The abstract of 1950s America portrays peaceful, cookie-cutter neighborhoods thronged with little children, women in pretty aprons and men behind the wheel of their brand new Chevrolets. But in reality, fear of nuclear war loomed large and prosperity didn't exist everywhere. In the mid-1960s, when the neighborhood children came of age, they noticed the inequities in society and rejected conventional roles. They refused war and insisted on free speech. While this youth rebellion manifested itself most colorfully in the hippie movement, it was social activists who fought for the rebellion's ideals. The hippie generation that began making itself heard in 1964 sought to change American politics -- and it did.
The Civil Rights movement was embraced by both black and white members of the hippie generation. Echoing the hippie ideal of peace, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a school walkout in 1963 to push for integration in Birmingham, Alabama. More than 2,000 children and teens participated. The walkout succeeded in integrating most of the city's businesses. The University-based organization Congress for Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee led Freedom Summer, a 1964 project to register black voters in Mississippi. The beating and murder of three student workers expedited the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Freedom of Speech
In 1964, the University of California, Berkeley, became the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement. Jack Weinberg, a university alumnus and civil rights activist, set up a table for the Congress for Racial Equality in a campus area previously used by student organizations. The school, which had tightened its restrictions on campus political activities, asked Weinberg to leave and arrested him when he refused. Students held the police car carrying Weinberg captive for 32 hours while making speeches from the car's roof. After months of wrangling, Berkeley's students won their right to free speech, a right that continues to be respected on college campuses.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam anti-war protests of the 1960s and early 1970s did not hasten the war's conclusion, but they did cause Americans to question their support for the war. According to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Congress' decision to cut off aid and military support to South Vietnam once American troops were withdrawn was a reflection of Americans' weariness of Vietnam and their opposition to any kind of continuing involvement there. The hippie generation's anti-war sentiments serve as a lesson to future governments that a war cannot be won when there is strong disagreement among its citizens about the conflict's validity.
The hippie generation's passion for the anti-war movement sparked an idea with U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. Nelson, who was appalled by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, believed this same generation would put their energy behind raising America's consciousness on the environment. He also believed the publicity generated by a unified outcry against pollution and loss of wilderness and wildlife would force politicians to take notice. Nelson guessed right. His organization of Earth Day in 1970 resulted in campus protests and nationwide public demonstrations against environmental harm. It resulted in the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and several acts to protect water, air and endangered species.
- University of Miami: The Sixties
- CNNfyi.com: Role of Young People in The Civil Rights Movement
- History.com: Freedom Summer
- University of California Berkeley: The Bancroft Library: The History of Cal: Berkeley in The 60s
- Student Press Law Center: Student Media Guide to Campus 'Free Speech Zones'
- The Los Angeles Times: The Lessons of Vietnam
- U.S. History: 55d.: The Anti-War Movement:
- Earth Day Network: Earth Day: The History of A Movement
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images