Culture and Activism

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Epitomizing the folk music and protest culture of 1960s youth, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are pictured here singing together at the March on Washington in 1963. Photograph, Wikimedia.

The 1960s wrought enormous cultural change. The United States that entered the decade looked and sounded nothing like the one that left it. Popular culture often challenged norms from the supposedly hidebound 1950s, promoting rebellion and individualism and, in the process, bringing the counterculture into the mainstream. Native Americans, Chicanos, women, and environmentalists all participated in movements demonstrating that “rights” activism also applied to ethnicity, gender, and the nation’s natural resources. Even established religious institutions like the Catholic Church underwent transformation that reflected an emerging emphasis on freedom and tolerance. In each instance, the decade brought about substantial progress with a reminder that the activism in each cultural realm remained fluid and unfinished.

At the dawn of the 1960s, trends from the 1950s still flourished. While only half of American households owned a television in the mid-1950s, for example, nearly 90 percent of homes had a set by 1962. With the increasing popularity of rock and roll, established white musicians like Elvis Presley continued to imitate and adapt black musical genres. Newcomers also adopted this tactic: the Beatles’ first album featured two covers of popular songs by the Shirelles.

Advertisers continued to appeal to teenagers and the expanding youth market. What differed in the 1960s, perhaps, was the commodification of the counterculture. Popular culture and popular advertising in the 1950s had promoted an ethos of “fitting in” and buying products to conform. The new counterculture ethos, however, touted individuality and rebellion. Some advertisers used this ethos subtly; advertisements for Volkswagens openly acknowledged the flaws of their cars and emphasized their strange look. One ad read, “Presenting America’s slowest fastback,” which “won’t go over 72 mph even though the speedometer shows a wildly optimistic speed of 90.” Another stated, “And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push.” By marketing the car’s flaws and reframing them as positive qualities, the advertisers commercialized young peoples’ resistance to commercialism. And it positioned the VW as a car for those who didn’t mind standing out in a crowd. A more obviously countercultural ad for the VW Bug showed two cars: one black and one painted multi-color in the hippie style; the contrasting captions read, “We do our thing,” and “You do yours.”

Advertisement featuring a man pushing a Volkswagen Beetle. The ad says, And if you run out of gas, it's easy to push.

The Volkswagen Beetle became an icon of 1960s culture and a paradigm of a new advertising age. This tongue-in-cheek advertisement attracted laughs and attention from the public and business world. Video Surrey.

Companies marketed their products as countercultural in and of themselves. One of the more obvious examples was a 1968 ad from Columbia Records, a hugely successful record label since the 1920s. The ad pictured a group of stock rebellious characters—a shaggy-haired white hippie, a buttoned up Beat, two biker types, and a black jazz man sporting an afro—in a jail cell. The counterculture had been busted, the ad states, but “the man can’t bust our music.” Merely buying records from Columbia was an act of rebellion, one that brought the buyer closer to the counterculture figures portrayed in the ad.

Even when pop culture in the 1960s was not tied to counterculture, it still stood in contrast to a more conservative past. The dominant style of women’s fashion in the 1950s was the poodle skirt and the sweater, tight-waisted and buttoned up. The 1960s, however, ushered in an era of much less restrictive clothing. Capri pants became popular casual wear. Skirts became shorter. When Mary Quant invented the miniskirt in 1964, she said it was a garment “in which you could move, in which you could run and jump.” By the late 1960s, the hippies’ more androgynous look had become trendy. Such fashion trends bespoke the overall popular ethos of the 1960s: freedom, rebellion, and individuality.

A woman wearing an orange turtleneck sweater, a brown skirt that reaches mid-thigh, and patterned tights.

Fashion can tell us a lot about a generation’s values and world view. Miniskirts – one of the most radical and popular fashions of the 1960s – demonstrated the new sexual openness of young women during this era of free love. Photograph of young woman in Eugene, Oregon, 1966. Wikimedia.

In a decade plagued by social and political instability, the American counterculture also sought psychedelic drugs as its remedy for alienation. For young, middle-class whites, society had become stagnant and bureaucratic. Psychedelic drug use arose as an alternate form of activism. LSD began its life as a drug used primarily in psychological research before it trickled down into college campuses and out into society at large. The counterculture’s notion that American stagnation could be remedied by a spiritual-psychedelic experience was drawn almost entirely from psychologists and sociologists.

