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Perhaps no decade is so immortalized in American memory as the 1960s. Couched in the colorful rhetoric of peace and love, complemented by stirring images of the civil rights movement, and fondly remembered for its music, art, and activism, for many the decade brought hopes for a more inclusive, forward-thinking nation. But the decade was also plagued by strife, tragedy, and chaos. It was the decade of the Vietnam War, of inner-city riots, and assassinations that seemed to symbolize the death of a new generation’s idealistic ambitions. A decade of struggle and disillusionment rocked by social, cultural, and political upheaval, the 1960s are remembered because so much changed, and because so much did not.
II. The Civil Rights Movement Continues
So much of the energy and character of “the sixties” emerged from the civil rights movement, which won its greatest victories in the early years of the decade. The movement itself was changing. Many of the civil rights activists pushing for school desegregation in the 1950s were middle-class and middle-aged. In the 1960s, a new student movement arose whose members wanted swifter changes in the segregated South. Confrontational protests, marches, boycotts, and sit-ins accelerated.
The tone of the modern U.S. civil rights movement changed at a North Carolina department store in 1960, when four African American students participated in a “sit-in” at a whites-only lunch counter. The 1960 Greensboro sit-ins were typical. Activists sat at segregated lunch counters in an act of defiance, refusing to leave until being served and willing to be ridiculed, attacked, and arrested if they were not. It drew resistance but it forced the desegregation of Woolworth’s department store. It prompted copycat demonstrations across the South. The protests offered evidence that student-led direct action could enact social change and established the civil rights movement’s direction in the forthcoming years.
The following year, civil rights advocates attempted a bolder variation of a “sit-in” when they participated in the Freedom Rides. Activists organized interstate bus rides following a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on public buses and trains. The rides intended to test the court’s ruling, which many southern states had ignored. An interracial group of Freedom Riders boarded buses in Washington D.C. with the intention of sitting in integrated patterns on the buses as they traveled through the Deep South. On the initial rides in May 1961, the riders encountered fierce resistance in Alabama. Angry mobs composed of KKK members attacked riders in Birmingham, burning one of the buses and beating the activists who escaped. Despite the fact that the first riders abandoned their trip and decided to fly to their destination, New Orleans, civil rights activists remained vigilant. Additional Freedom Rides launched through the summer and generated national attention amid additional violent resistance. Ultimately, the Interstate Commerce Commission enforced integrated interstate buses and trains in November 1961.
In the fall of 1961, civil rights activists descended on Albany, a small city in southwest Georgia. A place known for entrenched segregation and racial violence, Albany seemed an unlikely place for black Americans to rally and demand civil rights gains. The activists there, however, formed the Albany Movement, a coalition of civil rights organizers that included members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or, “snick”), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the NAACP. But in Albany the movement was stymied by police chief Laurie Pritchett, who launched mass arrests but refused to engage in police brutality and bailed out leading officials to avoid negative media attention. It was a peculiar scene, and a lesson for southern acvtivists.
Despite its defeat, Albany captured much of the energy of the civil rights movement. The Albany Movement included elements of the Christian commitment to social justice in its platform, with activists stating that all people were “of equal worth” in God’s family and that “no man may discriminate against or exploit another.” In many instances in the 1960s, black Christianity propelled civil rights advocates to action and demonstrated the significance of religion to the broader civil rights movement. King’s rise to prominence underscored the role that African American religious figures played in the 1960s civil rights movement. Protestors sang hymns and spirituals as they marched. Preachers rallied the people with messages of justice and hope. Churches hosted meetings, prayer vigils, and conferences on nonviolent resistance. The moral thrust of the movement strengthened African American activists while also confronting white society by framing segregation as a moral evil.
As the civil rights movement garnered more followers and more attention, white resistance stiffened. In October 1962, James Meredith became the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Meredith’s enrollment sparked riots on the Oxford campus, prompting President John F. Kennedy to send in U.S. Marshals and National Guardsmen to maintain order. On an evening known infamously as the Battle of Ole Miss, segregationists clashed with troops in the middle of campus, resulting in two deaths and hundreds of injuries. Violence despite federal intervention served as a reminder of the strength of white resistance to the civil rights movement, particularly in the realm of education.The following year, 1963, was perhaps the decade’s most eventful year for civil rights. In April and May, the SCLC organized the Birmingham Campaign, a broad campaign of direct action aiming to topple segregation in Alabama’s largest city. Activists used business boycotts, sit-ins, and peaceful marches as part of the campaign. SCLC leader Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed, prompting his famous handwritten letter urging not only his nonviolent approach but active confrontation to directly challenge injustice. The campaign further added to King’s national reputation and featured powerful photographs and video footage of white police officers using fire hoses and attack dogs on young African American protesters. It also yielded an agreement to desegregate public accommodations in the city: activists in Birmingham scored a victory for civil rights and drew international praise for the nonviolent approach in the face of police-sanctioned violence and bombings.
White resistance magnified. In June, Alabama Governor George Wallace famously stood in the door of a classroom building in a symbolic attempt to halt integration at the University of Alabama. President Kennedy addressed the nation that evening, criticizing Wallace and calling for a comprehensive civil rights bill. A day later, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Civil rights leaders gathered in August 1963 for the March on Washington. The march called for, among other things, civil rights legislation, school integration, an end to discrimination by public and private employers, job training for the unemployed, and a raise in the minimum wage. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, an internationally renowned call for civil rights and against racism that raised the movement’s profile to unprecedented heights. The year would end on a somber note with the assassination of President Kennedy, a public figure considered an important ally of civil rights, but it did not halt the civil rights movement.
President Lyndon Johnson embraced the civil rights movement. The following summer he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, widely considered to be among the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. The comprehensive act barred segregation in public accommodations and outlawed discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and national or religious origin.
