I’ve written and re-written this opening so many times because this decade was so divisive, dangerous, hopeful, and heart-breaking. It’s difficult to wrap my brain around all that this pivotal decade meant to our nation.
A Nice Beginning:
In 1960, The Brat Pack made a splash into this new decade with Ocean’s Eleven. Joanne Woodward was given the first star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the country “Met The Flintstones” for the first time. John F. Kennedy narrowly beat incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon (the popular vote margin was 0.17). Some say JFK owed his victory to the fact that the debates were televised for the first time and Kennedy was more attractive on television. Either way, the nation soared into the new decade with a fresh-faced president who implored the people to, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It was a message that encouraged action and people listened.
An early low point in JFK’s short presidency was the Bay of Pigs (1961). I remember sitting in history class in high school and thinking I misheard my teacher. Bay of Pigs sounded funny to me. Of course, it wasn’t funny. Trained by the CIA, Cuban exiles attempted to overthrow the government of dictator, Fidel Castro. More than 100 of the exiles died and the other 1,200 were taken as prisoners. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the bloodshed that marked the 60’s.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war when The Soviet Union installed and pointed missiles from Cuba directly at the US. It was a terrifying time for Americans.
There is one moment of the 60’s I don’t have to describe. On November 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade rolled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. His shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald was killed on live TV days later by Jack Ruby. Like The Challenger for kids of the 80’s, and 911 for those of the early 2000’s, the JFK Assassination is burned into the memories of kids of the 60’s. They remember feeling terrified as parents and teachers openly cried in front of them.
The assassinations of Malcom X (1965), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April, 1968) and Bobby Kennedy (June, 1968) followed.
The Sixties were plagued with wars. The Cold War was a constant, terrible threat. Beginning in 1947, this heated stand-off between the US and The Soviet Union remained until 1991. Some of the most terrifying moments of The Cold War occurred in the 60’s, and many American’s believed they would experience nuclear devastation in their lifetime.
When Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency following JFK’s assassination, he hoped to fight the War on Poverty. He hoped to improve living conditions for residents of low-income neighborhoods by helping the poor access economic opportunities they didn’t have.
Unfortunately, here was simply not enough money to pay for the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War. Conflict in Southeast Asia had been going on since the 1950s, and President Johnson had inherited a substantial American commitment to anti-communist South Vietnam. Soon after he took office, he escalated that commitment into a full-scale war. In 1964, Congress authorized the president to take “all necessary measures” to protect American soldiers and their allies from the communist Viet Cong. Within days, the draft began. On January 30, 1968, communist forces launched a massive surprise attack (the Tet Offensive). Images of dead soldiers on TV horrified Americans and many who supported the war began to change their minds.
The Six-Day War felt like something out of the Old Testament. The Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948. Many countries (including the US) supported a nation for the Jews, but the neighboring Arab countries didn’t want them there. In 1967, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria planned an attack, but Israel struck first by bombing Egypt and pushing back troops from all three countries. In a matter of 6 days, the war was over and Israel was victorious. They only lost 700 troops verses the 18,000 Arab casualties.
One of the most courageous people of our time, Malala Yousafzai, said, “If people were silent, nothing would change.” Because the sixties were marked with injustice, bloodshed, and wars, they were also marked with protests.
One such protest, took place at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Known as the Greensboro Four, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil staged a sit-in. They were all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and although this wasn’t the first or only sit-in in the country, it was a catalyst to the subsequent sit-in movement in which 70,000 people participated. After six months, Woolworth's began allowing black people at their lunch counters. Today, the former site of this Woolworth’s is the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
“I Have a Dream”:
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave his riveting “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of 250,000 people. This speech marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement in America and is one of the most iconic speeches in American History. I wrote about MLK earlier this year. My family and I are always moved by his courage and determination to see justice for his people. In 1964, MLK Jr. Won the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated all the prize money to civil rights causes.
While not technically a protest, a new bestseller in 1963 caused women to question their role in society. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan sold 3 million copies in its first three years and would spark the women’s movement.
On March 5, 1965, 525 civil rights demonstraters were attacked in Selma, Alabama on their way to march to Montgomery. Two days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. held a prayer service on the bridge where the attacks took place. King, and 25,000 demonstrators completed a four-day march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25. In response to these events, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a bill for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was signed into law on August 6th.
