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Defining the sixties in America

Defining The Sixties in America

“The sixties” was an era of new movements and new ideas, of domestic issues and international conflicts, of freshly formed organizations and personal expression. “The sixties” was an era that constantly and consistently challenged the status quo.

Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, editors of Takin’ it to the streets: A Sixties Reader (Oxford University Press, 2002), state in their introduction that there was a “tumultuous world of sixties culture” (8). Due to the sheer variety of movements and ideas which abounded during the sixties a “tumultuous” culture was inevitable. Many minority groups, and even some of those in the majority, were each advocating for their own reasons and ideals.

Organizations of the 1960s

One way to define “the sixties” is through the different organizations and ideas which became prominent during the era but this is problematic. Many of the organizations held completely opposite values, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its offspring the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) lobbied and fought for the voting rights of blacks in the south, specifically in rural impoverished areas of Mississippi, while the Mississippi Citizens’ Council strove to keep political control in the hands of white supremacists.

While defining “the sixties” through the different groups and ideas prominent during the era creates some contradictions and difficulties it is important to note that problems, oppositions, conflicts, and ultimately struggle are what truly characterize “the sixties.”

When “The Sixties” Began

When did “the sixties” begin and end is another difficult question to respond to. If “the sixties” are defined by organizations and the struggles they embody, choosing a beginning date for the era can be equally complicated.

One could try to choose the most prominent organization or cause of the times and select their formation date as the starting date, however many organizations active during “the sixties” were formed long before the era began. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) began in approximately 1909 and surely one cannot choose the beginning of the twentieth century as the beginning of “the sixties.”

Social Movements of “The Sixties”

While civil rights was one of the most definitive issues during “the sixties” it certainly was not the only cause being championed during the era.

Feminists fought for the rights of and equality for women. Environmentalists brought attention to pollution and strove to preserve the natural beauty of the earth and fought against the use and development of nuclear weapons. Activists from various causes united against American involvement in Vietnam and other Third World nations.

It was in “the sixties” that international politics and policies came to the attention of the nation, largely through the growing system of higher education and through the technology of television, which permeated almost all American homes. Vietnam was the central issue of “the sixties” although American involvement in Southeast Asia had began in the previous decades. One organization which was concerned with Vietnam and other developing nations overseas was the Peace Corps formed under the Kennedy administration in 1961.

The Peace Corps in the ’60s

The formation of the Peace Corps is an appropriate date for the beginning of “the sixties” for several reasons. One, it illustrates a growing concern by Americans in the development of Third World countries. The Peace Corps sent volunteers to help educate and to try and better the living conditions of the citizens of formerly colonized areas in places such as Africa. Second, the Peace Corps shows the growing activism of America’s youth. Student and youth involvement was crucial to all the movements of “the sixties”:

  • Feminism
  • Environmentalism
  • Civil rights
  • Peace and anti-war movements

A large portion of the Peace Corps volunteers were students and graduates from UC Berkeley. Third, the formation of the Peace Corps shows the growth of government funding and support for special interest programs.

When “The Sixties” Ended

If “the sixties” begin with the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961, when do “the sixties” end? By defining “the sixties” through struggle and conflict the end of the era would ultimately be the end of the war in Vietnam. The problems of American involvement split the nation into opposing factions and the struggle of the pro-government, anti-communists versus the anti-war peace activists would only end with the removing of all American forces from Vietnam and surrounding areas. This puts the end of “the sixties” at 1973.

While this end date is extremely supportable, another possible end date is the resignation of Nixon in 1974 because this ends American confidence in their government. “The sixties” was not only characterized by struggle, it was an era that lived on idealism, and this idealism was shattered with the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. “The sixties” was a time of activism, struggles, conflicts, and idealism beginning with the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961 and ending with the resignation of Nixon in 1974.