Direct action continued through the summer, as student-run organizations like SNCC and CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) helped with the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a drive to register African American voters in a state with an ugly history of discrimination. Freedom Summer campaigners set up schools for African American children and endured intimidation tactics. Even with progress, violent resistance against civil rights continued, particularly in regions with longstanding traditions of segregation.
Direct action and resistance to such action continued in March 1965, when activists attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with the support of prominent civil rights leaders on behalf of local African American voting rights. In a narrative that had become familiar, “Bloody Sunday” featured peaceful protesters attacked by white law enforcement with batons and tear gas. After they were turned away violently a second time, marchers finally made the 70-mile trek to the state capitol later in the month. Coverage of the first march prompted President Johnson to present the bill that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an act that abolished voting discrimination in federal, state, and local elections with an eye on African American enfranchisement in the South. In two consecutive years, landmark pieces of legislation had helped to weaken de jure segregation and disenfranchisement in America.
And then things began to stall. Days after the ratification of the Voting Rights Act, race riots broke out in the Watts District of Los Angeles. Rioting in Watts stemmed from local African American frustrations with residential segregation, police brutality, and racial profiling. Waves of riots would rock American cities every summer thereafter. Particularly destructive riots occurred in 1967—two summers later—in Newark and Detroit. Each resulted in deaths, injuries, arrests, and millions of dollars in property damage. In spite of black achievements, inner-city problems persisted for many African Americans. The phenomenon of “white flight”—when whites in metropolitan areas fled city centers for the suburbs—often resulted in “re-segregated” residential patterns. Limited access to economic and social opportunities in urban areas bred discord. In addition to reminding the nation that the civil rights movement was a complex, ongoing event without a concrete endpoint, the unrest in northern cities reinforced the notion that the struggle did not occur solely in the South. Many Americans also viewed the riots as an indictment of the Great Society, President Johnson’s sweeping agenda of domestic programs that sought to remedy inner-city ills by offering better access to education, jobs, medical care, housing, and other forms of social welfare. The civil rights movement was never the same.
III. Beyond Civil Rights
As tension continued to mount in cities through the decade, the tone of the civil rights movement changed yet again. Activists became less conciliatory in their calls for civil rights progress, embracing the more militant message of the burgeoning Black Power Movement and the late Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam (NOI) minister who had encouraged African Americans to pursue freedom, equality, and justice by “any means necessary.” Prior to his death, Malcolm X and the NOI emerged as the radical alternative to the racially integrated, largely Protestant approach of the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led civil rights movement. Malcolm advocated armed resistance in defense for the safety and well being of black Americans, stating, “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” For his part, King and leaders from more mainstream organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League criticized both Malcolm X and the NOI for what they perceived to be racial demagoguery. King believed Malcolm’s speeches were a “great disservice” to black Americans, claiming that X’s speeches lamented the problems of African Americans without offering solutions. The differences between Dr. King and Malcolm X represented a core ideological tension that would inhabit black political thought throughout the 1960s and 1970s.By the late 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led by figures such as Stokely Carmichael, had expelled its white members and shunned the interracial effort in the rural South, focusing instead on injustices in northern urban areas. After President Johnson refused to take up the cause of the black delegates in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, SNCC activists became frustrated with institutional tactics and turned away from the organization’s founding principle of nonviolence over the course of the next year. This evolving, more aggressive movement called for African Americans to play a dominant role in cultivating black institutions and articulating black interests rather than relying on interracial, moderate approaches. At a June 1966 civil rights march, Carmichael told the crowd, “What we gonna start saying now is black power!” The slogan not only resonated with audiences, it also stood in direct contrast to King’s “Freedom Now!” campaign. The political slogan of black power could encompass many meanings, but at its core stood for the self-determination of blacks in political, economic, and social organizations.
While Carmichael asserted that “black power meant black people coming together to form a political force,” to many it also meant violence. In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. The Black Panthers became the standard-bearers for direct action and self-defense, using the concept of “decolonization” in their drive to liberate black communities from white power structures. The revolutionary organization also sought reparations and exemptions for black men from the military draft. Citing police brutality and racist governmental policies, the Panthers aligned themselves with the “other people of color in the world” against whom America was fighting abroad. Although it was perhaps most well-known for its open display of weapons, military-style dress, and black nationalist beliefs, the Party’s 10-Point Plan also included employment, housing, and education. The Black Panthers worked in local communities to run “survival programs” that provided food, clothing, medical treatment, and drug rehabilitation. They focused on modes of resistance that empowered black activists on their own terms.
By 1968, the civil rights movement looked quite different from the one that had emerged out of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins. The movement had never been monolithic, but prominent, competing ideologies had now fractured it significantly. King’s assassination on a Memphis hotel room balcony in April sparked another wave of riots in over 100 American cities and brought an abrupt, tragic end to the life of the movement’s most famous figure. Only a week after his assassination, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, another significant piece of federal legislation that outlawed housing discrimination. Two months later, on June 6, Robert Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel while campaigning to be the Democratic candidate for President. The assassinations of both national leaders in succession created a sense of national anger and dissolution.
The frustration prompted dozens of national protest organizations to converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago at the end of August. A bitterly fractured Democratic Party gathered to assemble a passable platform and nominate a broadly acceptable presidential candidate. Outside the convention hall, numerous student and radical groups—the most prominent being Students for a Democratic Society and the Youth International Party—identified the conference as an ideal venue for demonstrations against the Vietnam War and planned massive protests in Chicago’s public spaces. Initial protests were peaceful, but the situation quickly soured as police issued stern threats and young people began to taunt and goad officials. Many of the assembled students had protest and sit-in experiences only in the relative safe havens of college campuses, and were unaccustomed to the heavily armed, big-city police force, accompanied by National Guard troops in full riot gear. Attendees recounted vicious beatings at the hands of police and Guardsmen, but many young people—convinced that much public sympathy could be won via images of brutality against unarmed protesters—continued stoking the violence. Clashes spilled from the parks into city streets, and eventually the smell of tear gas penetrated upper floors of the opulent hotels hosting Democratic delegates.
