Conclusion: Change in the 1960s

Conclusion: Change in the 1960s

The 1960s was a decade of hope, change, dissatisfaction, and war, that witnessed many important shifts in American culture. 

Learning Objectives

Summarize the major initiatives and movements of the 1960s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1960s saw the unraveling of the dominant national consensus and laid bare a far more fragmented society, as various groups resisted the status quo and fought for a more equitable society.
  • The African American Civil Rights Movement made significant progress in the 1960s, and the actions of grassroots activist groups were instrumental in pushing for change and new legislation. 
  • Influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, American Indians, LGBTQ people, and women organized to change discriminatory laws and pursue government support for their rights.
  • As the U.S. sought to maintain its position as a world superpower, its increasing involvement in Vietnam led to a steady rise of anti-war protests at home. 
  • Despite social justice progress on many fronts, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy made it dramatically clear that not all Americans shared this vision of a more inclusive democracy.

Key Terms

  • civil rights: The protection of individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals; they ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.‎
  • Cesar Chavez: An American labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.
  • Great Society: A set of domestic programs in the United States launched by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964-1965, with the primary goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice.

The Tumultuous 1960s

The 1960s was a decade of hope, change, and war that witnessed an important shift in American culture. Citizens from all walks of life sought to expand the meaning of the American promise. Their efforts helped unravel the national consensus, and laid bare a far more fragmented society. As a result, people from a wide range of ethnic groups attempted to reform American society to make it more equitable. 

The Fight for Civil Rights

The African American Civil Rights Movement made significant progress in the 1960s. While Congress played a role by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the actions of civil rights groups were instrumental in forging new paths, pioneering new techniques and strategies, and achieving breakthrough successes. Civil rights activists engaged in sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches, and registered African American voters. Despite the movement’s many achievements, however, change remained slow, and many grew frustrated with the failure of the government to alleviate poverty, and the persistence of violence against African Americans, particularly the tragic 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many African Americans in the mid- to late 1960s adopted the ideology of Black Power, which promoted their work within their own communities to redress problems without the aid of whites. 

image

The March on Washington, August of 1963: During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (a), a huge crowd gathered on the National Mall (b) to hear the speakers. Although thousands attended, many of the march’s organizers had hoped that enough people would come to Washington to shut down the city.

Although the African American Civil Rights Movement was the most prominent of the crusades for racial justice, other ethnic minorities also worked to seize their piece of the American dream during the promising years of the 1960s. Many were influenced by the African American cause and often used similar tactics. The Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, led largely by Cesar Chavez, also made significant progress at this time. The emergence of the Chicano Movement signaled Mexican Americans’ determination to seize their political power, celebrate their cultural heritage, and demand their citizenship rights.

Women’s Rights, Sexual Liberation, and the the Counter-Culture

By the 1960s, a generation of white Americans raised in prosperity, and steeped in the culture of conformity of the 1950s, had come of age. However, many of these baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) rejected the conformity and luxuries that their parents had provided. These young, middle-class Americans, especially those fortunate enough to attend college when many of their working-class and African American contemporaries were being sent to Vietnam, began to organize to fight for their own rights and end the war that was claiming the lives of so many. Influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, organizations and student groups formed across the country to protest the Vietnam War, advocate for women’s rights, and stand up against discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. 

As groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Organization of Women (NOW) asserted their rights and strove for equality for themselves and others, they upended many accepted norms and set groundbreaking social and legal changes in motion. Many of their successes continue to be felt today, while other goals remain unfulfilled. American Indians, LGBTQ people, and women organized to change discriminatory laws and pursue government support for their rights; others, disenchanted with the status quo, distanced themselves from white, middle-class America by forming their own countercultures centered on a desire for peace, the rejection of material goods and traditional morality, concern for the environment, and drug use in pursuit of spiritual revelations. These groups, whose aims and tactics posed a challenge to the existing state of affairs, often met with hostility from individuals, local officials, and the U.S. government alike. Still, they persisted, determined to further their goals and secure for themselves the rights and privileges to which they were entitled as American citizens.

The War in Vietnam and Turmoil at Home

The United States became more embroiled in international politics in the 1960s, striving to prevent the spread of communism and maintain its position as a world superpower. The country’s role in Vietnam revealed the limits of military power and the contradictions of U.S. foreign policy. Its increasing support for the Vietnam War also led to a steady rise in dissatisfaction and active protest at home, especially from student-led groups around the country.

In 1963, Lyndon Johnson brought to his presidency a vision of a Great Society in which everyone could share in the opportunities that the United States offered for a better life, and in which the words “liberty and justice for all” would have real meaning. His social programs, investments in education, support for the arts, and commitment to civil rights changed the lives of countless people and transformed society in many ways. However, Johnson’s insistence on maintaining American commitments in Vietnam, a policy begun by his predecessors, hurt both his ability to realize his vision of the Great Society and his support among the American people. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and the assassinations five years later of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, made it dramatically clear that not all Americans shared this vision of a more inclusive democracy.