¶ … standard joke about America in the 1960s claims that, if you can remember the decade, you did not live through it. Although perhaps intended as a joke about drug usage, the joke also points in a serious way to social change in the decade, which was so rapid and far-reaching that it did seem like the world changed almost daily. This is the paradox of Todd Gitlin's "years of hope" and "days of rage" -- that with so much social and cultural upheaval, the overall mood at any given moment in the 1960s must surely have seemed contradictory. How then can we assess the three most important themes in this broad social change? I would like to make the case that the three longest-lasting social changes came with America's forced adjustment to new realities on the international scene, with Vietnam; on the domestic scene, with the Civil Rights movement; and finally through the large-scale cultural shift, which emerges both from the youth protests of Vietnam and the legal maneuvering of the campaign for Civil Rights, to result in the so-called "sexual revolution" and the women's movement. By examining these three themes, I think we can understand better the mood of the 1960s which Gitlin tries to capture, and see the ways in which large-scale social trends in the 1960s informed each other, only to be transformed in subsequent decades.
The first historical trend of the 1960s I wish to examine is Civil Rights. It is worth noting at the outset that the Civil Rights movement is bookended by two decisions by the United States Supreme Court. After an initial flurry of liberty in the "Radical Reconstruction" period after the Civil War, in 1896 the Supreme Court would issue the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which codified a policy of social segregation ("separate but equal"). The Civil Rights era proper will then begin not with the slow integration of African-Americans into society at large, but into the military first: in 1948, President Harry S. Truman would desegregate the military by executive order, and this newly-integrated force would fight in Korea. The role played by African-Americans in the military as the 50s and 60s progressed, though, would be a point of contention in terms of the failure of the American government to provide equal treatment for citizens who were now equally subject to military conscription, discussed further in the analysis of Vietnam below. But it is worth noting that the integration of the military gave the final impetus for African-Americans to finally start agitating for Civil Rights under the law. Ultimately this led to various legal challenges to Plessy until it was the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, as Chafe notes, that would set into motion the larger agitation that took place in the 1960s (Chafe 159-60).
But to a certain degree, the 1960s marked a shift in the Civil Rights campaign, from the legal means pursued in the 1950s not only with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education but also with the non-violent protests organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., towards a more violent confrontation that would erupt with the new decade. Obviously it was the vested interests within the former states of the Confederacy to put down the agitation on the part of African-Americans, and the means employed grew increasingly violent. Gitlin notes that by the spring of 1963, the relatively new medium of television was bringing images of this violence into homes across America:
What commandeered the TV cameras that spring were the Negro demonstrators in Birmingham, and Bull Connor's cattle prods, fire hoses, and police dogs that greeted them. The national liberal conscience was galvanized; civil rights groups now found themselves the cutting edge of a coalition of unions, churches, and students. White police and racist mobs were now the conspicuous disorder that Kennedy had to manage. When Governor George Wallace grandstanded against Negro admissions at the University of Alabama, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and faced him down. (Gitlin 144)
It is worth noting what Gitlin is careful to point out -- that the increasing violence...
King's non-violent campaign in the massive March on Washington organized in 1963, violence would change the interpretation of the success of non-violent means of achieving the desired goal:
Eighteen days after the euphoria of the March on Washington, four hundred worshippers crowded into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham for Sunday services. Only months earlier, the church had been the rallying point for the marches against Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses. On September 15, 1963, a group of young girls had just finished a Sunday school lesson and were in the basement changing into their choir robes. A few blocks away, but within sight of the church, a white man stood waiting on the sidewalk. He was Birmingham truck driver and one-time city employee Robert Edward Chambliss -- the man whom friends in the Eastview 13 Klavern of the Alabama Klan called Dynamite Bob. At 10:19 A.M., fifteen sticks of explosive blew apart the church basement and the children in the changing room. (Hampton and Fayer, 171)
The bombing, which would ultimately kill four African-American schoolgirls (while injuring many more), shocked the nation and represented an even uglier transformation of the reactionary forces in the South. But of course this legitimization of violence -- and the ugly mood in the Southern states -- would have a massively disruptive effect about two months after the Birmingham church bombing, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the meantime, the Republican Party underwent a shift in which internal party revolutionaries like Phyllis Schlafly -- whose pamphlet A Choice not an Echo would help the supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater to win the GOP's nomination for their candidate -- would re-organize the Republican Party along strong ideological lines which included rhetoric which seemed incredibly irresponsible, and which stood up for "states rights" as a way of veiling outright racism. It is slightly staggering to realize that Goldwater's claim that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" would come after the assassination of Kennedy and of the four little girls in Birmingham, in a time when extremism clearly merited no defense. Clearly, the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s would lead to greater radicalization on both sides of the divide.
The second historical trend of the 1960s I wish to examine is the anti-war movement, whose origins came initially) from the intersection of young white people with the Civil Rights movement. College students who began to work on behalf of the Civil Rights movement would spearhead an extraordinary politicization of young people throughout the 1960s, giving rise to a youth movement (complete with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin's "Youth International Party" or Yippies) and a youth-oriented "counterculture" eventually. Bloom and Breines note that it was the involvement as "Freedom Riders" and in the registration of African-American voters throughout the south in the early 1960s that would set the path for the later radicalization of young people in the decade:
White northern students were inspired to aid the civil rights movement in the South and on their own campuses. That ?activism led to an attempt at UC Berkeley to raise money for SNCC, ?which led in turn to the first widely heralded campus action of the ?1960s, the Free Speech Movement. Students began to look at their ?own institutions and to realize how profoundly undemocratic they ?were. (Bloom and Breines, 59).
This concern with "undemocratic" institutions in America would lead to a more broad "New Left" movement, with documents like Tom Hayden's "Port Huron Statement" which (despite criticism from some quarters as being a "compromised second draft") focused its attention on the idea of "participatory democracy," in other words, increasing political involvement altogether. (This concept would become more important in the cultural trends of the later 1960s, such as feminism and gay rights, which in many ways hinged upon the very idea of "consciousness raising" and held to the slogan that "the personal is the political.") But of course the predominant reason for the increased student politicization was the "escalation" of the conflict in Vietnam. Bloom and Breines point out that
It is impossible to separate the antiwar movement from the student ?movement. It was among students that opposition to the war began ?and developed its massive following. For years students remained ?the most vocal and active group opposing American involvement in ?Vietnam. SDS called for the first demonstrations against American ?involvement in 1965; organizers were staggered when 25,000 people ?showed up in Washington to protest the war. After initial eruptions over campus issues and other questions, by 1965 campus activism…
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