This retrospective written by Jules Loh, AP newsfeatures writer, appeared in the Winona Daily News Dec. 28, 1969.
Robert Frost spoke of the promise of the 1960s on that blustery Inauguration Day — remember? — when the sun blinded his eyes but not his vision:
“A Golden Age of poetry and power, of which this noonday’s the beginning hour...”
Now the decade of the ‘60s is ended. The old poet is dead. And the new generation of Americana to whom the young president, also dead, so hopefully passed the torch seem in great measure to be thumbing their noses at the whole sweep of their inheritance.
The nation’s proud cities bear the scars of riots. Its college campuses boil with “unrest,” as it is called with some inadequacy, And a war in a jungle half a world away has rent the nation as nothing has since the Civil War. What happened to the dream?
If the past is truly prologue, it should be useful to look back and see...
“Never before in history,” exulted Time magazine in an article titled “Growth in Freedom” the week the decade began, “had so many enjoyed so much of life’s good things.”
In January 1960, there was little argument.
The gross national product was a record $482 billion, the Dow-Jones Industrials a record 685.47. Jet airplanes were proving to be “astonishingly popular” with travelers soon to be loosely classified as a “set.”
Housewives enjoyed a plethora of labor-saving devices, the latest a silicone-coated frying pan. Ballpoint pens, at last, could write underwater. Golf carts and snowmobiles came to the aid of those seeking exercise. Businessmen, 15 million of them, owned credit cards, a new convenience to which one San Francisco supper club owner attributed a 40 percent jump in champagne sales. Madison Avenue ad men were frantically running one idea after another up the flagpole to see who would salute and discovered that, impact-wise, automobile tail fins were terrific.
Not since the ’20s, it seemed, had Americans been quite so hell bent on striking it rich.
William Nickerson wrote a book titled “How I Turned $1,000 into a Million in Real Estate” and almost overnight books on making money outsold books on making love — but that would change. Nicholas Darvas wrote “How I Made $2 Million in the Stock Market.” How? Darvas advocated “a detached mental attitude,” counseling many of the same readers who bought W. Clement Stone’s book, “Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude.”
It was a heady beginning of a new decade, all right. And if Russia occasionally did something to unsettle American nerves, like shoot down a U-2 spy plane or explode a 50-megaton bomb or hit the moon with a rocket, there was still evidence that the American ideal would endure. Did not a one-time country school teacher become vice president? Did not the Yankees win the pennant?
The picture of a cozy America basking smugly in split-level comfort is admittedly a shade overdrawn.
Russia bad indeed unsettled American nerves. Soviet achievements in space, guided missiles, numbers of graduate engineers and even the Olympic Games sent the republic into periodic fits of paranoia. It became so bad at one point the president felt obliged to tell the people to have faith and not to worry. Dictatorships could achieve temporary efficiency by turning nations into armed camps, President Eisenhower explained, but men ultimately choose freedom and thus, because of their system, Russian accomplishments contained “seeds of destruction.”
Maybe so, but to great numbers of Americans it was embarrassing. It was not enough, for instance, that the U-2 was shot down, but America had lied about it.
It was embarrassing when five major electrical concerns were caught rigging bids. Embarrassing when four major national advertisers were caught using trickery in TV commercials. Embarrassing when Teddy Nadler flunked his exam to become a census taker. Teddy Nadler? He was the chap who “won” $264,000 on a TV quiz show the year before.
Others in those early days of 1960 were not so much embarrassed as angry.
One group was a loose-knit committee of students from 15 large universities who didn’t like the idea of compulsory ROTC. They sent notes of protest to their respective administrations. The notes presumably were duly filed away.
Another group was smaller, four freshmen from the Negro Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina. They took their protest not through channels but through the front door of the F.W. Woolworth store on South Elm Street in Greensboro and sat down at the lunch counter. Just sat down.
Both events were like rocks tossed in still ponds. Each made something of a splash where it hit — but only one made waves.
No one could file away the Negroes’ protest. Somebody had to do something, even if only what a lunch counter proprietor in Charlotte did when the waves reached him, which was to unscrew the seats.
The advantage of hindsight reveals other ripples on the 1960 pond.
Item. American gun dealers imported huge stocks of surplus small arms from Europe. Among them, a half million cheap Italian Mannlicher-Caracano rifles.
- While the sit-ins in the South were getting the headlines, residents of Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb, endorsed a $550,000 bond issue to turn a home development site into an unneeded park when they got word that 12 of the 51 proposed homes would be sold to blacks.
- French soldiers, holding that France’s presence in Algeria was wrong, refused to serve there.
