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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

You Say You Want a Revolution . . .

At the beginning of the decade, sensing a restlessness in the youth of the nation, President Kennedy sought to include young people in efforts such as the Peace Corps, where their emerging impatience and yearning for adventure could be harnessed to serve the greater good.  Jennings and Brewster (1998) note that:

With King, Kennedy, shared the flame of idealism . . . . The torch he said had been passed to a new generation, born in this century . . . . His most famous utterance was the very essence of mid-century grass roots idealism, “Ask not,” he implored Americans, “what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” … “He gave the country back to its best self,” said historian Arthur Slessinger, “wiping away the world’s impression of an old nation of old men, weary, played out, fearful of ideas, change and the future.”  (p. 362)

But with the assassination of JFK in November 1963, disillusionment occurred and the flame of idealism became a torch of revolutionary passion and the youthful yearnings took a countercultural turn instead.  “Like no other divide in a decade of divides, the assassination split American life between what was and what came to be” (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 370); the younger generation embraced revolutionary ideas and rejected and repudiated the generation that nurtured them and universities that educated them (p. 370-371).  Peter Coyote, in describing living in Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s remarks:

“Revolution” was interpreted differently by different people.  For some it meant political overthrow.  For some it meant a change of consciousness . . . . a change of style . . . long hair and dope at the office… You would wake up every morning and you had no idea what the day would bring . . . there was a sense of adventure, random combinations. (Jennings & Brewster, p. 393)

The restlessness of the 1960s was evident on many fronts, from civil rights, to women’s rights, to gay liberation at the end of the decade.  Betty Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique in 1963 and formed NOW (The National Organization for Women) in 1966.  The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlawed sexual discrimination; women became increasingly involved in the workforce and in higher education.  Contraception became widely available in the 1960s due to the approval of “the Pill” by the Food and Drug Administration, which increased women’s choices over their reproductive lives and helped to fuel the sexual revolution.  The “Summer of Love,” as the summer of 1967 was known, was ushered in at the Monterey International Pop Festival, and the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York in 1969 became one of the major icons of the decade.  Over 400,000 people attended Woodstock that August and:

Images of nudity, sexual freedom and drug use at Woodstock struck Americans with horror or fascination, depending on their point of view or age. The festival earned a permanent place in American culture as one of the defining moments of the 1960s.  It represented an open, classless society of music, sex, drugs, love, and peace, all the more so because the event remained largely free of violence and the tragic consequence one might expect for a gathering so large and so young.  For many, it seemed to promise a new America.  (Rielly, 2003, p. 171)

In 1964, the same year that the “British invasion” began with the Beatles's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, rebelliousness in other forms occurred as pirate radio stations began broadcasting from boats offshore of England, and Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity.  It was not all sex, drugs, and rock and roll however.  The environment also became a cause of concern, after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which showed the danger of pesticides.  The first Clean Air Act was passed in the 1960s as well as the Wilderness act, which aimed at wilderness preservation. A limited test ban treaty was also signed by several nations, during the decade, which put restraints on nuclear testing. 

Perhaps taking their cue from the civil rights movement, students on college campuses began to speak out, beginning with the Free Speech Movement at University of California at Berkeley in 1964, which became a massive student protest for free speech and academic freedom. This event was seen as the origin of other student protest movements.  Even the Olympic medal ceremony became a place of protest, when in 1968 during the Summer Olympics in Mexico, two African-American winners stood silently with heads down and right fists raised, to focus attention on the Black Power movement.

As America's involvement in the Vietnam war grew, so did the antiwar sentiment. Antiwar activists protested in a variety of ways from teach-ins, starting at the University of Michigan in 1965, to sit-ins, demonstrations, draft-card burnings, and flag burnings. Renowned author and pediatrician Dr. Spock was tried and convicted for conspiracy to aid draft dodgers, although his conviction was later overturned. In 1967, Muhammed Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion for asserting conscientious objector status due to his Black Muslim beliefs. His conviction was later overturned and his title was subsequently reinstated.

Antiwar sentiment grew as the decade progressed. In October 1967, 35,000 people marched on Washington D.C. to protest the war. In 1968, a massive antiwar protest in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention turned violent as police clashed with angry protestors. On October 15, 1969 hundreds of thousands of people took part in a National Moratorium against the war, while a month later, on November 15, over 250,000 people took part in massive peaceful demonstration in Washington D.C..


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