The ongoing police brutality against the protesters overshadowed the convention and culminated in an internationally televised standoff in front of the Hilton Hotel, where policeman beat protestors chanting, “the whole world is watching!” For many on both sides, the Chicago riots engendered a growing sense of the chaos rocking American life. The disparity in force between students and police frightened some radicals out of advocacy for revolutionary violence, while some officers began questioning the war and those who waged it. Many more, though, saw disorder and chaos where once they had seen idealism and progress. Ultimately, the violence of 1968 was not the death knell of a struggle simply for the end of black-white segregation, but rather a moment of transition that pointed to the continuation of past oppression and foreshadowed many of the challenges of the future. At decade’s end, civil rights advocates could take pride in significant gains while acknowledging that many of the nation’s racial issues remained unresolved.
IV. Culture and Activism
The 1960s wrought enormous cultural change. The United States that entered the decade looked and sounded nothing like the one that left it. Popular culture often challenged norms from the supposedly hidebound 1950s, promoting rebellion and individualism and, in the process, bringing the counterculture into the mainstream. Native Americans, Chicanos, women, and environmentalists all participated in movements demonstrating that “rights” activism also applied to ethnicity, gender, and the nation’s natural resources. Even established religious institutions like the Catholic Church underwent transformation that reflected an emerging emphasis on freedom and tolerance. In each instance, the decade brought about substantial progress with a reminder that the activism in each cultural realm remained fluid and unfinished.
At the dawn of the 1960s, trends from the 1950s still flourished. While only half of American households owned a television in the mid-1950s, for example, nearly 90 percent of homes had a set by 1962. With the increasing popularity of rock and roll, established white musicians like Elvis Presley continued to imitate and adapt black musical genres. Newcomers also adopted this tactic: the Beatles’ first album featured two covers of popular songs by the Shirelles.
Advertisers continued to appeal to teenagers and the expanding youth market. What differed in the 1960s, perhaps, was the commodification of the counterculture. Popular culture and popular advertising in the 1950s had promoted an ethos of “fitting in” and buying products to conform. The new counterculture ethos, however, touted individuality and rebellion. Some advertisers used this ethos subtly; advertisements for Volkswagens openly acknowledged the flaws of their cars and emphasized their strange look. One ad read, “Presenting America’s slowest fastback,” which “won’t go over 72 mph even though the speedometer shows a wildly optimistic speed of 90.” Another stated, “And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push.” By marketing the car’s flaws and reframing them as positive qualities, the advertisers commercialized young peoples’ resistance to commercialism. And it positioned the VW as a car for those who didn’t mind standing out in a crowd. A more obviously countercultural ad for the VW Bug showed two cars: one black and one painted multi-color in the hippie style; the contrasting captions read, “We do our thing,” and “You do yours.”
Companies marketed their products as countercultural in and of themselves. One of the more obvious examples was a 1968 ad from Columbia Records, a hugely successful record label since the 1920s. The ad pictured a group of stock rebellious characters—a shaggy-haired white hippie, a buttoned up Beat, two biker types, and a black jazz man sporting an afro—in a jail cell. The counterculture had been busted, the ad states, but “the man can’t bust our music.” Merely buying records from Columbia was an act of rebellion, one that brought the buyer closer to the counterculture figures portrayed in the ad.
Even when pop culture in the 1960s was not tied to counterculture, it still stood in contrast to a more conservative past. The dominant style of women’s fashion in the 1950s was the poodle skirt and the sweater, tight-waisted and buttoned up. The 1960s, however, ushered in an era of much less restrictive clothing. Capri pants became popular casual wear. Skirts became shorter. When Mary Quant invented the miniskirt in 1964, she said it was a garment “in which you could move, in which you could run and jump.” By the late 1960s, the hippies’ more androgynous look had become trendy. Such fashion trends bespoke the overall popular ethos of the 1960s: freedom, rebellion, and individuality.
In a decade plagued by social and political instability, the American counterculture also sought psychedelic drugs as its remedy for alienation. For young, middle-class whites, society had become stagnant and bureaucratic. Psychedelic drug use arose as an alternate form of activism. LSD began its life as a drug used primarily in psychological research before it trickled down into college campuses and out into society at large. The counterculture’s notion that American stagnation could be remedied by a spiritual-psychedelic experience was drawn almost entirely from psychologists and sociologists.
The irony, of course, was that LSD’s popularity outside of science eventually led to its demise within labs. By 1966, enough incidents had been connected to LSD to spur a Senate hearing on the drug; newspapers reported that hundreds of LSD users had been admitted to psychiatric wards. While many of these reports were sensationalistic or altogether untrue, LSD’s uses did become increasingly bizarre and even dangerous throughout the late 1960s. The 1967 Summer of Love failed to live up to its mantra as an idyllic, psychedelic retreat, and the summer was instead characterized by housing shortages and deadly inner-city riots. Similarly, while 1969’s Woodstock embodied the countercultural ethos of creativity and community, the Altamont Free Concert held the same year resulted in riots and deadly violence.
The turmoil and growing grassroots activism in the 1960s among American youth and university students, including Native Americans, created an atmosphere for reform in both Congress and the courts. In the summer of 1961, Native American university students founded a new organization, the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). While the Council shared many of its core values and goals with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)—sovereignty, self-determination, treaty rights, and cultural preservation, the NIYC employed direct action tactics and more combative rhetoric.
