By 1960, about one-third of Americans lived in the suburbs. During the 1960s, average U.S. family incomes rose 33 percent. Material culture blossomed during the decade; by 1969, approximately 80 percent of Americans owned at least one car. Consumers spent billions of dollars each year on entertainment; by 1969, almost 80 percent of them owned a black-and-white television.
Raised in this environment of affluence, millions of baby boomers streamed into the nation’s universities. Once there, they organized to support a variety of causes.
During the 1960s, many students (most of them white) arrived on campuses hoping to "find themselves". Instead, they found traditional systems that confined them to rigid programs of study, and rules that limited what they could do during their free time. Amidst growing activism for civil rights and other social movements, many students found the control and conformity in effect at many colleges unacceptable, and mobilized to change them. Students who held more radical views aligned themselves with the New Left.
One the most prominent New Left groups was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Organized in 1960 at the University of Michigan, the philosophy of the SDS was expressed in the "Port Huron Statement", which was written by Tom Hayden and adopted by the SDS in 1962.
The opening paragraphs of the document identified concerns that many white, middle-class baby boomers shared in the early 1960s:
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world….
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others" we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.”
Which troubling aspects of American society compelled members of the SDS to take action? The Port Huron Statement declared that the SDS was determined to fight racial discrimination and economic inequality through civil disobedience. It also called for increased activism and participation in the democratic process by ordinary citizens, especially young people:
“As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.”
To implement their vision of a more participatory democracy, the SDS and other New Left groups focused their activism in three areas.
The SDS and other student activists demanded that institutions of higher education allow more student participation in university governance. This became clear during the Free Speech Movement of 1964, which began at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1964, the University of California, Berkeley — like many colleges and universities throughout the country — restricted students' ability to advocate on behalf of political causes on campus. In October of that year, a student who was handing out literature for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the Berkeley campus refused to show university police officers his student ID card. The officers arrested him. The campus police car was immediately surrounded by angry students, who refused to let the vehicle move for 32 hours until the student was released. In December, Mario Savio and other activists organized a sit-in on the Berkeley campus.
In early 1965, university officials abandoned policies that restricted political speech. The success of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley inspired student activism throughout the country during the 1960s and 1970s.
The New Left sought to mobilize poor people throughout the country, especially poor people of color, in an attempt to end poverty.
EXAMPLEDuring the summer of 1964, a small group of white SDS members moved into a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago and started the JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) program to combat racism and poverty. JOIN mobilized residents to resist urban renewal programs that threatened to displace them from their neighborhood. It also called for the creation of police review boards to end police brutality against people of color, and provided free breakfast and social and recreational activities for neighborhood youth.
Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the SDS and other New Left groups mobilized against the war in Vietnam.
Members of the New Left criticized Johnson’s decision to escalate the war because it was made without any public debate. In their view, a small political elite should not have the power to make foreign policy decisions that affected the majority of Americans. This was not the participatory democracy that the New Left had in mind. The New Left also rejected U.S. containment policy, and objected to violence committed against the Vietnamese people. For all of these reasons, an antiwar movement began during the spring of 1965, not long after the first American troops arrived in Vietnam.
In April of 1965, the SDS organized an antiwar march and rally in Washington, DC. Approximately 20,000 people participated. In the same month, the faculty at the University of Michigan suspended classes for a day and conducted a 24-hour “teach-in” on the war. On May 15, 1965, the first national “teach-in” on the war took place on 122 campuses across the nation. Many of the teach-ins served as a setting for large antiwar rallies, like the one pictured below.
While the New Left challenged conventional liberalism by advocating for racial equality, economic security, and participatory democracy, the Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s rejected conventional middle-class life entirely through personal liberation and indulgence.
Young Americans associated with the Counterculture, known as hippies, rejected the conventions of American society in a variety of ways.
Some hippies dropped out of mainstream society altogether and joined communes. They shared a desire to live closer to nature, to respect the earth, and to reject modern life, including the pursuit of wealth and material goods.
Music, especially rock and folk music, occupied an important place in the Counterculture.
Rock concerts provided young people with an opportunity to form impromptu communities that celebrated youth, rebellion, and individuality.
EXAMPLEIn mid-August of 1969, almost 400,000 people attended a music festival in rural Bethel, New York, that became known as Woodstock. 32 acts performed during the three-day event. Many audience members consumed marijuana, LSD, and alcohol freely.
Another freelance reporter, Glenn Weiser, remembered Woodstock as follows:
In two hours we were all soaring, and everything was just fine. In fact, it couldn’t have been better—there I was with my beautiful hometown friends, higher than a church steeple and listening to wonderful music in the cool summer weather of the Catskills. After all, the dirty little secret of the late ‘60s was that psychedelic drugs taken in a pleasant setting could be completely exhilarating.”
One of the consequences of the social movements that emerged during the 1960s, including the New Left and the Counterculture, was an increased questioning of the legitimacy of the Democratic Party, and of the Great Society's ability to solve the nation’s problems.
The unraveling of the liberal coalition that elected Lyndon Johnson as President in 1964 is ironic, because the Great Society achieved progress that previous reform movements, particularly Progressivism and the New Deal, were unable to accomplish.
One of the reasons why support for Johnson’s reform efforts lessened was his continued commitment to the Vietnam War. He was unwilling to withdraw forces from Vietnam, fearing that many Americans would then consider the effort a failure, and that the U.S.S.R. and other communist nations would question America’s ability to enforce its containment policy.
By the late 1960s, as American casualties rose and more young men were drafted, people who had initially supported the Great Society and the liberal Democratic coalition began to question the President’s policies. Radical opposition to the war brought a number of other issues related to race, class, and gender to the forefront — issues that the Great Society had not resolved.
Instead of uniting Americans around a set of common, progressive goals, the Great Society, and continued involvement in Vietnam, divided the nation.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962, PD: http://bit.ly/2dXSAN7, Mario Savio quote, Free Speech Movement, 1964, CC:http://bit.ly/2oYmAcO, Photograph of American Youth, 1969, PD:http://bit.ly/2pyiSZm, Photograph of The Beatles, 1967, CC:http://bit.ly/2pPHOP6, Protest against the Vietnam War, 1967, PD: http://bit.ly/2qpTKUx, Derived from Openstax tutorial 29.2 http://bit.ly/2oQ4eiS 29.4 http://bit.ly/2l0xBdu and 30.1 http://bit.ly/2l0DK9e. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.