The 1960s

The 1960s brought an immense shift in American culture. What began as a decade of promise launching from the prosperity of the 1950s became a decade of great unrest. Families across America witnessed the first televised presidential debates, the arrival of the Beatles, approval of birth control pills, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the March on Washington and men on the moon.

Television engrossed the population. The Apollo missions brought space to America’s doorstep and technology made leaps and bounds bringing new jobs, tools, and consumer goods to market. The United States economy experienced its longest uninterrupted period of expansion in history during the 1960s.

At the same time, social changes were stretching the fabric of the country farther than it had ever gone. The civil rights movement, the rise of a new counterculture, a re-emergence of feminism, and a growing population and a generation of baby boomers about to enter college all contributed to the sweeping changes that rocked the nation. It was a time of great strides forward matched with devastating tragedies, and of questioning, protests and the rise of new voices.

A popular and charismatic cultural figure, John F. Kennedy was elected president at the front of the decade, signaling a youthful and hopeful era. His presidency was marked by the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, Cuban Missile Crisis, and the disaster known as the Bay of Pigs before November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was shot twice while riding in an open car as part of a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as his successor that night.

Two separate federal inquires investigated Kennedy’s assassination and both declared that no conspiracy led to the shooting, but his assassination has become a constant source of intrigue for skeptics. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert Kennedy in 1968 brought a palpable vulnerability the country had not known.

The war in Vietnam stemmed from the communist North’s desire to unite with the south into one communist country. The United States had long had a vested interest in Vietnam, but did not send troops in until the 1960s. Despite the massive air effort combined with the superior ground forces, the US withdrew forces in 1973 after a treaty was reached following staggering losses on both sides. Detailed news and television coverage brought closer scrutiny from Americans back home and influenced protests and draft dodging across the country.

1967 marked a shift in support of the war in America as students, intellectuals, clergymen, and others began to protest the war. Massive sit-ins and vocal protests became common on university and college campuses across the country. A military draft lottery was instituted in 1969 and the only ways to avoid the draft came by burning one’s draft card, fleeing the country, seeking higher education, or reporting oneself as a conscientious objector.

Largely middle-class white university students made up the bulk of the 1960s counterculture. During this period members of Students for a Democratic Society, a university based organization that helped organize protests on campuses across the country, gained traction as a center for the counterculture. The Free Speech Movement also took route in college campuses across the country as students asserted their rights to criticize and call for change. These groups utilized non-violent forms of protest such as sit-ins and occupation of campus buildings. The anti-war movement took hold in 1965 on campuses across America with many groups using the same forms of non-violent protest. The Hippie movement focused on free love and peace and the expansion of the mind through experimentation with drug use and forms of meditation.

Led mainly by college-educated mothers and inspired by the civil rights movement second-wave feminism fought for workplace equality, a decrease in sexual abuse and violence, and social and cultural equality. Along with arguing for equality at home, the second-wave feminist movement also brought global female treatment into the eyes of the public with protests, governmental organizations, and charities focusing on infanticide and sexual violence in the developing world.

Rooted in the effort to expel the racism and injustice that surrounded the post-emancipation American South, the Civil Rights Movement was a mass protest movement against racial segregation and prejudice that gained momentum in United States in the 1950s. The series of non-violent protests, boycotts, strikes, and sit-ins that made up the movement came to national attention in the mid-1950s, raising awareness for all Americans to the injustices happening towards African-Americans in the United States. By the 1960s the non-violent protests gave rise to the black power movement consisting of young African-Americans who were fed up with the slow pace the non-violent route provided. Instead, confrontation was viewed as the best means to an end of the longstanding economic, cultural, and social injustices towards blacks throughout America and included such leaders as Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Through his leadership and practice of nonviolent protest, King was associated with civil rights victories such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a sniper’s bullet while on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Two days later James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination and received a prison sentence of 99 years. Ray later recanted his statement claiming that he was forced into a confession and was the victim of a conspiracy.

Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist and first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. He worked tirelessly to organize voter registration and institute economic boycotts throughout the state in the fight for civil rights. Medgar Evers was killed in 1963 during an ambush in front of his home by Byron de La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.