The irony, of course, was that LSD’s popularity outside of science eventually led to its demise within labs. By 1966, enough incidents had been connected to LSD to spur a Senate hearing on the drug; newspapers reported that hundreds of LSD users had been admitted to psychiatric wards. While many of these reports were sensationalistic or altogether untrue, LSD’s uses did become increasingly bizarre and even dangerous throughout the late 1960s. The 1967 Summer of Love failed to live up to its mantra as an idyllic, psychedelic retreat, and the summer was instead characterized by housing shortages and deadly inner-city riots. Similarly, while 1969’s Woodstock embodied the countercultural ethos of creativity and community, the Altamont Free Concert held the same year resulted in riots and deadly violence.

The turmoil and growing grassroots activism in the 1960s among American youth and university students, including Native Americans, created an atmosphere for reform in both Congress and the courts. In the summer of 1961, Native American university students founded a new organization, the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). While the Council shared many of its core values and goals with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)—sovereignty, self-determination, treaty rights, and cultural preservation, the NIYC employed direct action tactics and more combative rhetoric.

The NIYC came from a tradition of student clubs and organizations. The 1944 GI Bill opened the door for many Native Americans to university education, and the increased presence of Native students at universities led to the establishment of Native college clubs and organizations, where members discussed major problems in Indian Country, such as termination policy, treaty rights, and poverty. Many also benefited from summer workshops on American Indian Affairs, designed to prepare Indian youth for future leadership roles. Participants in the workshops overwhelmingly embraced the principles of self-determination and tribal sovereignty. They recognized that regardless of tribal membership, Native people faced similar problems, which could be best confronted through a united, intertribal effort. This view was reinforced at the American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961, where the delegates drafted “The Declaration of Indian Purpose,” a document outlining Indian solutions to Indian problems. Despite the promise of the Chicago Conference, the students were disenchanted with the slow progress of change. The growing frustration of the younger generation, combined with ideas from the workshops and experiences at the Chicago Conference, led to the founding of the NIYC in August 1961.

The first opportunity for the Council to generate support and attract public attention happened in the Pacific Northwest. Washington State tribal nations reserved the right to fish off reservation without being subject to state regulations in their nineteenth-century treaties. This right was challenged by the state in the early 1960s; Native fishermen who fished in violation of state laws were arrested and subsequently required to purchase permissions for off-reservation fishing. With little justice received from the courts, Washington State tribal nations appealed to NIYC for assistance. NIYC members decided to hold a series of “fish-ins,” which involved activists casting nets from their boats and waiting for the police to arrest them. In 1974, fishing rights activists and tribal leaders reached a legal victory in United States v. Washington known as the Boldt Decision, which declared that Native Americans were entitled to up to 50 percent of the fish caught in the “usual and accustomed places” as stated in the 1850s treaties.

NIYC’s militant rhetoric and use of direct action marked the beginning of the Red Power movement. It paved the way for future intertribal activism and gathered a national exposure to Native issues

A sign on the wall of Alcatraz labeling the building as a United States Penitentiary. The sign is posted over painted words that say Indians Welcome.

While the Pan-Indian movement of the 1960s failed, a sign remains of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Photograph, July 18, 2006. Wikimedia.

through news media. Native Americans created pan-Indian communities in cities and demanded respect for their rights and culture, actively responding to discrimination and violence against them. To prevent police harassment, Native Americans in Minneapolis formed “Indian patrols” to monitor the behavior of police in Indian neighborhoods. From these patrols grew the American Indian Movement (AIM), founded in Minneapolis in 1968. The actions of AIM, while not bringing any specific or immediate results, brought national and international attention to Native issues, and the organization helped to create a more favorable climate for a policy shift. The NCAI, NIYC, and AIM continued their work, with and within the established American political system, to influence new laws on Native issues and concentrate on local problems.

The Chicano movement in the 1960s emerged out of the broader Mexican American civil rights movement of the post-World War II era. While “Chicano” was initially considered a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants, activists in the 1960s reclaimed the term and used it as a catalyst to campaign for political and social change among Mexican Americans. The Chicano movement confronted discrimination in schools, politics, agriculture, and other formal and informal institutions. Organizations like the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDF) buoyed the Chicano movement and patterned themselves after similar influential groups in the African American civil rights movement.

