcome the inertia of repetition. ... Put something on earth that wasn't there before."
Whether writing about media attention, patriotism, idealism, or anger, Gitlin's words become highly relevant to current unrest. He addresses the temptation of "thinking with your blood" by giving in to anger, rage, and guilt. He warns of the danger of assuming "that every word uttered by your team makes sense, or that every word uttered by the other team is worth dismissing strictly because of the source." He reminds us that in rejecting the failings of government, we run the risk of renouncing our country.
This hard-won wisdom from an older generation has an important place alongside the wisdom of the young. Imagine the power of combining Gitlin's experiential knowledge with the energized ideals of Parkland students, who are proving themselves to have political clout in our era of cultural clashes and widespread disagreement over the direction of America.