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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Taking It to the Streets—A Very Violent Time

The 1960s began with the building of the Berlin Wall, separating East and West Berlin, presaging what a divided decade the 1960s would be. “In America, parent fought with child over music, hair length, the war in Vietnam and the viability of the nations oldest principles and institutions” (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 369). The Cold War seemed to be heating up, and Communist Cuba became a cause for concern. In 1961, Kennedy agreed to the Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt by US-backed Cubans to overthrow Fidel Castro, which turned out to be a fiasco. The following year, Kennedy was faced with photographic evidence of missile sites in Cuba, which led to the to the Cuban missile crisis, as Kennedy “quarantined” naval traffic into Cuba. The nation was on the brink and the Air Force went to DEFCON 2, one level short of war; this defining moment of the Cold War “brought humanity to the edge of Armageddon” (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 373). In 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution began and a wave of destruction was unleashed as the entire country of China was turned upside down by Mao and his Red Guard. The Vietnam War was escalating and the first US pilot was shot down and captured in 1964. The war was quickly becoming a quagmire. One of the emblematic atrocities of the war was the My Lai, Massacre where American soldiers killed over 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including women and children.

Violence occurred within America as well. Perhaps the most impactful acts of violence were the assassinations of President Kennedy in 1963, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The death of President Kennedy was a defining moment in the Twentieth Century, and almost everyone old enough to remember the event knows where they were and what they were doing at the time. 70 percent of Americans were watching their televisions by the time JFK’s body arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and 93 percent of the nation watched the funeral, while millions more around the world watched thanks to Telstar. Kennedy’s short presidency was known as “Camelot,” and on November 22, 1963, Camelot ended, and with it America's innocence.

Dr. King was gunned down on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray outside his Memphis hotel room and Robert F. Kennedy was slain on June 6th, just two months later by Sirhan Sirhan in a Los Angeles Hotel. There were church bombings and bus burnings across the south. Medger Evers was murdered in 1963 in Mississippi, as were three civil rights workers in 1964. Malcolm X was killed by a rival in 1965, and the Black Panthers, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, had a shootout with the Oakland police in 1966. That same year, Texas Tower shooter, Charles Whitman killed 16 people at the University of Texas at Austin campus. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist at Baylor University at the time, studied Whitman and other violent criminals and found that play deprivation was a common theme among them. This led Brown to devote his life to the study of play. During the course of his work, Brown discovered the work of Joseph Campbell in 1972 and was instrumental in bringing Campbell's work to the world.

Ernest Hemmingway killed himself with a shotgun in 1961, and Sylvia Plath committed suicide that year as well. Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death in 1962, ruled a probable suicide at the time, continues to haunt her many admirers and she may indeed have been the victim of foul play—with a possible mob or Kennedy connection. At the end of the decade, On July 19, 1969, another tragedy hit the Kennedy clan, as Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, which resulted in the death of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopeckne. This happened the day before his brother John’s dream of putting a man on the moon became a reality.

Urban violence heated up during mid-decade, and it was not limited to Southern cities—Harlem erupted in 1964 and 1967, Watts in 1965, and Detroit in 1967. While some of the violence earlier in the decade ultimately led to civil rights legislation, one week after the voting rights act of 1965, Watts went up in flames—“the expression of a century of repressed rage and frustration” (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 401). Cities and spirits were inflamed:

Between 1964 and 1967, black frustration at the gap between the promise and performance in civil rights reached a flashpoint, and 58 cities exploded in riots that left 141 persons dead and 4,552 injured. These riots were generally spontaneous eruptions that began when minor incidents between police and blacks blew up into urban warfare. The result was shocking damage to life and property. In Watts . . . and in Newark, the fracases began initially over tickets for traffic violations. (Bowen, 1970b, p. 148)

Times had changed. Noting that Martin Luther King, walking through the litter of Watts, was greeted with hostility, William Manchester wrote that the torch had been passed to a new generation, only in this case the torch was no image it was a torch. (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 401)

In Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Russians put a freeze on the Prague Spring, the modest democratic reforms begun by Alexander Dubcek, and students rallied against 650,000 Russian troops and tanks.  College campuses around the world were up in arms, too.  In 1968, SDS members occupied a building at Columbia University, and campus revolts in Paris led to a general strike crippling the French government.  The antiwar movement spawned massive demonstrations, some of them turning very bloody, most memorable of all was the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago, where angry protestors battled police in the streets outside the Convention Center.  The media, too, played its part, as Maltby (1989) notes: 

Television reporting was brutally attracted to scenes of violence and dissent—they made good pictures.  By the end of the 1960s political groups denied conventional access to the media had recognized the staged act of violence as effective means for getting attention.  Terrorism happened for television camera. (p. 172)

In Saigon, to protest of the corruption of the South Vietnamese president and the war itself, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire and cameras caught his self-immolation.

The decade ended with even more violence. In June of 1969, the violence of the Stonewall riots sparked the beginnings of the gay liberation movement, while in August of 1969, Charles Manson and his “family” committed the Sharon Tate murders in a suburb of Los Angeles. In November 1969, at a Rolling Stones's Concert at Altamonte, California, the Hells Angels stabbed a fan who then died. The Vietnam War was still being fought as the decade drew to a close. The war left over 50,000 American soldiers dead, and many thousands more were physically and


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