The Death of a Hero
At 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, April 4,1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. News of King’s assassination prompted major outbreaks of racial violence, resulting in more than 40 deaths nationwide and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities. James Earl Ray, a 40-year-old escaped fugitive, later confessed to the crime and was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. During King’s funeral a recording was played. In it, King said: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others”
1968 Democratic Convention:
As delegates flowed into the International Amphitheatre on August 26, 1968 to nominate a Democratic Party presidential candidate, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the streets of Chicago to rally against the Vietnam War. At first, the mood was upbeat in Lincoln Park where protestors had set up camp, but when police were asked to enforce the 11:00 curfew, the violence began. At home in their living rooms, terrifi Americans alternated between watching images of police brutally beating young, blood-splattered demonstrators and Humphrey’s nomination. One delegate went so far as to refer to the police violence as “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to enter the military and fight in the Vietnam War. As a Muslim, he was a conscientious objector to service. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and originally found guilty for refusing to serve. The Supreme Court later overturned the decision in 1971. Throughout his exile from boxing, Ali fortified his beliefs with public speaking engagements and continued to be one of America’s most outspoken voices.
On October, 16, 1968, after Tommie Smith and John Carlos medaled in the 200 meters at the Summer Olympics, both men took the medal stand and raised a fist covered by a black glove. The symbolic moment was intended to protest inequalities in America; both athletes were largely criticized at the time, but the image of Smith and Carlos with their fists in the air has become an iconic marker in American civil rights history.
From August 15-18, more than 400,000 music fans gathered to hear the music of Richie Havens, Joan Baez, The Who, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jimi Hendrix. The festival was actually held about 40 miles southwest of Woodstock, NY on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.
With all the bloodshed, political unrest, and uncertainty that prevaded the 60’s, people looked to things that gave them hope. One of those things was the space race. Since the Soviet Union sent the first human to space in 1961, the people at NASA worked tirelessly to make strides toward space. On October 11, Apollo 7, the first manned flight in NASA’s Apollo program successfully lunched into orbit.
In November, 1965, Braniff Airlines debuted a space-age fashion accessory for its stewardesses — the "bubble bonnet," designed by Emilio Pucci. The airline explained that the purpose of the bonnet was to protect the hair of the stewardesses from wind and rain as they crossed the tarmac. Stewardesses, however, complained that it was hard to hear anyone while wearing it.
Then, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. His “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” speech gave a battered, broken nation hope in so many ways.
During tough times, like a war, entertainment is often used as a balm. It’s upbeat, easy-going -an escape. One show that saw the nation through a lot of hard times was The Dick Van Dyke Show which premiered in 1961. Originally, the action was to be centered around Rob Petrie (Dick van Dyke) and his two work colleagues played by Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. However, the on-screen chemistry between Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore was so incredible, most of the action was centered around them in their home.
On October 3, 1962, Groucho Marx introduced a new host of The Tonight Show: Johnny Carson. His first guests were Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee, and The Phoenix Singers.
One of the biggest moments of the 60’s happened on February 9, 1964 when The Beatles first performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. They pulled roughly three-fourths of the total audience in America at the time.
One of the best years for music was 1966. Here are just some of the releases: The Beatles' Revolver (and then they begin recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band later this year); The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde; The Rolling Stones' Aftermath; The Kinks' Face to Face; Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme and The Sounds of Silence; The Who's A Quick One; Cream's Fresh Cream; Stevie Wonder's Down to Earth. The Velvet Underground also record what will become The Velvet Underground & Nico (released in 1967).
Also in 1968, “2001: A Space Odyssey was released. This groundbreaking science fiction movie wasn’t well-received, but is now considered one of the most important films in American cinema history.
America welcomed The Brady Bunch into their homes as well as some pretty wonderful puppets in 1969. On November 10, Sesame Street debuted featuring a mix of live actors, puppets, and animation. Since then, this ground-breaking show has touched the lives of some 80 million children.
If I’m honest, I didn’t know that writing about his decade would be as painful as it was for me. So much of it is heartbreaking. I associated the sixties with hippies and music of the Beatles and often overlooked all the difficult events that ultimately made our nation stronger and more just. In 1969, George Harrison left the Beatles for a short time. He was overwhelmed with his schedule, business meetings, and crowds of people greeting the band wherever they went. In early spring, he blew off a business meeting and got away to write a song. It was called, “Here Comes the Sun”. There’s something about this simple melody and words of hope that must have felt like a salve for the people of the late 60’s healing from the wounds, blisters, and burns this decade dished out to them.
We’re living in a strange time too. I think that’s why it was so hard for me to delve so deeply into this tumultuous decade. But just like George felt on that spring day, I believe the sun is coming. Take a minute to listen to this song. It’s been playing in the back of my head the whole time I’ve been writing this week. I hope it brings you hope.