The Sixties

Posted on July 1, 2011 by

I’m not a big fan of 1960s revivalism.  I don’t look back wistfully on the cultural and political upheaval of that period or ruminate excessively about my personal evolution or transformation.

When I talk about “the sixties” I mean my own.  Born in 1951, I’m about to hit that mark.  Don’t worry.  I’m not going to tire you out with anecdotes about my adolescence.

Just a few thoughts:

First, for my generational peers – and this is obvious – 20 years can now seem like a blip (1991 just wasn’t that long ago).  So here’s one observation about “the” sixties from that perspective:

I’m amazed that the Vietnam protests started just two decades after the end of World War II.

It freaks me out (notice how I’m using the jargon of that era) to think that demonstrators were American flag-burning while tens of millions of veterans who fought in Europe and the Pacific were not yet very old.

Not a great way to build support for our “revolutionary” political values.

Next point:

My interest in history – especially American – grows with age.  I’ve become more curious about what was happening before I got here.

Sixty years forward offers some perspective to sixty years in the other direction. (1951 – 60 = 1891).

Which is just about where my current attention lands.

I’ve read four excellent bios this year – written by contemporary historians – of American progressive reformers whose work begins in the late 19th century:

  • Jane Addams, Spirit in Action by Louise Knight
  • Louis D. Brandeis, A Life by Melvin Urofsky
  • William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero by Michael Kazin
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Radical Democrat by Manning Marable 

(See The Nation’s piece on 50 influential American progressives).

Though my own political origins were baked in the 60s, I resist any fascination with that period. 

Instead I find my inspiration from progressive activists who were building reform movements just as my grandparents from Poland and Romania were getting off the boat.

Comments (16)


  1. Joe Uehlein says:

    Interesting Lou ~ Your denial is palpable: “resist any fascination”…”not a big fan of 60′s revivalism”, etc. Allow me to fill you in on something re: “freaks me out” being “jargon of the 60′s” — my six year old daughter uses that phrase and she didn’t get it from me. Full disclosure: I am a big fan of 60′s revivalism, because the vibe of that era was progressive, and it’s the closest we’ve come to turning the tide on right wing hate since the 30′s. You’re right about the flag burning–dumb and wrong-headed. I thought that at the time — I was born in 1953. Our challenges today call out for more “peace, love and understanding,” to paraphrase the Nick Lowe song made popular by Elvis Costello and recorded by man: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding. Bear in mind that the first three chords to the Neil Young song, Ohio, remain among the most recognized chord riff in American rock & roll music, and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song remains on the charts 25 years after his death — the power of the 60′s is reviving whether you like it not Lou. Take a look at today’s youth movements around climate and sustainability, or, go to a Further concert (current touring version of the Grateful Dead” — a sea of young folks mixed in with the aging hippies, of which I proudly count myself as one.

  2. Glen Arnodo says:

    Yeah, if we could have a do-over on some parts of the sixties, that probably would be a good thing. But as you know, it wasn’t all flag burning. I saw my father, a WWII vet, go from supporting the Vietnam War to opposing it. What changed his attitude? Watching Vietnam vets march on Wahington. And let’s not forget how some unions — UAW, Packinghouse workers, 1199, Sleeping Car porters and others, played key roles in the civil rights movement. It was a time that changed people profoundly. Yes, it had its extremes but it changed people profoundly and touched everyone, no matter what part of the political spectrum they were on.

  3. Lou, I recommended a few books to you about labor and the sixties, the about the sixties itself. It seems you have not picked them up. Would you please provide the empirical evidence of how often the flag (U.S.) was burned in public compared to the number of flags that were carried in the thousands of protests in that decade? Would you also provide verifiable evidence of how many Vietnam Vets were spat upon when they came back from Nam to “universal scorn” from the young activists? Myth is much more powerful than accurate information, and much easier to “own” because, for the most part, we create our own according to our own inner needs, political and personal. It’s much more difficult to step back from our own “subject position” to investigate the era that we lived through with a dispassionate approach to the evidence. The “sixties” have nothing to do with a “fascination” or not, it has to do with what and was not accomplished politically and culturally, and the two do go together if you accept the fact that feminism was the most radical and transformative movement of the era. “The Sixties Without Apologies” is one of the books you should check, even though I would argue against the proposition in the title.