- Student-1ed mobs caused the president of the United States to cancel a visit to Japan; students helped toss out Premier Adnah Menderes of Turkey; students toppled the Korean government of Syngman Rhee. Why did students abroad behave so differently from American kids who blew off steam in football games and panty raids? “We could no longer trust the politicians and generals to get rid of corruption and other vices, nor could we expect the public to rise against the government,” said Lee Chung Soo, 20, of Seoul.
- Labor leader A. Philip Randolph, protesting lily white locals in the AFL-CIO, organized the Negro American Labor Council. Black separatism? Randolph was hard put to convince anyone that Negroes weren’t interested so much in “integration” into the good life as access to it.
Thus the decade began.
Even the most prescient could not detect all the auguries of 1960, could not foresee that the characteristic marks the tumultuous years would leave in their march to 1970 would be a trail of shattered icons.
Looking back, three voices presage the coming years.
John F. Kennedy looked over the land, overlooked the prosperity, and said: “Seven million Americans have income of less than $2,000; 15 million are on a substandard diet; 17 million are not covered even by the $1 minimum wage; more than three million unemployed workers have jobless benefits averaging less than $31 a week.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked out from his bomb-splintered front porch and said: ‘’We will wear down the resistance of the whites by our capacity to suffer and love.”
Across the Atlantic, Pope John XXIII sniffed the stuffiness within his own venerable institution and said: “It is time to open the windows and let in some fresh air.”
Challenge and change. The spirit spread. Old assumptions began coming unstuck. Self-examination became a national mystique. Words like “relevant” and “involvement” and “meaningful” and “commitment” saturated the vocabulary. No institution, agency, person, idea was above scrutiny. Did Columbus discover America? Was God dead?
Challenge and change; attributes of youth. Not surprisingly, youth provided the character and style as well as the shock troops for the decade’s two great social upheavals, the peace movement and the Negro revolt.
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Few Americans took the peace demonstrators seriously when they first appeared.
Their movement had little steam. Small groups — students with beards, tweedy intellectuals, young mothers pushing prams — picketed the commissioning of Polaris submarines.
When Martin Segal, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at New York University, refused to take shelter during a civil defense air raid test, he told the judge who sentenced him to five days: “We must assume personal responsibility for peace. As more of us do, the movement will grow.”
Except for occasional headlines difficult to interpret, such as a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation and five quick changes of government in Saigon, the “nasty little jungle war” in Vietnam was not getting much attention in America.
Battle casualties among the 16,000 Americans serving there mounted steadily and the Pentagon conceded that the “advisors” often unavoidably participated in the fighting. But until a steamy August night in 1964, out in the Gulf of Tonkin, the word “escalation” still referred to moving stairs.
After that night there was no question which direction the peace movement would take.
In the minds of many Americans, however, the peace marchers remained an unrealistic, unpatriotic, undisciplined, unwashed horde of screwballs who ought to be in class. To voice dissent from the war was to identify with them; most Americans chose to remain silent or to qualify their stand by saying the president knows best.
Before the decade was out the movement which had begun as quietly as a folk song had driven a president from office, split a political convention, mustered millions under its circular banner in demonstrations from coast to coast and engineered the most massive outpouring of personal protest the nation’s capital had ever witnessed.
Posters, songs, chants, slogans, marching feet — these were the ordinance of the great social battles of the ‘60s, a decade of demonstrations.
There were freedom rides and boycotts and a march to Washington and a march to Montgomery and all manner of “ins” — sit-ins, stand-ins, pray-ins, love-ins, swim-ins — and if there was no name for it, it was a “happening.”
The form of demonstration that came to full flower In the ‘60s was the Gandhian tactic of civil disobedience: non-violent passive resistance.
It was no joke. Put to use in the bloody civil rights movement in the South, the strategy of direct confrontation made ogres of Bull Connor and Jim Clark and of the hundreds who supported them with brickbats and bombs; heroes of James Meredith and Aulherine Lucy and of the thousands who spilled out of Dixie’s clapboard churches and into Dixie’s jails.
It turned cities into symbols: Birmingham, Selma, St. Augustine, Albany, Jackson. It brought a Nobel Peace Prize to its leading apostle, Martin Luther King, and produced a hagiology of martyrs that included students, choir girls, a postman, field hand, housewife, seminarian and, in the end, King himself.
For 100 years following the Emancipation Proclamation the “Southern way of life” systematically excluded Negroes. “A reckoning was bound to come,” said John W. Gardner, the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. It came in the ‘60s.
And in the North?
