The Counterculture of the 1960s

The 1960s were a period when long‐held values and norms of behavior seemed to break down, particularly among the young. Many college‐age men and women became political activists and were the driving force behind the civil rights and antiwar movements. Other young people simply “dropped out” and separated themselves from mainstream culture through their appearance and lifestyle. Attitudes toward sexuality appeared to loosen, and women began to openly protest the traditional roles of housewife and mother that society had assigned to them.

The New Left. Left‐wing politics in the 1960s attracted primarily middle‐class college students. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded at the University of Michigan in 1960, was the organizational base for the New Left. The term “New Left” was coined in the group's 1962 Port Huron Statement, which criticized the lack of individual freedom and the power of bureaucracy in government, universities, and corporations and called for participatory democracy. Leaders of the SDS believed that colleges were a natural base from which to promote social change. Before opposition to the Vietnam War mushroomed, issues that touched on student freedom, such as dress codes, course requirements, discrimination by sororities and fraternities, and minority admissions, were hot topics on campus. When the administration tried to control political activity at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1964, the Free Speech Movement was formed. The tactics the Berkeley students used at the time — sit‐ins and taking over college buildings — became common forms of antiwar protest. In the spring of 1965, SDS supported a nationwide campaign against the draft. On campuses, demonstrations included draft card burnings, confrontations with military recruiters, and sit‐ins to protest ROTC programs. Additionally, companies that were closely involved with the war effort, such as Dow Chemical (which manufactured napalm), were targeted when they came to a university to recruit. Off campus, antiwar protestors demonstrated at Army induction centers with picket lines and sit‐ins.

In the first six months of 1968, more than 200 major demonstrations took place at 100 colleges and universities across the country, involving more than 40,000 students. The most celebrated of these early demonstrations was the confrontation at Columbia University in April 1968. The issue being protested was not the war, but the school's decision to displace black housing to build a gymnasium. The local SDS chapter, along with black students, commandeered several buildings on campus for almost a week. When the police were called in, 700 students were arrested and 150 injured as the buildings were cleared out. The occupation received national and international news coverage, Columbia's president resigned, and the plans for the gymnasium were dropped. It was an apparent victory for the SDS, but it was short‐lived. The organization soon splintered, with its more radical elements, such as the Weathermen, openly espousing confrontational politics. The best known off‐campus violent episode involving the New Left occurred in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention when police brutally confronted antiwar demonstrators from the Youth International Party (Yippies) and the National Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam organization.

Hippies. Like the members of the New Left, the Hippies were mostly middle‐class whites but without the political drive. Their hallmarks were a particular style of dress that included jeans, tie‐dyed shirts, sandals, beards, long hair, and a lifestyle that embraced sexual promiscuity and recreational drugs, including marijuana and the hallucinogenic LSD. The sex and drug culture were reflected in the rock music of the time by such groups as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and performers like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Although some young people established communes in the countryside, hippies were primarily an urban phenomenon. The Haight‐Ashbury section of San Francisco and the East Village in New York were the focal points of the counterculture for a brief period from 1965 to 1967.

A landmark counterculture event was the Woodstock Festival, held in upstate New York in August 1969. Billed as “three days of peace, music, and love,” the promoters expected a large crowd but not the 300,000 to 400,000 people who actually attended. In spite of the large numbers, there were no serious problems; adequate medical care was available — mainly for drug‐related emergencies — and the police decided not to try to enforce drug laws. A Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California a few months later did not go as well. With the police unable to provide adequate security because they did not have enough notice of the event, Hell's Angels were hired for crowd control. The bikers beat one person to death, and several more deaths resulted from accidents and drug overdoses.

Sexual politics. While the general permissiveness of the counterculture encouraged sexual freedom, other factors also contributed to the change in attitudes toward sexuality. Oral contraceptives became available, and by 1970, 12 million women were “on the pill.” The use of other means of birth control, such as diaphragms and IUDs, also increased. Many states had already legalized abortion, and the new women's movement was committed to making the procedure even more widely available. Throughout the sexual revolution, which lasted until the onset of the AIDS crisis in the mid‐'80s, the birth rate declined and the number of abortions, unwed mothers, and divorces rose.

The starting point for contemporary feminism was the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which argued that women should be allowed to find their own identity, an identity not necessarily limited to the traditional roles of wife and mother. The number of women attending college skyrocketed during the 1960s, and many became involved with both the New Left and the civil rights movement. Even these organizations remained dominated by men, however. During the takeover at Columbia University, for instance, women were assigned duties such as making coffee and typing. Consequently, although the political activism of the 1960s was a catalyst for women's liberation, feminism became most effective when it created its own groups. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed to address such issues as allotting federal aid for day‐care centers for working mothers, guaranteeing women the right to an abortion, eliminating gender‐based job discrimination, and ensuring equal pay for equal work.

Women, however, were not the only group that began to demand equality in the 1960s. Laws against homosexuals were common, and groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had campaigned for years with little effect against gay discrimination. In June 1969, the attempt by the New York City police to close down the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan, led to days of rioting and to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front. The treatment of homosexuals and lesbians gradually became a national civil rights issue.