  4. Peter Olney says:


    Kudos to all the previous respondents for voicing many of my sentiments particularly Kerry Candaele on the mythology of “flag burning and spitting”, but what I want to know is when are we going to celebrate your 60th!!


    Peter O

  5. Or, as I put the problem about the sixties during a recent walk in downtown Los Angeles, how should we look at the radical abolitionists of the 1830s-1850s, when those outside the political process were burning the U.S. Constitution in public spaces, when William Lloyd Garrison called that sacred document a “covenant with the devil” when the counter-cultural movement of the age–Owenites, Fourier Socialists, Shakers, John Humphrey Noyes, with Emerson and Thoreau against early American imperialism, the asylum movement, the public school movement, the anti-slavery women’s movement that Lucretia Mott, Sorjouner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton suffering the scorn of everyone when they gathered at Senecca Falls in 1848 to begin the first women’s movement and, at the time, alligned against southern slavery. If we can’t get by our personal insults with regard to the worst of the “Sixties” we have no chance of even understanding what this complicated period meant. In my estimation, the equation goes roughly like this: no sixites= no end to segregation, no continued politics about the same, no woman’s movement, no forceful anti-imperial politics that survives on both sides of the isle to the present day, no sense that we shouldn’t be living life under the sexual codes of the Catholic Church, and no experimentation for the sake of it. If you don’t like what the sixties wrought, then you have a lot of help for articulating an argument from every conservative in the United States today, beginning with Newt and Mitt.

  6. Greg II says:

    I am absolutely a child of the 60′s. And as a Black man, I thank God for the sixties. We would not have equal rights but for the sixties or even the semblance of equality the exists today were it not for the sixties. The Voting Rights Act which the Republicans are now trying to subvert happened in the sixties. I am a child of the 60s. I loved the sixties.

  7. PS The mistake of a bunch of historians about the sixties is to read its history through what appeared on the front page of the New York Times, i.e. the most flagrant examples of misbehavior. See one flag burner in a march of thousands, go get that photo. Lazy journalism equals lazy history if the historian draws the lay of the land from institutions that need to draw eyes to its “news.”

  8. PPS The “sixties” started in the 1830s, and on the liberal/left included not only Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, Robert Moses, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Michael Harrington, Cesar Chavez, Robert and John Kennedy, Irving Howe, Andy Warhol, Betty Friedan, Shula Smith Firestone, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Stokely Carmichel, John Lewis, Tim Leary, Allen Ginsburg, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Walther Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, and a host of others who were transformed and transformed that era. First rule of thinking about our time: don’t run it through the specific history of a family, town, city, or other pedestrian category, unless you are writing a memoir. And if you write a memoir, do it really well.

    • Lou says:

      Looking back, I’m definitely troubled by the anti-Americanism of the new left. But that certainly doesn’t explain all my complicated feeling about the era. And yes, I’m also disinclined to romanticize it.

      But I wrote the piece mostly to reflect on what it’s like for me to turn 60. From my book list, it’s obvious that I’m still trying to figure out how to get our country moving in a progressive direction.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Andy Griggs says:

    I am now a sixties-some sixties radical! Born in ’50, raised a red diaper baby, involved in labor and civil rights activism from an early age, I remember being on the streets in marches from about 4 years ole (WSP and WILPF). Seeing El Teatro Campesino perform in support of LA Huelga and the farmworkers gave early inspiration to a career in social activist theatre. Being at Cornell, seeing the black students seize a building and come out armed due to threats from paramilitaries, SDS marches, anti-ROTC demo arrests, Dan Berrigan escaping from the FBI, under a Bread and Puppet Theatre puppet all were a part of my times. For some of us the 60s have continued to a lifetime of activism. At a recent meeting of US Labor Against the War (with mostly people my age in attendance) we were debating getting involved in the March 4th student led Save Public Education events around the country. We thought it was important to get the students to include the anti-war demands to their rhetoric, because of the costs of the war. I made the point that 40 years ago we were calling for a Student-worker alliance, and now we are calling for a worker-student alliance! Organized labor still has to make the connections in a lot of ways – and the fervor we had has to be continued–and passed on.
    It is nice to reminisce, but it is important to move on as well. Remember the Past. Inform the Future!
    Hope to see you at the Carwashero benefit on July 20!

