Manson's infamy, like his violence, did lasting harm

Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: At a time when radicals spoke of using violence to win social justice, Manson's infamy became an unfortunate metaphor for political excess
  • Manson's grotesque crimes and the frenzy of attention they invited made it easier for Americans to scapegoat the violence of radicals, he writes

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)The death of Charles Manson, the wild-eyed cult leader whose disciples staged a bloody murder spree in Los Angeles in August 1969, closes a particularly unfortunate chapter on the history of the tumultuous 1960s. The murders spanned two nights, and a number of the victims, including the actress Sharon Tate, were mutilated.

The horror of the murder scenes seemed to exemplify the dark side of a contradictory decade highlighted by political assassinations, civil rights struggles, free love, sit-ins and an overarching pursuit of peace that too often seemed to end in death.
Peniel Joseph
A failed songwriter who drifted into California's hippie scene during the late 1960s, Manson cultivated a "family" whose members dropped acid together, emotionally and sexually abused women, and helped plot the murderous rampage that its leader hoped would trigger a race war.
    The race war Manson dreamed of never came to pass, but he achieved a kind of pop culture infamy through his antics during a well-publicized trial and subsequent books and television movies that tried to make sense of the carnage.
    In an era when political radicals spoke of using violence to achieve social justice, the accused killers and their misguided courtroom supporters tried to turn the murders into an act of political retribution, ignoring Manson's well-documented hatred of Jews, blacks and women.
    The biggest tragedy of the murders that Manson orchestrated, but did not participate in, is the way in which they have come to be associated with the cultural milieu that sought to promote higher ideals, however imperfectly, in the face of the Vietnam War abroad and racial violence at home.
    Manson became, in the eyes of journalists, politicians and, eventually historians, an unfortunate metaphor for the decade's political excesses.
    Everyone in the 1960s, it seemed, had reached beyond their grasp by demanding, in no particular order, racial equality, economic justice, women's liberation and peace. The senseless killings in Los Angeles seemed to usher in waves of further violence by self-styled revolutionaries -- ranging from the Weather Underground to the Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst -- that spilled over into the 1970s.
    Yet such a perspective obscures much more than it reveals. The biggest purveyor of violence during the 1960s, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the nation during his Riverside Church speech 2½ years before the Manson murders, proved to be the United States government.
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    Vietnam represented simply the tip of a long American spear, one that cut a gruesomely large swath through the nation's domestic landscape in the form of racial uprisings, National Guard deployments in urban centers, police brutality against Americans of all stripes, including civil rights and anti-war demonstrators, and organized racial terror against civil rights protesters.
    Manson's grotesque crimes and the frenzy of attention they invited made it easier for Americans to scapegoat the violence of radicals, instead of looking more critically at the insidious and consequential use of American forces and police power internationally and at home.