When it comes to the 1960’s, photographer and documentary filmmaker, Frank Capri recalls the legendary decade well. For Frank, it was not only a time of national change, but also a personal awakening that led him down a path he had never before considered.
Frank, a prominent peace activist in the sixties, grew up in a wealthy family in Virginia, in a community whose affluence isolated him from politics and other current issues. America was emerging from the “sleepy fifties,” a decade without much in the way of national turmoil. But the sixties brought with them two wars, the war abroad and the war over civil rights at home. Suddenly the children of the quiet fifties were young adults in the tumultuous sixties and many of them, including Frank, saw it as a call to conscience.
John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in January of 1961 was Frank’s first major inspiration. As a teenager, he was in attendance of the inauguration, and was profoundly moved by Kennedy’s call to the nation’s young people. As Frank explains it, the message given by those in power in the past had been, “conform, follow, fit in.” JFK’s speech, however, encouraged the nation’s youth to “be active and to speak up.” It was the first time he had heard a politician speak directly toward the younger generation, and was inspired by the president’s openness to change and his admittance that there were some serious issues that needed to be addressed.
The Civil Rights Movement heated up, and was a slow awakening for the rich, sheltered kids in suburban communities across America to all the violence and injustice happening all around them. During that movement, Frank was particularly inspired by another influential figure: Martin Luther King, Jr. He considered King’s speeches a personal call to active citizenship because King was dealing with the problem of racism that had been all but invisible to Frank. It was through King’s speeches and reading about Gandhi that Frank was made aware of the principles of nonviolence. “Make the way you do something as important as your goal,” Frank explains. “If you want peace, don’t kill for it. If you want justice, don’t discriminate.”
Music was also a big factor that sprang many of his generation into action. Frank recalls his favorite musicians such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, who reached an entire generation with moving political and social statements in their songs. “[Their music] wasn’t just another political speech,” he says. “Music has a way of getting to your soul.”
In a lot of ways, Frank believes, the sixties were a time when an entire way of life was undergoing revolution. “We were dealing with all levels of change from the personal to the political” — feminism, racism and war. But revolution doesn’t necessarily mean the violent connotation it has come to imply.
Frank’s first major stand as a peace activist was applying as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, a position he based on the principles of nonviolence. He admits to being hypocritical, because he didn’t spring into action until the war affected him directly with the draft, but he feels the circumstances of the times forced a lot of people to take action more or less against their will. It was a time when the consequences of war and racism and sexism brought a resurgence of spiritual values to the young people. “[We] turned away from materialism,” Frank says. “[There was] too much materialism and not enough to feed the spirit.”
While a senior at the University of Maryland in 1968, Frank began to speak out against the Vietnam War in his classes. He went on a few marches as well, then applied as a conscientious objector to war, a huge decision because he knew he would likely face several years in jail. But he remained loyal to his values, regardless of the disapproval he received at home. Coming from an affluent family of five doctors, Frank was expected to follow in their footsteps. His parents weren’t supportive of anything that might jeopardize his future. Despite familial obstacles and the knowledge that the draft board in Virginia was especially disapproving of conscientious objectors, Frank remained firm to his moral commitment. On a humorous note, he adds that although he believed seriously in his cause, he drove everyone around him crazy with it — including his parents, his girlfriend, and the nine attorneys who tried to keep him out of jail. Poignantly he recalls his college graduation day which he spent at Robert Kennedy’s funeral instead of his own ceremony.
Frank has just finished a rough draft on a book on his experience with peace activism during the sixties, I Refuse to Kill, which he hopes will help balance out the negative picture he feels dominates the media’s perspective of the era. “A common stereotype [of the sixties] was that everyone was a hippie and on drugs,” he says. “And that was true to a point, but certainly not as much as the press led people to believe.” He anticipates his book will help illuminate the serious sacrifices made by many young people in their commitment to bring about peace and justice. Despite intense pressures, they questioned their country, yet were still loyal to it. Frank says he can sum up his feelings about his country with a quote from Albert Camus: “The true patriot is not one who loves his country for what it is, but for what it ought to be.”
Frank Capri M.A. in Social Psychology, is a renowned photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who knew and photographed many of America’s most prominent political figures of the 1960s and 70s. His work has been published in many of America’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines. His film, I Refuse to Kill, about his experience as a conscientious objector, is currently in production. You can learn more about Frank at http://www.frankcapri.com. He is teaching Give Peace a Chance: The 1960s and Nonviolent Protests starting April 10, 2013. Enroll today to save your seat!