18 Aug 2009

Sample Essay: Youth Activism During The 1960s

The 1960s was a revolution by almost any definition. Americans revolted against conventional moral conduct, civil rights violations, authoritarianism in universities, gender discrimination, the establishment, and, of course, the war in Southeast Asia. Within a generation, the national consensus forged during the nation’s victorious effort in World War II had come under attack. A counterculture of hippies, or young people distressed with mainstream society, challenged widely accepted cultural practices and espoused an alternative lifestyle. Conflict and disillusionment, as expounded in Tom Hayden 1962 Port Huron Statement, a declaration of counterculture political ideology inaugurating the emergence of the New Left, abruptly shattered social harmony. Traditional conformity gave way to unprecedented individualism and a reexamination of the conventional code of conduct. Change is inevitable and seldom a graceful operation, but the Cultural Revolution it produced in the 1960s was as profound as it was pervasive, touching virtually every aspect of American life.

Americans in the Sixties, the term “counterculture” referred to the lifestyle of those whom they generally called “hippies.” At least some of these hippies, also known as “freaks” and “longhairs,” sought to create an alternative way of life that overlapped with the more general youth culture but which went much further in its alienation from middle-class consumer society (David DeLeon, 1994). These young men and women struggled to set up their own economic, cultural, and even political structures. Many hoped to become relatively independent from mainstream America.

The most visible manifestations of the counterculture took shape by the mid-1960s in numerous cities and towns around the country. Hippie districts-like the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Old Town in Chicago, the Lower East Side in New York City, and Dinky town in Minneapolis-began to flower. In these places young people ranging in age from their late teens to their late twenties-many of them runaways-began to congregate (John C. McWilliams, Randall M. Miller, 2000). They set up “crash pads,” “communal” houses, food co-ops, and an array of restaurants, rock clubs, bookstores, and “head shops.” The most successful among them built semi-separate urban enclaves in which they could pursue an alternative way of life.

These lifestyle experiments challenged most Americans’ values, In SanFrancisco, the Diggers, an edgy, loosely affiliated group of men and women, scorned consumer society and attempted to create a subculture independent of the monetary economy. They believed that everything should be “free,” with goods and services bartered, exchanged, or simply given away (Diane B. Kunz, 1994). In 1967 and 1968, they and their allies set up a free-food giveaway in Golden Gate Park, and also established a free store, a free transportation network, free medical care, and free concerts featuring rock groups like the Grateful Dead. They, and many others like them around the country, set up rural communes and a variety of co-ops that fostered a collective, non-materialistic way of life. Rejecting traditional standards of behavior and seeking new experiences, the young people of the counterculture openly embraced drug use and often practiced a far more open and “liberated” sexuality than the norm. They used marijuana and hallucinogenic such as LSD and peyote.

By the time John F. Kennedy became president in 1960, the situation in Vietnam was grave. The first major anti-war protest was held in Washington, D.C., in April 1965. It was sponsored by the New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Paul Potter, president of SDS, declared that the Vietnam War revealed that America was run “by faceless and terrible bureaucracies … that consistently put material values before human values.”(Randall M. Miller, 2000) Potter argued that the American government was no longer ruled by the democratic wishes of the people but by “the system,” which made policies in secret and then manipulated the American people into following them. Protesting the war, SDS activists believed, was one small step in challenging the Washington policy-makers by restoring the citizens’ right to be heard on matters of vital concern to the nation.

University campuses became centers for the growing antiwar movement. Student protesters espoused the basic democratic belief that it was the duty of American citizens not to leave policy-making to government officials but to speak out and be heard. By 1968, as the war showed little sign of ending, campus-based protests took place at almost every university in the nation. At Columbia University, for example, several hundred students attempted to close down the school by sitting in at several campus buildings, protesting both against the war and against alleged racism by university administrators. At other schools, students as well as faculty held “teach-ins” to discuss the war, protested against campus-based war research, marched, picketed and rallied. Antiwar activism was restricted neither to small organized groups nor to university campuses. Several nationally organized protests took place.

During the Sixties era, racial justice and the Vietnam War were not the only sources of conflict in American society. People from all walks of life often heatedly debated how to lead a good life amid national prosperity. While the majority celebrated the material abundance that prosperity made possible, some young people scorned what they regarded as the soulless materialism of America’s consumer society. By the early 1960s, white teenagers had fallen into a decade-long love affair with a very different kind of rock music.