  10. Hi Lou,

    Perhaps I just don’t have the patriot gene, but I’m curious as to what you perceive “anti-Americanism” to be. We’re told all day long about how the United States is the “greatest country on the face of the earth” and that it should be, and is, blessed by God at every speech for its “exceptionalism”. (On this latter question see Godfrey Hogdson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism) To put the point in blunt terms, I have never understood what it means to love a country. To appreciate many of its features, to marvel at certain achievements, to be impressed by writings of our first generation of statesmen, yes, but to love the country, no. I love my family, but never a country.

    And was it anti-American to be vigorously opposed to our destruction of Vietnam, Laos, and the millions that died either directly or indirectly from our folly? I assume you would say today that Noam Chomsky is anti-American, as he is saying many of the same things he said in the 60s about this country. But I don’t see him in those terms. He is a fierce critic of this countries policies, with many areas to disagree with his analysis. But to adopt this language of pro and anti-American is to make simple what should be made complex, and allows these empty words to do rhetorical and political work that they can not do. Having talked to you about a lot of this over the years, I often have the feeling that you have a very New York centric view of politics, forged in that very conflicted city during the sixties, with politics among the white and Jewish working class turning, as the decade proceeded, on question of race, who controlled the teachers union, what position black activists took vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians, and the influence of “third world” politics in general on the left. Would I be wrong in thinking this?

    I mean, you are right in thinking that a large slice of the organized student hard left went head over heals for various third world revolutions and revolutionaries, descending into a fantasy world of seeing the likes of Robert Mugabe as a vision of a bright future. But, as I say, the devil is in the historical details, not the rhetoric of anti and pro.

    And Happy Birthday.

  11. Rudy Corral says:

    I remember the late sixties. i was about 8years old. I remember my mother and father walking out of the fields and going on strike with the UFW and Caesar Chavez in Yuma AZ. I also remember going often to San Diego State to visit my sisters who were going to college there. I still recall the protest and the music concerts. It all seemed pretty strange to me especially when we went with our cousin Kiko who just returned from Nam he just wasn’t the same he kept talking about things that didn’t make sense except to himself I suppose. The rebellion of the sixties stayed with me through high school and into my life in a lot of ways I am still trying to finish what was started then. The lessons I see are that we have to come together as a whole in the working class, nationalism kills as we saw the leaders of the American Indians / Chicano, Black Panthers, and SDS get killed and jailed before fully creating a vast movement that won the hearts and minds of all the citizens. But i guess thats the million dollar question. How do you bring together the masses then and today you would think the senseless killings of the war and racism would have been enough to bring the people together enough to stop the war and foster a new America. As in today the war rages and capital has escalated its cycles of profit and was on the American working class. How long will it take for the progress caucus of the Democratic party take to leave DNC and create a third party of the working class. As then as today the Matrix is real and until we break that cycle of capital we will have to continue in the struggle of the working class.