The NIYC came from a tradition of student clubs and organizations. The 1944 GI Bill opened the door for many Native Americans to university education, and the increased presence of Native students at universities led to the establishment of Native college clubs and organizations, where members discussed major problems in Indian Country, such as termination policy, treaty rights, and poverty. Many also benefited from summer workshops on American Indian Affairs, designed to prepare Indian youth for future leadership roles. Participants in the workshops overwhelmingly embraced the principles of self-determination and tribal sovereignty. They recognized that regardless of tribal membership, Native people faced similar problems, which could be best confronted through a united, intertribal effort. This view was reinforced at the American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961, where the delegates drafted “The Declaration of Indian Purpose,” a document outlining Indian solutions to Indian problems. Despite the promise of the Chicago Conference, the students were disenchanted with the slow progress of change. The growing frustration of the younger generation, combined with ideas from the workshops and experiences at the Chicago Conference, led to the founding of the NIYC in August 1961.
The first opportunity for the Council to generate support and attract public attention happened in the Pacific Northwest. Washington State tribal nations reserved the right to fish off reservation without being subject to state regulations in their nineteenth-century treaties. This right was challenged by the state in the early 1960s; Native fishermen who fished in violation of state laws were arrested and subsequently required to purchase permissions for off-reservation fishing. With little justice received from the courts, Washington State tribal nations appealed to NIYC for assistance. NIYC members decided to hold a series of “fish-ins,” which involved activists casting nets from their boats and waiting for the police to arrest them. In 1974, fishing rights activists and tribal leaders reached a legal victory in United States v. Washington known as the Boldt Decision, which declared that Native Americans were entitled to up to 50 percent of the fish caught in the “usual and accustomed places” as stated in the 1850s treaties.
NIYC’s militant rhetoric and use of direct action marked the beginning of the Red Power movement. It paved the way for future intertribal activism and gathered a national exposure to Native issues
through news media. Native Americans created pan-Indian communities in cities and demanded respect for their rights and culture, actively responding to discrimination and violence against them. To prevent police harassment, Native Americans in Minneapolis formed “Indian patrols” to monitor the behavior of police in Indian neighborhoods. From these patrols grew the American Indian Movement (AIM), founded in Minneapolis in 1968. The actions of AIM, while not bringing any specific or immediate results, brought national and international attention to Native issues, and the organization helped to create a more favorable climate for a policy shift. The NCAI, NIYC, and AIM continued their work, with and within the established American political system, to influence new laws on Native issues and concentrate on local problems.
The Chicano movement in the 1960s emerged out of the broader Mexican American civil rights movement of the post-World War II era. While “Chicano” was initially considered a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants, activists in the 1960s reclaimed the term and used it as a catalyst to campaign for political and social change among Mexican Americans. The Chicano movement confronted discrimination in schools, politics, agriculture, and other formal and informal institutions. Organizations like the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDF) buoyed the Chicano movement and patterned themselves after similar influential groups in the African American civil rights movement.
Cesar Chavez became the most well-known figure of the Chicano movement, using nonviolent tactics to campaign for workers’ rights in the grape fields of California. Chavez and activist Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, which eventually merged and became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). The UFWA fused the causes of Chicano and Filipino activists protesting subpar working conditions of California farmers on American soil. In addition to embarking on a hunger strike and a boycott of table grapes, Chavez led a 300-mile march in March and April of 1966 from Delano, California to the state capital of Sacramento. The pro-labor campaign garnered the national spotlight and the support of prominent political figures such as Robert Kennedy. Today, Chavez’s birthday (March 31) is observed as a federal holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales was another activist whose calls for Chicano self-determination resonated long past the 1960s. A former boxer and Denver native, Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice in 1966, an organization that would establish the first annual Chicano Liberation Day at the National Chicano Youth Conference by decade’s end. The conference also yielded the Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, a Chicano nationalist manifesto that reflected Gonzales’ vision of Chicano as a unified, historically grounded, all-encompassing group fighting against discrimination in the United States. By 1970, the Texas-based La Raza Unida political party had a strong foundation for promoting Chicano nationalism and continuing the campaign for Mexican American civil rights.
The feminist movement also made great strides in the 1960s. Women were active in both the civil rights movement and the labor movement, but their increasing awareness of gender inequality did not find a receptive audience among male leaders in those movements. In the 1960s, then, many of these women began to form a movement of their own. Soon the country experienced a groundswell of feminist consciousness.
An older generation of women who preferred to work within state institutions figured prominently in the early part of the decade. When John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt headed the effort. The Commission’s Invitation to Action was released in 1963. Finding discriminatory provisions in the law and practices of industrial, labor, and governmental organizations, the Commission advocated for “changes, many of them long overdue, in the conditions of women’s opportunity in the United States.” Change was necessary in areas of employment practices, federal tax and benefit policies affecting women’s income, labor laws, and services for women as wives, mothers, and workers. This call for action, if heeded, would ameliorate the types of discrimination primarily experienced by middle-class and elite white working women, all of whom were used to advocating through institutional structures like government agencies and unions.
Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique hit bookshelves the same year the Commission released its report. Friedan had been active in the union movement, and was by this time a mother in the new suburban landscape of post-war America. In her book, Friedan labeled the “problem that has no name,” and in doing so helped many white middle-class American women come to see their dissatisfaction as housewives not as something “wrong with [their] marriage, or [themselves],” but instead as a social problem experienced by millions of American women. Friedan observed that there was a “discrepancy between the reality of [women’s] lives and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image I call the feminine mystique.” No longer would women allow society to blame the “problem that has no name” on a loss of femininity, too much education, or too much female independence and equality with men.