It had quite escaped the concern if not the attention of most Americans when the decade began that none of the seven cities with the largest Negro populations was in the Deep South. That Detroit was more black then New Orleans. That for 15 years southern Negroes had been migrating to one city, Los Angeles, at the rate of 2,000 a month. That the absence of signs in Northern cities saying “whites only” did not mean the absence of racism.
Negroes in the South tore down those signs and tasted victory. What would Negroes tear down in the North where the most blatant signs of discrimination were the very ghettos where they lived? And what prophet would the blacks in the teeming northern slums turn to? A Martin Luther King in a distant pulpit preaching turn the other cheek? Or a Malcolm X on a familiar corner preaching an eye for an eye?
“America’s most dangerous and threatening black man is the one who has been kept sealed up by the Northerner in the black ghettos,” Malcolm X warned shortly before ghetto blacks murdered him.
Two weeks after President Johnson signed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in a century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks in the South rejoiced and blacks in New York’s Harlem marched to their precinct house.
“Go home, go home!” a white police captain pleaded. From the mob a sardonic voice keened, “We are home, baby.”
Harlem burned. The first of the long, hot summers. Before the leaves turned, a half dozen other metropolises went up in flames and a new phrase was coined: white backlash.
The following year, determined Negroes and whites singing, “We Shall Overcome” marched down the Jefferson Davis Highway in Alabama and wrung from Congress a Voting Rights Act; and frenzied blacks screaming “burn, baby, burn!” rampaged through the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles.
“Black power’ was the cry the next year and 16 cities exploded — only a prelude to the summer of ‘67, the longest and hottest, when riots blitzed 114 communities. In 1968, the violent did not wait for summer. The shot that killed Martin Luther King in April echoed in a paroxysm of burning and pillaging in 100 cities. The struggle for equality in the South begat martyrs, in the North only victims: 34 dead in Watts, 43 in Detroit, more than 125 all told.
The two parallel movements — which eventually ignored geometric laws and became one, “Peace and Freedom” — produced nearly as much irony as agony.
Students, for example, won attention if not admiration early in the decade by forthrightly going to jail to expose the evils of war and racism. Then, they laid siege to their campuses to assert their demands, one of which invariably was that they not be punished.
Other foibles of the ‘60s were less melancholy. Like the college craze of stuffing people into phone booths. Stacking beer cans. Holding an annual tropical blast at Daytona Beach or Ft. Lauderdale, during which bacchanalias Western Union had to put on extra operators to handle pleas for bail money. Like the revival of junk, which was peddled as art, and vice versa, and the revival of comic books which were peddled as ... well, they were “camp.”
The dollar dropped 23 cents in value during the decade and income increased enough, but just enough, to match the decline, and so the mores and folkways of the republic still reflected its affluence.
Dog food outsold baby food. Dog jewelry and dog cemeteries made their long-awaited appearance. So did discotheques and pizza parlors. Wine consumption went up and beer consumption down. Women took to smoking cigars and going to pool rooms, men to wearing lace and going to hair stylists. Hair was big in the ‘60s — or long. At first, unshorn kids got sent home from school but later even Rotary Club members sported lobe length sideburns in a wistful attempt to close the generation gap.
Indeed, there was a succession of gaps: missile, dollar, credibility. And of powers: flower (love thy neighbor), black (love thy brother), green (love thy broker).
Whether God’s death during the ‘60s was an exaggeration, there were, alive and present, great numbers of gurus, yogis and astrologers. Some Americans also became sweat worshippers, hiking 50 miles, jogging around the neighborhood.
Other boons to modern living were skateboards, surfboards, sitars, air horns for football games, love beads, pop art, state lotteries, talk shows, elephant jokes, permanent press. Electric trains gave way to road racing cars and dolls became more like people.
No change during the ‘60s was more pervasive than the decline of American Puritanism.
Take clothes. The decade began with a song about a girl too shy to appear on the beach in her “itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie, yellow, polka-dot bikini,” a bit of haberdashery Roman ladies discovered in the 4th century. It ended with fashions celebrating either a new appreciation of Gunga Din, who wore “nothing much before and rather less than ‘arf of that behind,” or the biological fact that the American woman is a bipedal mammal.
It was called a sexual revolution, some said spurred by the advent of The Pill. Whatever caused it, as the hemline went up, established barriers came down.
The 16-year-old actress who played Lolita would have been barred in some states from seeing her own film when it was released in 1961. By the end of the decade anybody and his children could watch it in the living room on the late show.
As other decades, the ‘60s produced its own lexicon of fad expressions. Every cat had his own bag, did his own thing, got down to the nitty gritty. The four-letter word went public. Except, of course, among the uptight who had a hangup about their image.