American Decades

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The 1960s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

 American Decades, 2001

From U.S. History in Context

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Dramatic Changes

The 1960s were a decade of change, often so dramatic that some feared for the American way of life. Minorities, women, and young people challenged the Establishment—mostly white, male, and affluent—to honor the equal rights granted to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution. The conflicts, particularly those over the civil rights of African-Americans, were frequently violent and nearly always dramatic. By the end of the decade the Establishment was still mostly white, male, and affluent, but significant steps had been taken to address the injustices in American society.

The Triumph of Nonviolence

The civil rights movement dominated the attention of white and black Americans during the decade. For African-Americans the 1960s began with the triumphs of nonviolent protestors—led by a Baptist minister from Georgia named Martin Luther King, Jr.—against segregationists in the southern states, Racist whites in the South frequently reacted with violence (and on more than one occasion, cold-blooded murder), but the protestors, mostly college students and white sympathizers from the North, stood their ground. Eventually President John F. Kennedy was obliged to send in federal troops to enforce the laws of the nation, much as his predecessor President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to force school desegregation. The partnership between whites and blacks in the quest for equal rights culminated in the 1963 March on Washington, during which hundreds of thousands of Americans, nearly a quarter of them white, sang and prayed for unity.

Terrifying Desperation

By the middle of the decade, however, frustration was leading civil rights activists to turn away from nonviolent protest of the sort advocated by King. A split formed in the movement: some thought the key to equality lay in encouraging African-Americans to register to vote and participate in the democratic process; but increasingly, radical young blacks urged nothing short of revolution. The call to arms found support among those African-Americans who lived in the inner cities of the industrial North. Fifty years earlier, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South, but by 1960 half of them lived in the North, many in poverty and hopelessness. Rioting, touched off by episodes of police brutality or, in 1968, by the assassination of King, gave terrifying expression to the desperation of millions of Americans. The black power movementsought to instill pride and a sense of self-reliance in the African-American community. Sympathetic whites, confused by the white-devil rhetoric of black power advocates such as Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, wondered if there was a role for them in the struggle any longer.

La Causa

The civil rights movement inspired several similar efforts over the course of the decade. One involved the second largest racial minority in the United States, Chicanos and other Hispanic Americans. Most of them resided in the southwestern United States and California, where their original ancestors had lived before the country was colonized by the Europeans. Like African-Americans, they were frequently the victims of discriminatory laws and economic hardship. But thanks to Cesar Chavez, who organized a two-year strike among the migrant farmworkers of California's wine country; revolutionary groups such as the Alianza Federal de Los Pueblos Libres; and student protests at Los Angeles high schools, Chicanos became more politically active. No longer the "silent minority," they flocked to La Causa (the cause) by the thousands.

Woman's Day

American women asserted their right to social equality more aggressively during the decade, as well. Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique gave voice to the dissatisfaction felt by women whose only source of fulfillment, according to society's standards, was in caring for their husbands and children. Friedan was also instrumental in forming the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, which was intended to work for women's rights the way the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had worked for African-Americans. As had been the case in the civil rights movement, those activists who wanted to participate in the system were mostly drowned out by strident young radicals who wanted to do away with the system entirely. Radical feminists kept their sense of fun, though, whether they were putting hexes on the Wall Street stock exchange or crowning a sheep Miss America. Feminists were never able to achieve passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have explicitly forbidden sex discrimination, but they did successfully lobby for reforms in divorce and abortion laws and greater access to contraceptives, all of which gave women more freedom to control their own destinies.

Challenges to Marriage

The new directions in which women and young people were going added stress to the American family, which had long been considered the backbone of American life. Young people were waiting longer to marry than their parents, and more of them than ever before were questioning the necessity of marrying at all. Divorce rates climbed for married couples of all ages, and sex outside of marriage gained increased acceptance, due to effective, convenient birth control and to the efforts of young people, who had taken up free love as part of their rebellion against the Establishment.


The generation gap grew into an abyss during the 1960s, and young people became more outspoken in their criticism of their elders than ever before. Protests against the military-industrial complex and the war in Vietnam (in which young men of draft age had a keen interest) were waged on college campuses all over the country, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement. Across the bay, in San Francisco, other young people called hippies were trying to establish a whole system of their own—a counterculture—based on free love, loud music, shared property, and lots of hallucinogens and marijuana. For several years the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was home to these flower children, and hippie slang, fashion, and music caught on across the country.

Time for Fun

But hippie culture was only one of the fads that entertained Americans throughout the 1960s. In the midst of considerable strife, people still knew how to have fun. One year the British Invasion (led by the Beatles) would determine what kids listened to and wore; the next it was the surfer sound. Yo-yos and Superballs were favorite toys for the kids, and for the parents, adult coloring books were a fad (they could use their children's crayons). The coloring-book fad reached its peak when the Black Panther coloring book, the fun way to learn about the coming revolution, was condemned on the floor of Congress. On the nation's dance floors a series of dances, including the pony and the swim, took their brief turns in the spotlight. And on college campuses those young scholars who were not protesting or dropping out relaxed by breaking pianos into hundreds of pieces or playing the murder game, kind of an elaborate game of tag.

A More Dangerous Fad

Drug use was a fad during the 1960s, as well. LSD ("acid") was the drug of choice for intellectuals in the early years of the decade, with Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, as its leading advocate. For Leary, the drug was a way to escape the social conditioning that limited human consciousness. Other notables of the time who turned on to acid included literary celebrities Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. Most of acid's leading proponents had their share of scrapes with the law once the drug was made illegal in 1966, but even after that it was consumed freely by the hippies. Likewise, the smell of burning marijuana pervaded the hippie scene. The presence of pot and acid no doubt contributed to the heady quality of the time and inspired some of its more outrageous excesses. As the joke goes, "If you can remember the '60s, you must not have been there." But there was a dark side to the drug use, as well: addiction to amphetamines and heroin caused the deaths of talented young people such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the increasingly competetive (and increasingly violent) underworld drug trade soured the hippies' ideals of peace and love.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994-2001 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning.

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