The 1960s also saw a different group of women pushing for change in government policy. Welfare mothers began to form local advocacy groups in addition to the National Welfare Rights Organization founded in 1966. Mostly African American, these activists fought for greater benefits and more control over welfare policy and implementation. Women like Johnnie Tillmon successfully advocated for larger grants for school clothes and household equipment in addition to gaining due process and fair administrative hearings prior to termination of welfare entitlements.
Yet another mode of feminist activism was the formation of consciousness-raising groups. These groups met in women’s homes and at women’s centers, providing a safe environment for women to discuss everything from experiences of gender discrimination to pregnancy, from relationships with men and women to self-image. The goal of consciousness-raising was to increase self-awareness and validate the experiences of women. Groups framed such individual experiences as examples of society-wide sexism, and claimed that “the personal is political.” Consciousness-raising groups created a wealth of personal stories that feminists could use in other forms of activism and crafted networks of women that activists could mobilize support for protests.
The end of the decade was marked by the Women’s Strike for Equality celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Sponsored by NOW (the National Organization for Women), the 1970 protest focused on employment discrimination, political equality, abortion, free childcare, and equality in marriage. All of these issues foreshadowed the backlash against feminist goals in the 1970s. Not only would feminism face opposition from other women who valued the traditional homemaker role to which feminists objected, the feminist movement would also fracture internally as minority women challenged white feminists’ racism and lesbians vied for more prominence within feminist organizations.American environmentalism made significant gains in the 1960s that piggybacked off the post-World War II trend of Americans using their growing resources and leisure time to explore nature. They backpacked, went to the beach, fished, and joined birding organizations in greater numbers than ever before. These experiences, along with increased formal education, made Americans more aware of threats to the environment and, consequently, to themselves. Many of these threats increased in the post-war years as developers bulldozed open space for suburbs and new hazards from industrial and nuclear pollutants loomed over all organisms.By the time that biologist Rachel Carson published her landmark book, Silent Spring, in 1962, a nascent environmentalism had emerged in America. Silent Spring stood out as an unparalleled argument for the interconnectedness of ecological and human health. Pesticides, Carson argued, also posed a threat to human health, and their over-use threatened the ecosystems that supported food production. Carson’s argument was compelling to many Americans, including President Kennedy, and was virulently opposed by chemical industries that suggested the book was the product of an emotional woman, not a scientist.After Silent Spring, the social and intellectual currents of environmentalism continued to expand rapidly, culminating in the largest demonstration in history, Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, and in a decade of lawmaking that significantly restructured American government. Even before the massive gathering for Earth Day, lawmakers from the local to federal level had pushed for and achieved regulations to clean up the air and water. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970, requiring environmental impact statements for any project directed or funded by the federal government. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency, the first agency charged with studying, regulating, and disseminating knowledge about the environment. A raft of laws followed that were designed to offer increased protection for air, water, endangered species, and natural areas.In keeping with the activist themes of the decade, the Catholic Church reevaluated longstanding traditions in the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council became the defining moment for the modern church. Called by Pope John XXIII to bring the church into closer dialogue with the non-Catholic world, Vatican II functioned as a vehicle for a spirit of aggiornamento, or a bringing up to date, for individual Catholics and their church.The council met from 1962 to 1965, and its members—the bishops of the worldwide Catholic Church—discussed varied topics, ranging from ecumenism and the role of laypeople to religious freedom and the changing nature of the priesthood. Vatican II went beyond mere discussion, however. Its proclamations brought about the rise of the vernacular Mass, a larger role for laypeople in the liturgy and in the administration of parishes and dioceses, increased contact with non-Catholics, and renewed recognition of the church as “the people of God” rather than primarily as a body of priests and bishops. A number of American Catholics had long called for such reforms, and the post-conciliar period often saw dramatic changes to the form of worship in Catholic parishes, with many adopting more informal, contemporary styles. Vatican II also opened the way for women to claim a larger degree of power in the life of the Catholic Church. The council, though, was not without controversy. More conservative Catholics often resisted what they perceived as rapid, dangerous changes overtaking their church, which frequently led to tensions between clergy and laity and among laypeople.Priests and male and female religious figures also felt the council’s influence. Some scholars have cited the general opening, liberalizing effect of Vatican II’s message and its implementation as key factors in the decline of the number of American priests that began in the era of the Second Vatican Council. Nuns seized the opportunity provided by the council to revisit the rules governing their
communities, and many decided to leave the cloister and do away with older forms of religious garb—including the habit—reflecting one of Vatican II’s goals of more thorough engagement of the church with the outside world. As with priests, many nuns decided to leave consecrated religious life. Vatican II’s influence and tensions resonated for decades after its conclusion and it remains the lens through which Catholics and non-Catholics alike must view the modern church.
V. Politics and Policy
The decade’s political landscape began with a watershed presidential election. Americans were captivated by the 1960 race between Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, two candidates who pledged to move the nation forward and invigorate an economy experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression. Kennedy promised to use federal programs to strengthen the economy and address pockets of longstanding poverty, while Nixon called for a reliance on private enterprise and reduction of government spending. Both candidates faced criticism as well; Nixon had to defend Dwight Eisenhower’s domestic policies, while Kennedy, who was attempting to become the first Catholic president, had to counteract questions about his faith and convince voters that he was experienced enough to lead.
