1963 – 2013
I was in fifth grade when President John Kennedy was assassinated. The year was 1963; the 23rd day of November. I remember no moment which preceded the sound of the public address speaker interrupting the quiet of the classroom. “President Kennedy has been shot…”
It took a few seconds to understand what was occurring. It was at first unusual that an announcement would be made during the class period. It was highly unusual that the voice on the box would be any other than our principal’s. In this case, it was a male voice – unknown to my ear – and the voice came with no introduction. In the next seconds, I recognized the voice as that of a radio personality, a news reporter. Our teacher started to cry. The girls in the class soon followed. The boys did not cry, except for one on the front row. The significance of the event was wasted on me, a young boy that had just turned ten years of age. The window of my memory ends there.
“The star that guides us…” On this day, as I write, President Obama is giving his inaugural speech. The year is 2013; the 21st day of January. He is our captain. Our progressive voices lead the nation and the world. As Beyoncé now sings our National Anthem at the close of the Inauguration, I feel fortunate to have lived in the most wonderful of times. Hopefully we all have miles to go before we sleep.
Today I will write of the 1960s for members of a younger generation who might have an interest in the lifestyles of that decade. I did not protest in the 60s. I did not do drugs; write editorials or pen letters to my elected officials. I was but a child. At 12 I learned to roller skate backwards in the basement of my parent’s small suburban home. A 45 rpm record, set upon the spindle of a small suitcase of a record player, played “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles. It was the age of my innocence.
I was fifteen when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The year was 1968; the 6th day of June. I had no understanding of the events which preceded his death. The killing of leaders was all too commonplace in my youth. My reactions were never as emotional as the reactions of adults. Martin Luther King Jr. fell to an assassin’s bullet months earlier; the 4th day of the 4th month. Prior to his death, I had never heard his name. There were warnings from my suburban neighbors which cautioned us to prepare for attacks from rioting Blacks in the inner-city far away. I remember thinking, “Why would they attack us?”
The music of the age carried the messages that silently shaped my cultural understanding. By 1969, during my high school years, I became aware of the hypocrisies of the age. The concert was given, but I granted no significance to the words that were being sung. The reports and photos of the Woodstock concert revealed to me a very strange population of people, a few years older than me, who were said to be the cause of the entire calamity in politics. The year was 1969; the 15th day of August. Four months and two weeks later, the 60s ended. The influences of the sixties lived on, and for many, continue to impact our lives this day as we witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama. In my memory I once saw black Americans with picket signs outside a restaurant where admittance was only granted to white people. I saw water fountains and bathrooms labeled as “White and Negro”. I saw hundreds of episodes of racial bigotry and white supremacy. In the 70s, I started the process of reconciling what I had experienced as a child. I embraced many of the new values created in the sixties, and have endeavored to retain them and build upon them all these long years hence.
The attitudes of the sixties are best described as liberating. There was a shared desire to be free from the shackles of intellectual slavery. During the 60s we, the younger brothers and sisters, were influenced by the ideals of the age, without having to suffer the perils that preceded their emergence. By this account, we entered the 70s without the pain and cynicism that bruised the souls of so many activists. Instead, we were inspired by the victories and permissions that were gained. I was among that generation that followed; the second rank that stepped up to replace those who had fallen. In 1972 I enlisted into the Air Force. For the next four years, until I was honorably discharged, I reconciled the innocence of my youth while serving within the ranks of an institution that was reconciling the lunacy of the Vietnam War. It was during this time that I shaped and refined my values; values that would guide me for the rest of my life.
Capturing the attitude of the sixties seems to me to be no great difficulty. Some of the actions might be difficult to embrace – many were unreasonable. Experimenting with drugs is certainly not recommended or required to gain enlightenment. Burning the flag is now illegal: you do not need to break the law to rekindle the attitudes of the sixties. There is little need to burn a bra or a military draft card. Many gestures were only symbolic. The clothes, hairstyles, language, and icons were only outward signs of internalized beliefs, hopes and frustrations.
If you align with any of today’s moderate and radical members of the Republican Party, I would think it would be most difficult to understand the 60s. Conservatives want to be acknowledged for the goodness of their ideology (and I do acknowledge the good parts of it), but like members of any group, they are quick to defend ideas that are no longer tolerable to those who are affected by them.
