Saturday, March 14, 2009

USH19: It All Breaks Loose

By the middle of the sixties, the trickle of strange news had become a torrent.

Remember the Beat Generation? (See my post on the Not-So-Fabulous Fifties, 3/6/09) In 1965, a San Francisco journalist used the term "Hippies" to describe a new generation of beatniks that were gathering in the Haight-Ashbury area of SF. The hippies had been gathering around novelist Ken Kesey (as the 'Merry Pranksters'--see the book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and because of various musical events in the SF area. According to Wikipedia, by 1966, around 15,000 hippies had moved to the Haight-Ashbury area. That year, a guerrilla theater group called the Diggers organized Free Stores, began providing free food and medical care to the gathering crowds. Also in 1966 were held a 'Trips Festival' and a 'Love Pageant Rally'--these were music festivals fueled by psychedelic drugs. These were just the prelude to the 'Human Be-In' held in January of 1967 in the Golden Gate Park--billed as a 'gathering of the tribes'. This inspired as many as a hundred thousand people to head to San Francisco by summer of 1967, which was became the 'Summer of Love'. When the 'Flower Children' left San Francisco, they brought new ideas with them. Many started 'communes', some began a 'back-to-the-land' movement.

Music was a big influence in the sixties. Protest songs became important--songs like "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", "Universal Soldier", and "Eve of Destruction" . The music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles came to define a generation. (John Lennon claimed in 1966 that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus".) Not to mention the Woodstock Music Festival (1969) where somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million people gathered in upstate New York for "three days of peace and music".

The Civil Rights movement became Black Power, and riots in Newark and Detroit (in 1967), and the Black Panthers. In 1968, Martin Luther King, who was now talking against the war in Vietnam and the causes of poverty, was shot in Memphis. And after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968, the first one prosecuted under it was a SNCC leader, H Rap Brown, who was accused of starting a riot because one followed an angry speech he made.

The Civil Rights movement also spawned the the women's movement as women in the movement, and in the antiwar movement, and in the SDS, began to realize the ways they were being oppressed, even in these so-called radical movements. 1966 saw the founding of the National Organization for Women. In 1968, hundreds of women staged a 'Burial of Traditional Womanhood' in the Arlington National Cemetery and held a major protest at the Miss America contest. The Women's Movement had begun.

And in June of 1969 a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, turned into a riot. Transvestites, 'flaming queens', hustlers, street kids, and butch lesbians had had it and turned on the cops. That was the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement.

In 1968 even the presidential election process turned surreal. It started in March of that year when Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate won nearly as many votes in the New Hampshire primary as Lyndon Johnson, the President. Then at the end of March, as Robert Kennedy jumped into the race, Lyndon Johnson dropped out. Robert Kennedy dropped out as well, when he was shot to death that June. Meanwhile, George Wallace, a segregationis from Alabama, announced he was running as an independent. And then there was the Chicago Democratic Convention. The mayor of the city wanted to make sure there was no trouble and so there was a total of well over twenty thousand police and National Guards in the streets. There was also a good ten thousand demonstrators, brought by the Yippies, the SDS, and the Mobilization against the war--many for a 'Festival of Life'. It turned into a riot. A quote I remember from the time was that Mayor Daley was supposedly asked if the police, themselves, were creating disorder, and he was said to have replied, "The police were not there to create disorder, the police were there to preserve disorder." There were dozens of arrests, including that of 'Pigasus', the Yippie mascot and an actual pig. The police used tear gas, mace, and beat people with batons--even reporters like Dan Rather and Mike Wallace got roughed up. Afterwards, eight movement leaders were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot. In an anticlimax, Hubert Humphreys was nominated for the Democratic presidential candidate, and eventually lost to Richard Nixon (and George Wallace actually carried five states).

One of the reasons Johnson dropped out was that the Vietnam war was going badly. By 1967, antiwar protests were going strong. The Tet Offensive at the beginning of 1968 made many Americans believe we weren't going to win this war, and Robert McNamara's resignation as Defense Secretary in February (claiming he had concluded we couldn't win), didn't help. Then came the My Lai massacre, where a troop of US soldiers, frustrated that they couldn't tell who was Vietcong and who wasn't, slaughtered a village of women, children, and old men. A photographer caught the whole thing on film and the images revolted many in this country. Unfortunately, it was hardly the only atrocity. Not to mention napalm and Agent Orange... And yet the war would go on into the 1970s.

But all this chaos was hardly confined to the US. There were so many protests around the world in 1968, that Wikipedia devotes an entire page to them. There were protests in Mexico, Jamaica, Brazil, Britain, Germany, France (particularly Paris), Spain, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia among other places. At the time it seemed like a world-wide uprising.

The decade ended with a few bizarre notes. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alrin landed on the moon in July of 1969. Where the Soviet Union began the fifties by launching Sputnik and starting the space race, the United States ended the sixties with a lunar conquest. And all that peace and love seemed to go up in flames in 1969 when Charlies Manson, the anti-guru, started his 'family' on a murder spree, and the Altamont Festival, the anti-Woodstock, in December of that year, featured a day of drinking, drugs, Hells Angels, and violence. There was worse to come as the seventies began.

Quote of the Day: "At noon of one day coming, human strength will fill the streets, Of every city on our planet, hear the sound of angry feet, With business freezed up in the harbour, the kings will pull upon their hair, And the banks will shudder to a halt, and the artists will be there..." - Ferron

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
Wikipedia, various articles (on Hippies, Protest songs, and the Stonewall riots among many things)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States


SoapBoxTech said...

I'm enjoying your history lesson!

I would say the biggest figure to emerge during this time was Henry Kissinger. Many would argue this was a good thing for America and the World. I am not one of them.

So many that you mentioned were indeed massive (and some very important) public figures, but I don't think any of them had more long-term or widespread effect than Kissinger.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, SBT--I hope others are getting something out of all this. Good call on Kissinger--he will be showing up in future posts, as things slide into the Nixon era (or error).