One of the most notable events of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential campaign was their televised debate in September, the first of its kind between major presidential candidates. The debate focused on domestic policy and provided Kennedy with an important moment to present himself as a composed, knowledgeable statesman. In contrast, Nixon, an experienced debater who faced higher expectations, looked sweaty and defensive. Radio listeners famously thought the two men performed equally well, but the TV audience was much more impressed by Kennedy, giving him an advantage in subsequent debates. Ultimately, the election was extraordinarily close; in the largest voter turnout in American history up to that point, Kennedy bested Nixon by less than one percentage point (34,227,096 to 34,107,646 votes). Although Kennedy’s lead in electoral votes was more comfortable at 303 to 219, the Democratic Party’s victory did not translate in Congress, where Democrats lost a few seats in both houses. As a result, Kennedy entered office in 1961 without the mandate necessary to achieve the ambitious agenda he would refer to as the New Frontier.
Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November of 1963 left the nation in a malaise. With the youthful, popular president gone, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in and tasked with fulfilling the liberal promises of the New Frontier. On a May morning in 1964, President Johnson laid out a sweeping vision for a package of domestic reforms known as the Great Society. Speaking before that year’s graduates of the University of Michigan, Johnson called for “an end to poverty and racial injustice” and challenged both the graduates and American people to “enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” At its heart, he promised, the Great Society would uplift racially and economically disfranchised Americans, too long denied access to federal guarantees of equal democratic and economic opportunity, while simultaneously raising all Americans’ standards and quality of life.
The Great Society’s legislation was breathtaking in scope, and many of its programs and agencies are still with us today. Most importantly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 codified federal support for many of the civil rights movement’s goals by prohibiting job discrimination, abolishing the segregation of public accommodations, and providing vigorous federal oversight of southern states’ primary and general election laws in order to guarantee minority access to the ballot. Ninety years after Reconstruction, these measures effectively ended Jim Crow.
In addition to this civil rights orientation, however, the Great Society took on a range of quality of life concerns that seemed solvable at last in a society of such affluence. It established the first federal Food Stamp Program. Medicare and Medicaid would ensure access to quality medical care for the aged and poor. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was the first sustained and significant federal investment in public education, totaling more than $1 billion. Significant funds were poured into colleges and universities as well. To “elevate and enrich our national life,” the Great Society also established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, federal investments in arts and letters that fund American cultural expression to this day.
While these programs persisted and even thrived, in the years immediately following this flurry of legislative activity, the national conversation surrounding Johnson’s domestic agenda largely focused on the $3 billion spent on War on Poverty programming within the Great Society’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. No EOA program was more controversial than Community Action, considered the cornerstone antipoverty program. Johnson’s antipoverty planners felt the key to uplifting disfranchised and impoverished Americans was involving poor and marginalized citizens in the actual administration of poverty programs, what they called “maximum feasible participation.” Community Action Programs would give disfranchised Americans a seat at the table in planning and executing federally funded programs that were meant to benefit themselves—a significant sea change in the nation’s efforts to confront poverty, which had historically relied upon local political and business elites or charitable organizations for administration.
In fact, Johnson himself had never conceived of poor Americans running their own poverty programs. While the president’s rhetoric offered a stirring vision of the future, he had singularly old-school notions for how his poverty policies would work. In contrast to “maximum feasible participation,” the President imagined a second New Deal: local elite-run public works camps that would instill masculine virtues in unemployed young men. Community Action almost entirely bypassed local administrations and sought to build grassroots civil rights and community advocacy organizations, many of which had originated in the broader civil rights movement. Despite widespread support for most Great Society programs, the War on Poverty increasingly became the focal point of domestic criticisms from the left and right. On the left, frustrated liberals recognized the president’s resistance to empowering minority poor and also assailed the growing war in Vietnam, the cost of which undercut domestic poverty spending. As racial unrest and violence swept across urban centers, critics from the right lambasted federal spending for “unworthy” and even criminal citizens. When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he moved swiftly to return control over federal poverty spending to local political elites.
Despite the fact that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the War on Poverty were crucial catalysts for the rise of Republicans in the South and West, Nixon and subsequent presidents and Congresses have left largely intact the bulk of the Great Society. Many of its programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, federal spending for arts and literature, and Head Start are considered by many to be effective forms of government action. Even Community Action programs, so fraught during their few short years of activity, inspired and empowered a new generation of minority and poverty community activists who had never before felt, as one put it, “this government is with us.”
While much of the rhetoric surrounding the 1960s focused on a younger, more liberal generation’s progressive ideas, conservatism maintained a strong presence on the American political scene. Few political figures in the decade embodied the working-class, conservative views held by millions of Americans quite like George Wallace. Wallace’s vocal stance on segregation was immortalized in his 1963 inaugural address as Alabama governor with the phrase: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Just as the civil rights movement began to gain unprecedented strength, Wallace became the champion of the many white southerners uninterested in the movement’s goals. Consequently, Wallace was one of the best examples of the very real opposition civil rights activists faced in the late twentieth century.