Cesar Chavez became the most well-known figure of the Chicano movement, using nonviolent tactics to campaign for workers’ rights in the grape fields of California. Chavez and activist Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, which eventually merged and became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). The UFWA fused the causes of Chicano and Filipino activists protesting subpar working conditions of California farmers on American soil. In addition to embarking on a hunger strike and a boycott of table grapes, Chavez led a 300-mile march in March and April of 1966 from Delano, California to the state capital of Sacramento. The pro-labor campaign garnered the national spotlight and the support of prominent political figures such as Robert Kennedy. Today, Chavez’s birthday (March 31) is observed as a federal holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.

A crowd of farm workers.

The United Farm Workers Union become a strong force for bettering working conditions of laborers in California and Florida agriculture. Cesar Chavez (center) and UFW supporters attend an outdoor Mass on the capitol steps in Sacramento, Calif., before start of a labor protest march, date unknown. Huffington Post.

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales was another activist whose calls for Chicano self-determination resonated long past the 1960s. A former boxer and Denver native, Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice in 1966, an organization that would establish the first annual Chicano Liberation Day at the National Chicano Youth Conference by decade’s end. The conference also yielded the Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, a Chicano nationalist manifesto that reflected Gonzales’ vision of Chicano as a unified, historically grounded, all-encompassing group fighting against discrimination in the United States. By 1970, the Texas-based La Raza Unida political party had a strong foundation for promoting Chicano nationalism and continuing the campaign for Mexican American civil rights.

People, many wearing cowboy hats, carry flags and signs. One sign says Justice for All Workers Now. Another sign shows an image of the Virgin Mary.

The 1966 Rio Grande Valley Farm Workers March (“La Marcha”). August 27, 1966. Via the University of Texas-San Antonio Libraries’ Special Collections (MS 360: E-0012-187-D-16)

The feminist movement also made great strides in the 1960s. Women were active in both the civil rights movement and the labor movement, but their increasing awareness of gender inequality did not find a receptive audience among male leaders in those movements. In the 1960s, then, many of these women began to form a movement of their own. Soon the country experienced a groundswell of feminist consciousness.

An older generation of women who preferred to work within state institutions figured prominently in the early part of the decade. When John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt headed the effort. The Commission’s Invitation to Action was released in 1963. Finding discriminatory provisions in the law and practices of industrial, labor, and governmental organizations, the Commission advocated for “changes, many of them long overdue, in the conditions of women’s opportunity in the United States.” Change was necessary in areas of employment practices, federal tax and benefit policies affecting women’s income, labor laws, and services for women as wives, mothers, and workers. This call for action, if heeded, would ameliorate the types of discrimination primarily experienced by middle-class and elite white working women, all of whom were used to advocating through institutional structures like government agencies and unions.

Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique hit bookshelves the same year the Commission released its report. Friedan had been active in the union movement, and was by this time a mother in the new suburban landscape of post-war America. In her book, Friedan labeled the “problem that has no name,” and in doing so helped many white middle-class American women come to see their dissatisfaction as housewives not as something “wrong with [their] marriage, or [themselves],” but instead as a social problem experienced by millions of American women. Friedan observed that there was a “discrepancy between the reality of [women’s] lives and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image I call the feminine mystique.” No longer would women allow society to blame the “problem that has no name” on a loss of femininity, too much education, or too much female independence and equality with men.

The 1960s also saw a different group of women pushing for change in government policy. Welfare mothers began to form local advocacy groups in addition to the National Welfare Rights Organization founded in 1966. Mostly African American, these activists fought for greater benefits and more control over welfare policy and implementation. Women like Johnnie Tillmon successfully advocated for larger grants for school clothes and household equipment in addition to gaining due process and fair administrative hearings prior to termination of welfare entitlements.

Yet another mode of feminist activism was the formation of consciousness-raising groups. These groups met in women’s homes and at women’s centers, providing a safe environment for women to discuss everything from experiences of gender discrimination to pregnancy, from relationships with men and women to self-image. The goal of consciousness-raising was to increase self-awareness and validate the experiences of women. Groups framed such individual experiences as examples of society-wide sexism, and claimed that “the personal is political.” Consciousness-raising groups created a wealth of personal stories that feminists could use in other forms of activism and crafted networks of women that activists could mobilize support for protests.