In February 1964 the number-one hit song in the United States was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by a British group called the Beatles (Hilary Radner, Moya Luckett, 1999). Until they announced their break-up in 1970, the Beatles were the most popular music group in the United States, selling records almost exclusively to young people. Young people cherished the Beatles not only because they were brilliant pop musicians but because their confident, rebellious, adventurous style perfectly expressed the spirit of their times. Almost completely apolitical (though at the end of the decade John Lennon did speak out against the Vietnam War), the Beatles offered a youthful insouciance that entertained and inspired their fans. When John Lennon announced in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he appalled most adults, but Beatles fans heard in his words an acknowledgment of their own power to bend American culture to their desires and aspirations.

The hippies were not the only alternative cultural movement in the United States in the 1960s. While their actions were less publicized, many African Americans also deliberately turned away from so-called mainstream culture. They rejected “white” society and built on generations of ancestral struggle to create a black cultural-nationalism. Evoking an African-American worldview, this cultural struggle was a key component of the Black Power movement. While aspects of this movement, like that of the primarily white counterculture, would be co-opted by mainstream America, the black nationalists of the 1960s offered African Americans a distinctly alternative set of cultural expressions and practices.

The purpose and power of the African-American cultural movement was best articulated and promoted by Malcolm X, who was, until shortly before his assassination in 1965, a leader of the Nation of Islam (popularly known as the Black Muslims). Speaking before a large crowd in Harlem in 1964, he explained: “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. We must launch a cultural revolution to un-brainwash an entire people.” Malcolm X and other black nationalists believed that African Americans needed to take pride in their African heritage, hold up their own standards of beauty and culture, and create black-controlled and community-based institutions. Through these actions, African Americans could gain greater control over their individual lives and their communities. Black cultural nationalism was a pointedly political ideology.

In practice, black cultural nationalism took multiple forms. Most visibly, African Americans in the 1960s began to reject white standards of appearance. Prior to the mid-1960s, many black men and women used harsh chemicals to straighten their hair so that it would look like white people’s hair. And many within the African-American community placed a premium on having light skin and Euro-American features. Black cultural nationalists tried, too, to build alternative institutions and cultural practices that would promote what they called an African-American worldview. Some cultural nationalists believed that it was necessary to create an entirely new school curriculum that featured black achievements and prepared African-American young people to challenge the political and economic system that had made them second-class citizens from birth. Maulana Ron Karenga, a Los Angles-based activist, invented a new African-inspired set of beliefs, the Nguzu Saba, and a new holiday, Kwanzaa, to help African Americans create a cultural alternative to mainstream white society. Insistently political, black cultural nationalism was popular among African Americans of all ages, particularly the young (Adolph Reed Jr., 1986).

This movement directly affected white Americans as well. African Americans, with support from some whites, successfully pressed for the inclusion of black history and African-American literature into school curriculums, at all levels and in all districts. Over time, many Americans would come to accept the idea of multiculturalism, in which it is assumed that the heritages and traditions of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States should be shown equal respect. While some of the political rage that animated Black Power leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael in the mid-1960s was dissipated by the mid-1970s, the black cultural-nationalist movement did not end with the Sixties. Sixties culture took many forms. Much divided the countercultural hippies, black cultural nationalists, and the exuberant consumers of Detroit’s muscle cars. Yet, in some ways, these very different cultural expressions were linked. All expressed a growing acceptance of cultural pluralism in the United States. To some extent, this cultural pluralism was a natural outgrowth of America’s expanding consumer marketplace, in which people-at least those with disposable income-were free to purchase an extraordinary array of goods and services that were expressive of whatever lifestyle they wished to pursue. More and more Americans accepted the idea that personal expression and individual freedom were a critical aspect of the American way of life. While this notion sounds like it could be a “hippie” credo, it was very much at the core of mainstream culture as well. The Sixties were a time of tremendous consumer power, racial unrest, civil disorder, and cultural rebellion. All these forces combined to create a far more open, pluralistic, individualistic, and chaotic culture, the effects of which Americans are still confronting.


The 1960s Cultural Revolution. John C. McWilliams, Randall M. Miller: Greenwood Press. Westport, CT. Publication Year: 2000.

The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations during the 1960s. Diane B. Kunz – editor. Columbia University Press New York. 1994.

Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism. David DeLeon: Greenwood Press: Westport, CT.: 1994

Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960’s. Adolph Reed Jr.: Greenwood Press: New York. 1986.

America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. Maurice Isserman, Michael Kazin: Oxford University Press. New York. 2000.

Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s. Hilary Radner, Moya Luckett -: University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis. 1999

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