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“Making Sense of the Sixties”

By Rick Price

Many social changes that were addressed in the 1960s are still the issues being confronted today. The ’60s was a decade of social and political upheaval. In spite of all the turmoil, there were some positive results: the civil rights revolution, John F. Kennedy’s bold vision of a new frontier, and the breathtaking advances in space, helped bring about progress and prosperity. However, much was negative: student and anti-war protest movements, political assassinations, and ghetto riots excited American people and resulted in lack of respect for authority and the law.

The decade began under the shadow of the cold war with the Soviet Union, which was aggravated by the U-2 incident, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban missile crisis, along with the space race with the USSR.

The decade ended under the shadow of the Vietnam war, which deeply divided Americans and their allies and damaged the country’s self-confidence and sense of purpose. Even if you weren’t alive during the ’60s, you know what they meant when they said, “tune in, turn on, drop out.” you know why the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. All of the social issues are reflected in today’s society: the civil rights movement, the student movement, the sexual revolution, the environment, and most controversial of all, Hippies.

The sixties is also known for it’s rapid birth rate. Nearly 76 million children were born to this generation, and for that they are called the ” Baby Boomers.” Surprisingly, even though so many children were being born, not many parents knew how to raise them. The parents of the 50’s and 60’s were so concerned with the world around them that going to work was the only image children had of their fathers. Kids didn’t understand why they worked so much just to gain more material possessions. Children of this generation grew up learning just about how to be free and happy.

Most of the time, when thinking back to the sixties, people remember hearing about things such as sex, drugs, and racism. However, what they often tend to overlook is the large emphasis “freedoms” had on the era. This does not just refer to the freedoms already possessed by every American of the time. This focuses on the youth’s fight to gain freedom or break away from the values and ideas left behind by the older generation. These fights were used to help push for freedoms from areas such as society’s rules and values, competition, living for others first, and the older generation’s beliefs as a whole including the freedom to use drugs. The younger generation just wanted a chance to express their own views rather than having to constantly succumb to the values and rules left

behind by the older generation.

In order to find these unique and different qualities in each other and themselves, the younger generation often turned to drugs. This was another freedom which they were required to fight for since the older generation did not support drug use as a source of pleasure or creativity. This could basically be considered an outright rejection of the older society’s values. Drugs were also seen as a freedom from reality. They enabled the youths to escape to a different kind of world. Because of the youths’ great desire to achieve a universal sense of peace and harmony, drugs were sometimes a very important part of one’s life. Sometimes, they would plan a day or evening around the use of a major drug so that they could enjoy it to the fullest extent. This could almost be considered ironic in the sense that while trying to gain one freedom, the ability to use drugs, the youths appeared to have lost another freedom, the ability to live their own lives. It seems more as if their lives were controlled by the drugs and the drugs’ effects than by the people themselves.

The combination of defiance, revolution, and drugs created a major Hippie era. Thousands of hippies would flock to the party capitals of the world for the high of a life time. Haight Ashberry, San Francisco, was once considered hippie central for the world. Here people would just line the streets with drug use, sex, and wild music.

In 1967, came the “Summer of Love.” This period was not unlike the previous acts of the hippies, just more intense. And to top off the hippie era, one of the largest concerts in the world took place in Woodstock, New York. During the several days of music, sex and drugs were abused heavily, almost to a point of complete stupor. But even though it may have seemed like under mayhem, it was one of the greatest moments of the 60’s.

The momentum of the previous decade’s civil rights gains led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried over into the 1960s. But for most blacks, the tangible results were minimal. Only a minuscule percentage of black children actually attended integrated schools, and in the south, “jim crow” practices barred blacks from jobs and public places. New groups and goals were formed, new tactics devised, to push forward for full equality. As often as not, white resistance resulted in violence. This violence spilled across TV screens nationwide. The average, neutral American, after seeing his/her TV screen, turned into a civil rights supporter.

Black unity and white support continued to grow. In 1962, with the first large-scale public protest against racial discrimination, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gave a dramatic and inspirational speech in Washington, D.C. After a long march of thousands to the capital. The possibility of riot and bloodshed was always there, but the marchers took that chance so that they could accept the responsibilities of first class citizens. When King came to the end of his prepared text, he swept right on into an exhibition of impromptu oratory that was catching, dramatic, and inspirational.

“I have a dream,” King cried out. the crowd began cheering, but king, never pausing, brought silence as he continued, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Everyone agreed the march was a success and they wanted action now! But “now!” remained a long way off. President Kennedy was never able to mobilize sufficient support to pass a civil rights bill with teeth over the opposition of segregationist southern members of congress. But after his assassination, president Johnson, drawing on the Kennedy legacy and on the press coverage of civil rights marches and protests, succeeded where Kennedy had failed.

However, by the summer of 1964, the black revolution had created its own crisis of disappointed expectations. Rioting by urban blacks was to be a feature of every “long, hot, summer” of the mid-1960s.

About this same time, the term, “black power” was coming into use. It was meant to infer long-submerged racial pride in Negroes. Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically sought to rebut the evangelists of black power. “It is absolutely necessary for the Negro to gain power, but the term black power is unfortunate, because it tends to give the impression of black nationalism. We must never seek power exclusively for the Negro, but the sharing of power with white people,” he said.

Unfortunately, the thing that really moved the civil rights movement along significantly was the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in late 1965. Rioting mobs in the Negro suburb of Watts, California, pillaged, burned and killed, while 500 policemen and 5000 national guardsmen struggled in vain to contain their fury. Hour after hour, the toll mounted: 27 dead at the week’s end, nearly 600 injured, 1700 arrested, and property damage well over $100 million.

The 1960’s could definitely be considered the most controversial decade of this century. Hippies, racism, drugs, war, and breaking every rule that had ever been set gave this time a very deserved place in the history.


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