Tuesday, March 10, 2009

USH18: Starting the Sixties

There were a lot of things going on 'under the surface' in the Fifties--in the early Sixties they began to emerge. Given the turbulence and turmoil of the decade, I am going to split the sixties into two posts--one on the early sixties: 1960-1966 and one on the late sixties: 1967-1970.

I'm sitting with a stack of books and three of them have a line that begins:"On February 1, 1960, four..." and go on to describe the black college students in North Carolina who sat at a Woolworth (simply described in one source as a "variety store") lunch counter and were refused service. A fourth source says almost the exact same thing except the line begins "In Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1..." Wikipedia's entry from the events of 1960 reads: "February 1 - In Greensboro, North Carolina, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter." It was a seminal event to start the decade. The civil rights movement burst above the ground with other sit-ins following within days across the state and within weeks across the South. (The title of one of the books illustrates how important the event was to what was to follow in the sixties. The book is called They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee.) As Howard Zinn put it, within a year "more than fifty thousand people, mostly black, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in a hundred cities, and over 3,600 people were put in jail. But by the end of 1960, lunch counters were open to blacks in Greensboro and many other places." And in November of 1960, after a close election, John Fitzgerald Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon to become the first Catholic (and the first non-Protestant) president in the US. Some analysts believe that the debates between Nixon and Kennedy--the first televised presidential debates--made a difference as confident, photogenic Kennedy did for TV what Roosevelt had done for the radio. (Another event that made a difference was Martin Luther King's arrest just prior to the election. Nixon declined to get involved but JFK called Coretta King to express his concern and his brother Robert helped secure MLK's release--and that won Kennedy a large number of black votes.)

And one event that occurred just before the sixties, in 1959, was to have a dramatic effect on the whole decade. In July of that year, two American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. These were the first deaths in what would turn out to be a long running war.

To keep this post from being a small book, I will simply list some of the events of the early part of the decade, many of which are pretty well known. In 1961 came 'Freedom Rides' throughout the South, the Bay of Pigs Incident, and the establishment of the Peace Corps. 1962 brought the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Port Huron Statement (the SDS manifesto which criticized the complacency of America and called for "a new left"). With 1963 came Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, John F Kennedy's assassination, and the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (which was an awkward beginning to the Women's Movement). By 1964 things began rolling with the Gulf of Tonkin 'Incident' (which revved up the war in Vietnam), the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign, a presidential election where Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which not only outlawed racial discrimination and segregation but also outlawed discrimination by sex. Ironically, this last bit was slipped in by an ultra-conservative congressman who assumed that no one in their right mind would approve of sexual equality--when the bill passed, a generation of women were given a tool to claim their rights with.

And by 1965 things had come to a full boil, with the shooting of Malcolm X, riots in Watts, California, marches from Selma to Montgomery, the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and the first major protest against the Vietnam War (sponsored by the SDS) which took place in Washington, DC. The whitebread facade of the fifties had been lost in a flood of violence, protest, and societal change. And then things really took off...

Quote of the Day: "The first person I remember talking about 'The Sixties' was my junior high school principle. He was speaking to a school assembly sometime soon after the Christmas vacation of 1959-1960. 'We had the Fighting Forties and the Fabulous Fifties,'" he told a bored audience of Black and white teenagers in Baltimore, Maryland, "I hope that the decade we are beginning now will be remembered as the "Serene Sixties."'" - Dick Cluster

Dick Cluster (ed), They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee
Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People's Movements
Wikipedia, various articles (especially the category page for 1960s in the United States)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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