It was the unacceptable ideas inherent in the conservatism of the 60s that was the cause for the protests and reforms. While the lessons of the sixties have endured, the resistance to the ideology persists among today’s conservatives, although I must add that many of today’s conservatives are more liberal than those who lived in the 50s and 60s. However, racism, sexism, and bigotry are just as prevalent today as they were in the 60s. These are more often driven from public view, but the forces of limited understanding remain an influence in every age.
I cannot do the decade justice in a blog. I think it might be best to isolate several themes that were driving the thinking of the 60s. Let me just list a few ideas that were dominant.
Love and Understanding – With oppression comes denial. People all share a desire to be loved and understood. The themes of the 60s often called for more love and understanding since certain people were denied respect and dignity.
Religion – In general, there was a call for the many churches to become more open to new ideas and religious expressions. Religious organizations were typically viewed as being too dogmatic. Reforms included the rise of evangelical denominations and a notable change in the kind of music that was played in church. For instance, in the 60s, the use of a guitar to play pop music during a service was usually forbidden. There was a chapel on the Lackland Air Force Base. I was told that I was the first person ever to play a guitar during the service.
Freedom – Intellectual oppression – the suppression of ideas, limits opportunities in business. The conservatism of the 50s was so oppressive; and so few career opportunities existed for the college graduates of the early 60s, that the spirit of complete defeat gave rise to the directive to “Drop out and turn on.” I understand that to mean, “If society doesn’t want me, then I won’t try, and I will just have as much fun as I can.” Society (aka “The Establishment”, “The Man”) held a narrow definition of what was considered proper and right.
Information – It may seem hard to understand, but there was a great effort to suppress information in colleges across the nation. Reading lists omitted Black authors, female authors, emerging writers, and literature of the day. College students marked this limitation as indoctrination, and protested accordingly.
Sexual Revolution – Every significant Cultural Revolution includes a sexual revolution. In general, the rules which governed sexual activity were contested and revised. Concerned women led this protest. Women sought to be liberated from the tired and oppressive definitions which limited their activities. Women wanted equal treatment and pay in the workplace. Divorce laws favored the interests of men. Sexism was rampant in the workplace.
World Peace – Although it sounds trivial to mention, the ideals that drive moral liberalism are based in a desire to further goodwill for all men and women. It is inescapable that peace is achievable and sustainable. It is not often apparent how to accomplish that goal. For all its difficulties, it remains as true today as it did in the 60s that we need only “Give Peace a Chance.”
The Return of Conservatism
Roads must be built, nations must defend their people and interests, the wildness of youth must defer to practical limitations that adulthood requires. In time, the liberals of the 60s started to build on their new foundations. Today, many of those wild 60s liberals are the moderate conservatives and independents of today. There have been liberals and conservatives in every age, so I do not want to insist that one ideology is better than the other. It seems that – as the saying goes – for everything, there is a season. The pendulum swings both ways: the momentum seeks to attend to the forces apparent. Left on its own, a pendulum would eventually submit to gravity and remain at rest, so I like to think of a pendulum as having a spring attached, one which ensures perpetual motion which keeps that pendulum swinging forward (liberalism) and back again (conservatism) as society pushes forward as needed, and relaxes, reconciles and recuperates as other forces require.
That is enough about pendulums and bad analogies. The political unrest of the 60s occurred because an aging post-WWII generation was unwilling to pass the baton to a new generation without constraint.
How to Adopt the Attitudes of the 60s– You do not need to use time travel to enjoy the 60s. You can adopt certain attitudes that will provide similar experiences. Each person can create and experience his or her own revolution. (It’s more fun with others, but that is for each person to decide.)
Review and question your own beliefs, attitudes and ideas. Do you feel oppressed? Are there influences that are keeping you from expressing yourself, or becoming who you really want to be? Sometimes a revolution can occur simply by getting out of town for a weekend, or breaking an old habit. If you want to add some zest to your life, listen to that other voice in your head – the one that tells you that your dreams are possible.
That is probably what was unique about the 60s. A new generation had dreams, and they wanted to see if they could be fulfilled. Others tried to stop them. Young people were willing to do whatever was necessary to see those dreams come true. That is all you have to do: make your dreams come true. Abandon the security of your lifestyle if it is oppressive. Abandon those who are not supportive of what you want in life. Listen to your own idealism and build a foundation for your life on your own terms. If you can realize your dreams in a peaceful way, then it is all the better. If not, clench your fist and raise it high into the air and say, “I will not be denied.”
If you want to experience the 60s, start a revolution in yourself. It is your life. Live it the way you want it to be lived.
(Try not to get arrested, and call if you are going to be late for dinner.)