The end of the decade was marked by the Women’s Strike for Equality celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Sponsored by NOW (the National Organization for Women), the 1970 protest focused on employment discrimination, political equality, abortion, free childcare, and equality in marriage. All of these issues foreshadowed the backlash against feminist goals in the 1970s. Not only would feminism face opposition from other women who valued the traditional homemaker role to which feminists objected, the feminist movement would also fracture internally as minority women challenged white feminists’ racism and lesbians vied for more prominence within feminist organizations.

A crowd of women marching down the street of a city and bearing signs asking for womens' equality.

The women’s movement stagnated after gaining the vote in 1920, but by the 1960s it was back in full force. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and fed up with gender discrimination, women took to the streets to demand their rights as American citizens. Warren K. Leffler, “Women’s lib[eration] march from Farrugut Sq[uare] to Layfette [i.e., Lafayette] P[ar]k,” August 26, 1970. Library of Congress.

American environmentalism made significant gains in the 1960s that piggybacked off the post-World War II trend of Americans using their growing resources and leisure time to explore nature. They backpacked, went to the beach, fished, and joined birding organizations in greater numbers than ever before. These experiences, along with increased formal education, made Americans more aware of threats to the environment and, consequently, to themselves.  Many of these threats increased in the post-war years as developers bulldozed open space for suburbs and new hazards from industrial and nuclear pollutants loomed over all organisms.By the time that biologist Rachel Carson published her landmark book,Silent Spring, in 1962, a nascent environmentalism had emerged in America.  Silent Spring stood out as an unparalleled argument for the interconnectedness of ecological and human health. Pesticides, Carson argued, also posed a threat to human health, and their over-use threatened the ecosystems that supported food production.  Carson’s argument was compelling to many Americans, including President Kennedy, and was virulently opposed by chemical industries that suggested the book was the product of an emotional woman, not a scientist.After Silent Spring, the social and intellectual currents of environmentalism continued to expand rapidly, culminating in the largest demonstration in history, Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, and in a decade of lawmaking that significantly restructured American government. Even before the massive gathering for Earth Day, lawmakers from the local to federal level had pushed for and achieved regulations to clean up the air and water. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970, requiring environmental impact statements for any project directed or funded by the federal government.  He also created the Environmental Protection Agency, the first agency charged with studying, regulating, and disseminating knowledge about the environment. A raft of laws followed that were designed to offer increased protection for air, water, endangered species, and natural areas.In keeping with the activist themes of the decade, the Catholic Church reevaluated longstanding traditions in the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council became the defining moment for the modern church.  Called by Pope John XXIII to bring the church into closer dialogue with the non-Catholic world, Vatican II functioned as a vehicle for a spirit of aggiornamento, or a bringing up to date, for individual Catholics and their church.The council met from 1962 to 1965, and its members—the bishops of the worldwide Catholic Church—discussed varied topics, ranging from ecumenism and the role of laypeople to religious freedom and the changing nature of the priesthood.  Vatican II went beyond mere discussion, however.  Its proclamations brought about the rise of the vernacular Mass, a larger role for laypeople in the liturgy and in the administration of parishes and dioceses, increased contact with non-Catholics, and renewed recognition of the church as “the people of God” rather than primarily as a body of priests and bishops. A number of American Catholics had long called for such reforms, and the post-conciliar period often saw dramatic changes to the form of worship in Catholic parishes, with many adopting more informal, contemporary styles. Vatican II also opened the way for women to claim a larger degree of power in the life of the Catholic Church. The council, though, was not without controversy. More conservative Catholics often resisted what they perceived as rapid, dangerous changes overtaking their church, which frequently led to tensions between clergy and laity and among laypeople.Priests and male and female religious figures also felt the council’s influence.  Some scholars have cited the general opening, liberalizing effect of Vatican II’s message and its implementation as key factors in the decline of the number of American priests that began in the era of the Second Vatican Council.  Nuns seized the opportunity provided by the council to revisit the rules governing their

A group of robed Catholic leaders outside a Catholic church while a crowd looks on.

Losing membership and influence throughout the world, leaders of the Catholic Church met in 1965 institute new measures to modernize and open the church. This ecumenical council would become known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II. Photograph of the grand procession of the Council Fathers at St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962. Wikimedia.

communities, and many decided to leave the cloister and do away with older forms of religious garb—including the habit—reflecting one of Vatican II’s goals of more thorough engagement of the church with the outside world.  As with priests, many nuns decided to leave consecrated religious life. Vatican II’s influence and tensions resonated for decades after its conclusion and it remains the lens through which Catholics and non-Catholics alike must view the modern church.