The Sixties Turn 50

HuffPost is asking readers to share their memories of the Sixties. What's your opinion of the most important developments in that seminal decade?

Having reprised the past, miserable decade -- bracketed by 9/11 and The Great Recession -- let us also take note of the 50th anniversary last week of the start of probably the most prophetic and influential decade in memory. Yes, The Sixties.

It generationally began on two dates: first, the January 2, 1960 presidential announcement by John Kennedy that only hinted at transforming changes to come; second, the February 1 sit-in that year by four black students at a whites-only Woolworth's lunch-counter in Greensboro, NC. Together, these historic moments bring to mind the observation of a French historian that "a revolution is like waves lapping at a cliff; for generations, nothing happens... and then the cliff collapses."

Look at the collapse of conventional thinking because of the civil rights, women's, environmental, anti-war, anti-nuclear, consumer rights, and gay rights movements, among others. All either began, were nurtured, or ripened during the Sixties (which really lasted until 1973, in terms of events that flowed directly out of the numerical decade). And all were united around a big unFifties idea -- talking back to authority and participating in democracy to advance the common good.

There were many examples of political immaturity, narcissism, drug abuse, and later, lapses into violence. But those who politically trivialize that period as a "Woodstock Generation" completely miss the larger legacy, as millions of citizens from the bottom-up forced politicians to respond to big problems. 1963-1965 saw the March on Washington, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. 1969-1970 alone saw Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, Stonewall, as well as the launch of public interest groups that survive today as institutional bridges between generations (Public Citizen, Common Cause and the Natural Resources Defense Council) -- all this in little over one year.

Why did it happen then?

The Fifties, as the David Halberstam and Fred Kaplan brilliantly chronicled in their books (respectively, The Fifties and 1959), were demographically driven by a post-World War exodus to the suburbs, with Levittown, PA serving as both a metaphor for the era's conformity, and a lived reality. But seeds were sown in the 1950s that awaited better soil -- Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., Brando and Dean, Elvis and Kerouac, On the Beach and The Organization Man.

Norman Mailer was prescient in his November, 1960 Esquire essay about Kennedy, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." At that pivot of history, he wrote, there were two Americas: a superficial politics that was "concrete, factual, practical, and unbelievably dull" and "a subterranean river of uptapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires [comprising] the dream life of the nation."

Then, boom! A confluence of the sheer number of baby boomers (college enrollment doubled from 1960-1970), the idea of JFK after Ike, the moral force of civil rights, the anguish of Vietnam - seen collectively through the still-young medium of television -- created a critical mass that fundamentally changed how the country thought and acted. An easy conformity suddenly yielded to constant challenge. Millions became rebels with causes... and far larger audiences.

The point is not that the 1960s became an "end of history." Rather, events then have had obvious, outsized consequences now -- no JFK/MLKing, no Obama; no Friedan/Steinem, no Hillary presidential candidacy. Values that spilled out onto the streets and into laws then have become accepted norms. Consider that Nixon signed the bills creating the EPA and OSHA, Reagan never tried to criminalize abortion, and Bush 43 extended the Voting Rights Act. Vigorous policy arguments in 2010 over global warming, universal health care, market regulation, Afghanistan, choice and marriage equality essentially occur within boundaries set then... not the 70s, 80's, 90s, and certainly not the Aughts.

Whatever happens in the 2010 and even 2012 elections, there's no going back to a pre-Sixties moment when women usually didn't or couldn't work outside the home, black voters were systematically disenfranchised, consumers drove dangerous cars because "safety doesn't sell," and companies used rivers for garbage disposal.

Consider just six areas how the long arm of the Sixties reaches across the decades to tap us on the shoulder as we debate the next America:

  • The civil rights movement -- after generations of killings, beatings and Jim Crow -- culminated in laws that established legal equality, even as we today attempt to convert rights into practice. But ongoing struggles over disparities in education, the workplace, and sentencing occur within a racial framework built on those successes.

  • The environmental movement led to both the first Earth Day in April 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The "whole earth" values cultivated then are a template today as we debate even harder choices on climate control and a clean energy economy.
  • The anti-war movement -- both in demonstrations and the corridors of power -- exposed the folly of wars of choice and quagmires abroad. While that expensive lesson was tragically overwhelmed by the fear dividend after 9/11, at the least President Obama -- whatever one's views of his surge in Afghanistan -- opposed "dumb" wars as a state senator and now clearly wants "exit ramps" to get out of our two wars as soon as feasible. Bush 41 and 43 disparaged the "Vietnam Syndrome"; Obama wouldn't.
  • The women's movement -- and the Pill and "sexual revolution" -- gave women choices when it came to reproductive rights and work (Roe, Title IX, EEOC), which were mirrored in the past year's congressional fights over the Lilly Ledbetter law and Stupak amendment.
  • The consumer movement -- beginning with Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, the creation of the 1967 National Highway Traffic Safety Commission and then the Consumer Product Safety Commission --echoes in today's fight over the Consumer Finance Protection Agency. After the recent banking meltdown, even Alan Greenspan sounds like Paul Krugman on the need for market regulation.
  • The gay rights movement that publicly exploded at New York City's Stonewall Inn in 1970 startled straight America, but without it would there be the growing acceptance now of homosexuality in the country? As marriage equality is fought out in state referenda and in court, the heated conversation over whether Ellen could just say she was a lesbian in Ellen in the '90s seems like ancient history based on Will & Grace, Queer as Folk and Modern Family.
  • And then there was Kennedy's 1963 "Peace Speech" at American University and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (the first significant arms control agreement between the superpowers); the Freedom of Information Act of 1966; the Surgeon General's 1964 report that smoking causes cancer and ban on tobacco ads on TV; the shareholder rights movement ("Campaign GM" in 1970). These breakthroughs all reverberate in current controversies over US-Russia nuclear arms talks, Obama's Open Government Directive, tobacco litigation and legislation, and corporate governance.

    Certainly political and social conservatives have plenty of fight in them and will win some close legislative and electoral contests. But such battles are usually over how much to spend or how much to regulate or how fast to reduce global warming, less about underlying laws and values.

    Whatever the decibel level of the Fox/Limbaugh/Palin crowd, the long-term prospect for uprooting Sixties values is remote. First, those who stand for civil rights, women's rights, a greener world, nuclear arms control, consumer fairness, and universal health care are on the right side of history, just as those for Social Security and labor laws in the 30s were proven to be. Second, with the percentage of non-white Americans inexorably rising, it becomes increasingly difficult for a conservative party and tradition to rely on white males to prevail.

    When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, then Chinese Communist Premier Chou En-lai humorously replied, "it's too soon to tell." With all due respect, it's now possible to come to a verdict about a 50 year-old decade: the paradigm shifts of the Sixties have endured and prevailed. They did overcome.

    Mark Green is writing a new book, Triumph of the Sixties: Ideas Still Shaping the 21st Century.