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When Did "The Sixties" Really Begin? Here's Why It Matters

When, exactly, did the era of radical ferment we remember as "the '60s" begin? Exactly one half-century ago, PBS tells us in its recent documentary titled "1964," kicking off a year when we'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of a host of memorable events:

  • Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress, and got a blank check from Congress (the Tonkin Gulf resolution) to send troops to Vietnam.
  • The Mississippi Freedom Summer saw civil rights workers murdered and hundreds of white students going back to their campuses in the fall radicalized.
  • Some of those students, at Berkeley, created the Free Speech Movement.
  • African Americans "rioted" in Harlem.
  • America began to hear of Malcolm X, and Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.
  • After Republicans took a sharp turn to the right and saw their presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, get 40% of the vote -- buoyed by the rhetoric of political newcomer Ronald Reagan -- right-wing politicos began planning a "New Right" movement.
  • The Beatles came to America, and Motown's biggest hit was "Dancing in the Streets."
  • TV viewers were spellbound by an immensely strong, totally independent woman on the season's biggest new hit, "Bewitched."    

Connect the dots, the PBS show's talking head historians all say, and you'll see a year that changed America forever. "The 60s" had begun!

There's just one problem with this story: Hardly anybody in 1964 was connecting the dots. The public generally saw these events as quite separate from each other. LBJ's support for civil rights and helping the poor were clearly connected. But hardly anyone foresaw how the Gulf of Tonkin resolution would intersect with, and ultimately destroy, his liberal domestic agenda. The Beatles sparred with Clay in a fun photo-op. But who could see any link between them and the Berkeley students taking over the university administration building?

In fact 1964 seemed a rather calm year to most Americans compared with the two years that had preceded it, which had brought the Cuban Missile Crisis and the murder of President Kennedy. Even the change that seemed obviously greatest in 1964, the Civil Rights Act, struck most Americans outside the South as something that was happening elsewhere and wouldn't affect them directly.

"The '60s" as a real political-cultural phenomenon was not evident to most Americans until 1967 or maybe even 1968. It's only in retrospect that so many events of 1964 seem so obviously intertwined.

"The '60s" as a real political-cultural phenomenon was not evident to most Americans until 1967 or maybe even 1968. It's only in retrospect that so many events of 1964 seem so obviously intertwined.

That's what historians do: look back and see things that people at the time couldn't see. It's a job well worth doing. But it's equally important that we don't confuse the early seeds of a major political, social, and cultural change with the substance of the change itself.

If we make that mistake, we miss the most important lesson of 1964: The seeds can be all around us, yet the change itself remains unexpected, invisible, even unimaginable to most people at the time. And, as the huge leap from 1964 to 1968 teaches us, we should never forget how surprisingly fast it can happen.


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Historians of "the '60s" often make a similar mistake when it comes to deciding when that era came to an end. They focus on the very beginning of the end, in 1968 and 1969, the very years that most Americans first began to feel engulfed by the wave of change. That wave remained strong, as far as most Americans could tell, into the first years of the '70s, though you might not know it from reading some histories of "the '60s." 

Historians face a problem here. If you're going to decide that the key to understanding any historical era is to track down its roots -- as '60s scholars so often do -- where do you stop? Everything that happened in 1964 -- or any other year, for that matter -- was the fruit of things that happened earlier. It's well known by now that the roots of "the '60s" really lie in the supposedly so opposite era of "the '50s." In fact you can find roots of just about everything in that "1964" documentary as far back as 1950.

I wouldn't seriously argue that 1950 was the beginning of "the '60s." I would seriously argue that seeds of change are being planted all around us all the time. Some grow underground, unseen, for a long, long time before they come to fruition. We shouldn't confuse the seeds with the full-flowering plant.

Nevertheless, tracking down those seeds from eras past is a very important job, mostly because it can help us pay more attention to seeds that are growing underground right now. Of course we can't predict which seeds will connect up with which other ones to create significant change, and certainly not when or how it will happen. But history can teach us to watch more closely and optimistically for signs of change that might be coming surprisingly soon.

The seeds of change are being planted all around us all the time. Some grow underground, unseen, for a long, long time before they come to fruition. We shouldn't confuse the seeds with the full-flowering plant.

Who knows whether, some day, PBS will produce a documentary called "2013." Talking head historians will tell us that 2013 was indeed the year everything changed in America in a way we hadn't seen since the '60s:

  • Wealth inequality became a constant topic of discussion.
  • Republicans who shut down the government to advance their anti-equalization agenda suffered ignominious defeat in the court of public opinion.
  • That defeat created a fatal schism among Republicans, dramatically weakening the once-powerful Tea Party.
  • The concern for inequality put Elizabeth Warren in the political spotlight, giving progressives their first media star with real influence in government.
  • Pope Francis began moving the Catholic Church in more liberal directions, especially on issues of economic justice
  • Edward Snowden revealed massive spying by the NSA, sparking public outrage over government abuses in the name of national security.
  • A wave of protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline hit the White House and cities across the country, including some civil disobedience actions, and over 75,000 people pledged to risk arrest if the president approves the Pipeline project.
  • Iran and the U.S. signed a preliminary agreement to settle differences through diplomacy.
  • The U.S. initiated ongoing peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
  • A majority of Americans for the first time approved of gay marriage.
  • Colorado and Washington drafted laws to govern retail pot shops.
  • "The Hunger Games -- Catching Fire," depicting teenagers rebelling against an oppressive government, was the year's top box-office film.

That's just skimming the surface. No doubt everyone will have their own favorite potential roots of change that I've missed in this quick overview.

For historians the conclusion is this: We absolutely should trace the sources of change as far back as we can. But we should also make a clear, careful distinction between when the earliest root of any change took hold and when that change became truly significant for society at large.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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