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The 1960’s – an Era of Discord

A young black man is brutally murdered for a harmless comment to a white woman. A mother distresses over the discovery of her son’s rock and roll collection. A United States soldier sits in a trench in Vietnam contemplating the reason for his sitting knee-deep in mud. The 1960’s was marked with confusion, insecurity and rebellion. It was a period of time when Americans stood up and took full advantage of liberalism in America and their God-given right to freedom of speech to create a decade bursting with social revolutions. The Civil Rights Movement, Counter Culture and the War in Vietnam were three of the most prominent events during this era and helped to define the 1960’s as arguably the most influential decade in our nation’s history. The Civil Rights Movement was marked by public uprisings against segregation and the fortitude of Black-Americans to achieve equal rights among the whites. Many young people used music, drugs, politics and alternative lifestyles in search of a better world and to rebel against the older generation to create what came to be known as counterculture. The Vietnam War further divided the country with opposing views on the situation and public disapproval of the actions of our president. However, these acts were necessary for the advancement of our nation in many aspects and helped accomplish the freedoms enjoyed today.

The Civil Rights Movement was the turning point in social equality for Black Americans. The fruit of the protestors laboring was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing basic civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race. However, there were many hardships and drastic events leading to this final accomplishment. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 was led by Martin Luther King and a number of other black leaders in Montgomery, Alabama after a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. This was perfect ammunition for the black group to start a boycott and word was spread by ministers in their churches. Other means of transportation were developed for the blacks such as a “personal taxi service.” The boycott lasted for over a year until final concession was reached. Also dealing with public transportation were “The Freedom Rides.” This was a symbolic plan to reverse the bus system. Whites would sit in the back and blacks in the front on the trip from the north to New Orleans. At rest stops, whites would go in Black’s only areas and vice versa. Hostility was faced along the way, as in Montgomery, Alabama, where an uprising occurred and President Kennedy felt it necessary to enforce Martial Law. Although the “ride” never made it to New Orleans, they forced the Kennedy Administration to take a stand against civil rights and segregation was outlawed in interstate bus travel. Arguably the most significant victory for the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King led sit-ins and protests against segregation beginning on April 3, 1963. Bull Connor, mayor of Birmingham attempted to stop these protests by jailing MLK. In solitary confinement, King wrote the highly influential, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” further encouraging protests. Children refused to attend school and stayed in parks. Connor sent in firefighters to hose them away but they remained insistent. When all jails were filled and the administration had it’s back to the wall, business communities agreed to integrate lunch counters and hire more black workers; a huge victory for Martin Luther King. After events like these and a considerable amount of bloodshed, the segregation problem took an upward swing and differences began to be reconciled, eventually leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1954.

Counterculture in the 1960’s sprung from a desire of primarily young people to rebel against the conformities of the preceding era. The counterculture lifestyle integrated many of the ideals of the time: peace, love, harmony, music, and religions outside the Christian tradition. Meditation, yoga, and psychedelic drugs were embraced as routes to expanding one's consciousness. This movement contributed to drastic changes in American culture. A willingness to challenge authority, greater social tolerance, environmental awareness, and changes in attitudes toward women’s roles, marriage, and child-raising were all evident in this period. Many children chose to leave cities to seek out utopian lifestyles in the countryside. This was an escape from the problems they saw in urban lifestyles and an opportunity to live a simple life. Woodstock, a music festival in 1969, was a true counterculture event. It was four days of peace and music, full of illegal drug use, sex and self-indulgence. As one hippie states, “It was pure heaven.” Aside from different sit-ins and protests against injustices of America, counterculture was merely a youth rebellion adding another element of distraction to the already confused state of the country.

The Vietnam War further added to the turmoil of the nation. After French defeat in 1954, the United States sent military advisors to South Vietnam to aid the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam supported the pro-communist Vietcong. In 1964, after the US was shot at by North Vietnamese, Lyndon Johnson authorized military force in Vietnam. In 1968, the Vietcong struck several American bases and various cities, known as the Tet Offensive. Although they suffered large losses, the Vietcong won a psychological victory as American opinion began to turn against the war. When Nixon became president, he proposed that all non-South Vietnamese troops be withdrawn in phases and an internationally supervised election be held in South Vietnam. The North rejected. Nixon decided to resort to Vietnamization; a plan to build up South Vietnamese forces while withdrawing American troops. He reduced American troop strength by 60,000, but at the same time ordered the bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country. This brought out thousands of protestors in the states after reports of an American Massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai but Nixon continued with his policy. The bombing continued until an agreement was finally reached. North Vietnamese would gain control of large areas of the South and agreed to release American prisoners of war within 60 days. After their release, the U.S. would leave Vietnam. On March 29, 1973, after 60,000 Americans were killed and $109 billion was spent on a war that many believed should not have been fought; American combat troops left South Vietnam.

These three social revolutions were among many helping to develop the age of reform. Many men and women gave their lives for various reasons and others put themselves in very dangerous positions to help achieve what they believed to be a better nation.