As governor, Wallace used his position to enforce segregation whenever possible. Just five months after becoming governor, in his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” Wallace himself tried to block two African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. His efforts were largely symbolic, but they earned him national recognition as a political figure willing to fight for what many southerners saw as their traditional way of life. Wallace made similar efforts to try to block federally mandated integration of his state’s public, elementary, and secondary schools in the fall of 1963. In all cases, President John F. Kennedy had to supersede Wallace’s actions to ensure integration moved forward.In contrast to Wallace’s traditional stance on southern race relations, he took a very nontraditional approach to maintain power at the end of his term as governor. Because the state of Alabama only allowed governors to serve one term at that time, Wallace persuaded his wife, Lurleen, to run for governor so that he could use his influence with her to help shape state politics. Not only did Lurleen win, other Wallace supporters helped remove the term limits on governors, opening up future opportunities for him to serve as governor. Wallace entered the national political fray in 1968, when he made an unsuccessful presidential bid as a third-party candidate. After 1970, he served three more terms as governor of Alabama, survived an assassination attempt while campaigning for president, and eventually repudiated the segregationist views that made him so famous.Beleaguered by an unpopular war, inflation, and domestic unrest, President Johnson opted against reelection in March of 1968—an unprecedented move in modern American politics. The forthcoming presidential election was shaped by Vietnam and the aforementioned unrest as much as the campaigns of Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon, and third-party challenger George Wallace. The Democratic Party was in disarray in the spring of 1968, when senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged Johnson’s nomination and the president responded with his shocking announcement. Nixon’s candidacy was aided further by riots that broke out across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the shock and dismay experienced after the slaying of Robert Kennedy in June. The Republican nominee’s campaign was defined by shrewd maintenance of his public appearances and a pledge to restore peace and prosperity to what he called “the silent center; the millions of people in the middle of the political spectrum.” This campaign appeal was carefully calibrated to attract suburban Americans by linking liberals in favor of an overbearing federal government with the Silent Majority’s implied inverse: noisy urban minorities. Many embraced Nixon’s message; a September 1968 poll found that 80 percent of Americans believed public order had “broken down.”Meanwhile, Humphrey struggled to distance himself from Johnson and maintain working-class support in northern cities, where voters were drawn to Wallace’s appeals for law and order and a rejection of civil rights. The vice president had a final surge in northern cities with the aid of union support, but it was not enough to best Nixon’s campaign. The final tally was close: Nixon won 43.3 percent of the popular vote (31,783,783), narrowly besting Humphrey’s 42.7 percent (31,266,006). Wallace, meanwhile, carried five states in the Deep South, and his 13.5 percent (9,906,473) of the popular vote constituted an impressive showing for a third-party candidate. The Electoral College vote was more decisive for Nixon; he earned 302 electoral votes, while Humphrey and Wallace received only 191 and 45 votes, respectively. Although Republicans won a few seats, Democrats retained control of both the House and Senate and made Nixon the first president in 120 years to enter office with the opposition party controlling both houses.
VI. Foreign Affairs
The United States entered the 1960s unaccustomed to stark foreign policy failures, having emerged from World War II as a global superpower before waging a Cold War against the Soviet Union in the 1950s. In the new decade, unsuccessful conflicts in Cuba and Vietnam would yield embarrassment, fear, and tragedy, stunning a nation used to triumph and altering the way many thought of America’s role in international affairs.
On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro and his forces triumphantly entered Havana and initiated a new era in Cuban history. Castro and compatriots such as Che Guevara and Celia Sánchez had much to celebrate as they made their way through the city’s streets. After losing American support, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista had fled the nation the previous week, ending the long war Castro’s forces and countless other armed revolutionary factions had fought to oust the dictator. The United States initially expressed public sympathy with Castro’s government, which was immediately granted diplomatic recognition. Behind the scenes, however, President Dwight Eisenhower and members of his administration were wary of the new leader. The relationship between the two governments rapidly deteriorated following Castro’s April 1959 visit to Washington, which included a troubled meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon. On October 19, 1960, the United States instituted a trade embargo to economically isolate the Cuban regime, and in January 1961 the two nations broke off formal diplomatic relations.
As the new Cuban government instituted leftist policies that centered on agrarian reform, land redistribution, and the nationalization of private enterprises, Cuba’s wealthy and middle class citizens fled the island in droves and began to settle in Miami and other American cities. The Central Intelligence Agency, acting under the mistaken belief that the Castro government lacked popular support and that Cuban citizens would revolt if given the opportunity, began to recruit members of the exile community to participate in an invasion of the island. On April 16, 1961, an invasion force consisting primarily of Cuban émigrés landed on Girón Beach at the Bay of Pigs. Cuban soldiers and civilians quickly overwhelmed the exiles, many of whom were taken prisoner. The Cuban government’s success at thwarting the Bay of Pigs invasion did much to legitimize the new regime and was a tremendous embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.
As the political relationship between Cuba and the United States disintegrated, the Castro government became more closely aligned with the Soviet Union. This strengthening of ties set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the most dramatic foreign policy crisis in the history of the United States. In 1962, in response to the US’s long-time maintenance of a nuclear arsenal in Turkey and at the invitation of the Cuban government, the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. On October 14, 1962, American spy planes detected the construction of missile launch sites, and on October 22, President Kennedy addressed the American people to alert them to this threat. Over the course of the next several days, the world watched in horror as the United States and the Soviet Union hovered on the brink of nuclear war. Finally, on October 28, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba in exchange for a US agreement to remove its missiles from Turkey and a formal pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba, and the crisis was resolved peacefully.
Though the Cuban Missile Crisis temporarily halted the flow of Cuban refugees into the United States, emigration reinitiated in earnest in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the Johnson administration and the Castro government brokered a deal that facilitated the reunion of families that had been separated by earlier waves of migration, opening the door for thousands to leave the island. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law granting automatic permanent residency to any Cuban who entered the United States. Over the course of the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Cubans left their homeland and began to build new lives for themselves in America.
American involvement in the Vietnam War began during the age of decolonization. With the Soviet Union backing nationalist movements across the globe, the United States feared the expansion of communist influence and pledged to confront communist revolutions in the Truman Doctrine. Between 1946 and 1954, France fought a counterinsurgency campaign against the nationalist Vietminh forces led by Ho Chi Minh. America assisted the French war effort with funds, arms, and advisors. On the eve of the Geneva Peace Conference in 1954, Vietminh forces defeated the French army at Dien Bien Phu. The conference temporarily divided Vietnam into two separate states until United Nations-monitored elections occurred. Elections, however, never transpired as the US feared a Communist victory. Consequently the US established the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, with Ngo Dinh Diem serving as prime minister. America viewed Diem favorably; although he was a nationalist, Diem was anticommunist and had lived in the US. In 1955, the CIA supported Diem in his bid to defeat all opposing political elements in South Vietnam.
