Long look at the sixties; Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s, by Milton Viorst. New York: Simon & Schuster. $14.95.

"This is a book about america in the 1960s," Milton Viorst informs us in his opening sentence, and a good book it is. Accustomed as we are to chopping our history into neat segments -- defined by wars, presidential administrations, or decades -- we are especially fascinated by the sixties, which generated such an acute consciousness of historical significance. "Whoever lived through those years will inevitably remember them as tumultuous, exalting, and foreboding," the author suggests, adding that they were "very bewildering as well." He means to make sense of the period by constructing a comprehensible narrative out of the "jumble of sensations" he originally held.

The result is persuasive and compelling. This is a necessarily long book ( 591 pages) for its dramatic structure follows from the premise that in detailed narratives of crucial episodes we can discern the meaning of the decade. In this history John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon play merely supporting roles, while Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and William Westmoreland hardly emerge from the background at all. Instead, attention is directed at individuals who figured so prominently in the events which form the basis of the chapters: John Lewis, an organizer of the 1960 sit-ins; James Farmer, leader of the Freedom Rides the following year; Tom Hayden, principal author of the Manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Bayard Rustin, Deputy director of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs; Joseph L. Rauh, a white liberal activist lawyer involved in the dispute over the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at Atlantic City in 1964; Clark Kerr, president of the University of California during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; Paul Williams, a participant in the rioting in Watts in 1965; Stokey Carmichael, a fiery advocate of black power; Allard Lowenstein, who launched the dump Johnson movement; Jerry Rubin, who helped lead the "Yippie" assault on Chicago during the Democratic convention; James Mellen, an SDS activist who was carried along with the momentum of the student movement during 1969; and Alan Candora, who waved a black flag at National Guardsmen at Kent State University in May, 1970. The author interviewed each of these people, some several times, and their recollections add depth and perspective to the narrative.

Especially noteworthy is the attention Viorst gives to people who captured scant media attention but who nevertheless had a major impact on the drives for civil rights and social transformation. For example, E. D. Nixon, profiled in chapter one, organized a Sleeping Car Porters local and an NAACP branch in Montgomery, alabama, years before he took the lead in initiating the bus boycott of 1955-56 that launched Martin Luther King as a national celebrity.

If you're looking for general discussions of the economy, the war, women's rights, social structure, cultural developments, and politics, look elsewhere. But for a fast-paced, engrossing narrative of the development of protest and social disorder during the decade, try "Fire in the Streets." In recapturing the drama of the sixties, Milton Viorst has succeeded in making a crucial part of it comprehensible for us.

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