A series of events hampered America and South Vietnam’s early effort against communist forces. The Battle of Ap Bac in 1963 demonstrated a South Vietnam not fully prepared for the challenges of an insurgency. Despite a clear numerical advantage, as well as mechanized and airborne infantry, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces were mauled by Vietcong (VC) units. Modeled after the US Army, ARVN was too technology-dependent to operate without US assistance. In the wake of Diem’s assassination and the merry-go-round of subsequent military dictators, the situation in South Vietnam further deteriorated. In 1964, the USS Maddox reported incoming fire from North Vietnamese ships. Although the validity of the Gulf of Tonkin incident remains questionable, the event resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This act of Congress provided Johnson with the power to defend Southeast Asia with any measures he deemed necessary. By 1965, the U.S. forces sought to engage the VC and NVA in battle. Under General William Westmoreland, head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), defeating the VC and NVA was the top priority. MACV commenced a war of attrition meant to exact a human toll Hanoi could not bear. The use of helicopters to transport soldiers into battle, kill ratios, and failure to retain hard-won ground came to epitomize the war.
Although American officials like Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed a communist defeat was on the horizon, by 1968 the realities in Vietnam proved otherwise. On January 30, during the Vietnamese lunar new year of Tet, VC and NVA forces launched a massive, nationwide assault against South Vietnam’s major population centers. The Communist offensive failed to topple the Saigon government and American and South Vietnamese troops decimated the VC ranks.
The 1968 Tet Offensive was indeed the turning point in the Vietnam War. As a major setback for the communist forces, American-sponsored nation-building efforts flourished across much of South Vietnam. Yet the fallout from Tet proved a public relations triumph for North Vietnam. As the first truly televised war, scenes of fighting, particularly those from Tet, fueled antiwar movements in the US. Images from Vietnam presented an out-of-control conflict where Americans were needlessly dying. The My Lai Massacre, which involved US solders killing unarmed South Vietnamese citizens in March of 1968, further soured public opinion of the war and contributed to the misconception that all American soldiers were murderers.
When the most trusted news anchor in America, Walter Cronkite, declared that the US could not win the war, the Johnson administration knew it had lost public support. With growing antiwar sentiment after years of endless war, Johnson excused himself from the upcoming 1968 presidential election.
After Richard Nixon was elected, his administration sought to disengage America from the war in Vietnam. American combat forces were withdrawn from South Vietnam in a process called Vietnamization. Dubbed “victory with honor,” this process amounted to the American abandonment of South Vietnam, and the US had entered into peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Peace talks, however, stalled as both sides refused to compromise. Hoping the absence of American ground forces would afford a quick victory for Hanoi, the NVA launched a massive assault on South Vietnam known as the 1972 Easter Offensive. Only resilient ARVN units and US airpower stymied the NVA offensive. Consequently, secret negotiations between Hanoi and Washington resulted in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. Omitted from negotiations, the South Vietnamese felt betrayed as the accords permitted NVA units to occupy South Vietnamese territory; the accords also severely curtailed US monetary and military support for Saigon. Without such assistance, the Republic of Vietnam succumbed to communist rule after North Vietnam’s 1975 invasion of the country.
This rapid growth of Asian American communities after 1965 emerged from the exigencies of Vietnam and the broader Cold War. Aware that the nation’s discriminatory immigration laws favoring Western European immigrants were a liability in the Cold War, the US Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965; the act supplanted immigration laws based on national quotas with a system that provided a pathway for skilled workers and the reunification of families. This sparked the migration of scientists, engineers, and other researchers from East Asia who participated in the nation’s defense research industry. Given the shortage of medical professionals in the nation’s urban and rural areas and America’s neo-colonial relationship with the Philippines, at least 25,000 Filipina nurses came to the US in the decades after the 1965 Immigration Act was passed.
The end of America’s wars in Southeast Asia triggered the dislocation of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After an initial exodus of about 100,000 Vietnamese refugees who were characterized by their relative wealth, education, and connections with the US government, over 300,000 additional Vietnamese refugees fled the political and economic instability wrought by the institution of re-education camps and a border war with China. This next wave of migration also included thousands of Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide and smaller numbers of Cham, Mien, and Lao refugees. Although the US sought to assimilate refugees as quickly as possible by dispersing them into America’s interior, Southeast Asian Americans migrated to be with their co-ethnics or to areas with existing Asian communities once they accrued enough capital. Since the 1970s, Asian migrants have been economically diverse, and recent immigration trends have considerably changed the landscape of Asian America. From 2000 to 2010 the Asian American population grew by 46 percent, and there are now over 17.3 million Asian Americans in the US.
In 1969, Americans hailed the moon landing as a profound victory in the “space race” against the Soviet Union that fulfilled the promise of the late John F. Kennedy, who had declared in 1961 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. But while Neil Armstrong said his steps marked “one giant leap for mankind,” and Americans marveled at the achievement, the brief moment of wonder only punctuated years of turmoil. The Vietnam War disillusioned a generation, riots rocked cities, protests hit campuses, and assassinations robbed the nation of many of its leaders. The forward-thinking spirit of a complex decade had waned. Uncertainty loomed.
This chapter was edited by Samuel Abramson, with content contributions by Samuel Abramson, Marsha Barrett, Brent Cebul, Michell Chresfield, William Cossen, Jenifer Dodd, Michael Falcone, Leif Fredrickson, Jean-Paul de Guzman, Jordan Hill, William Kelly, Lucie Kyrova, Maria Montalvo, Emily Prifogle, Ansley Quiros, Tanya Roth, and Robert Thompson.