  12. Rudy,

    There are many reasons why a party, third or otherwise, has not and can not organize around the idea of the “working class”. The most important fact that gets in the way of that fantasy is that the working-class does not exist. Or, to be more precise, it does not exist in it’s idealized form as articulated by Marx during the height of proletarization in England in the mid nineteenth century. The working class has always been divided by type of occupation (factory, office, farm), by strata (blue collar, white collar, those with considerable education, those without), status-consciousness (those with considerable purchase on the American dream, those with more power over their work vs those with none, and the sense of satisfaction with the system and sense of self-worth that comes from those facts), and it has always been divided by the things all of us know too well, immigrants vs non-immigrants, race, sex, organized and unorganized. The working class is an every moving ever complex phenomenon that is transformed constantly over time by the only truly revolutionary system on the face of the earth, the system that has change written into its DNA, the system of capitalism. Marx knew this all too well, but expected that immiseration of the proletariat to bring a unified and class-conscious working class into existence that would carry through a political/social process that would overturn all existing relationships. He was wrong. When you add differences of culture to the mix, whether one is religious (so many variations) and stands against abortion, or is anti-religious and stands for freedom of choice, things get even more complicated. If the progressive caucus started a new party, it would represent a tiny minority of the people in this country, those who think like you and me, and who don’t agree on all issues of course. The birth of the Republican party in the 1850s was a complicated affair, and unusual in U.S. history.
    There is one exception to the general fracturing of the “working-class” into these many parts, and that is the German Social Democratic Party of the late 19th century, which represented a majority of the population of Germany. No other Labour, Marxist, or Socialist party has ever come close to that kind of political and cultural power in any western industrialized democratic nation. And even in the case of the SPD, the membership included not just a (fairly homogenous in terms of ethnicity, language, and culture) industrial proletariat, but also a large slice of middle-class shop keepers and professionals, and a good part of the intelligentsia. And given the nature of our presidential system, third parties are a hopeless diversion except at the local level and where local laws allow for voting procedures where you choice is not wasted if you vote for a third party.

    What’s more, certain factions of SDS, the Black Panthers, AIM, and other organizations of the left had serious problems when it came to strategy, tactics, a fascination with revolutionary violence as the decade heated up, Leninist and Maoist sectarianism gone wild, and other political quirks that made for an often unattractive presence. But as I’ve mentioned above, if we think of that sectarian left as THE left, then it’s easy to dismiss the left in total as foolish, “anti-American”, and carrying a host of other problems. And none of these organizations came close to winning “the hearts and minds of all the citizens” of this country. Far from it.

    One specific example will I hope clarify the problem. Why is it that Malcolm X has become such a hero to so many black youth, when he did so little to advance the position of black Americans, and Martin Luther King has been turned into a soft and kindly icon for worship every year with his elevating I Have A Dream speech? The man was much more radical, in the true sense of the word, than Malcolm: he (and those who worked so long with him) had the institutional power and moral heft to transform the country Is it simply the existence of Spike Lee’s film? I think so.

    Check out the debates on youtube between Malcolm X and James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin to see who makes more sense, then and now.

  13. Gavin Koon says:

    The 60′s was necessary – given the wider communication and world awarness after WWII. The need for civil rights, voter rights, equal education, and rapid techological changes (TV, computers, rockets) – the attempt at the great society was a noble one.

    As in all human endeavors we could have probably done it better. In some ways we are better society, in other areas we have not completed the task. A matter I think we will always be working on.

  14. Steve Nutter says:

    Am comfortable with the 60′s, now that I’m into mine. I see what happened as not so far afield from those before us. We weren’t really that special. Take the war. There was some war weariness then, though masked by Cold War fears. When my Grandpa Oddie left the farm and college in Spokane to fight in WWI, he went like most, with some dread. He was one of the 10,000 who arrived daily in French ports, just in time for Kaiser’s last spring offensive. The suffering of the merchant marine, the Zimmerman telegram, and all the rest got Wilson the declaration of war he wanted. Before it was over, my Grandpa’s fresh face was covered with blisters, after being mustard gassed and left for dead in a pile of bodies. When he finally came home, it was to retreat to a farm and a quiet life, never to talk about the trenches. He was not alone. The promise of a war to end all wars turned out to be a false one. There was also no GI Bill for the WWI vets in the Bonus Army, just billy clubs. It’s not surprising then that, between the two world wars, most Americans thought getting into WWI was a mistake, and were not about to do it again. Some called it isolationist. Our people were war weary. Only after Pearl Harbor did we go to war again and the clamor to serve start. My Dad wanted to serve, and was embarassed that health problems kept him out. I’m sure I’d have felt the same. By the time D Day, VJ Day and Korea had passed, and another war secretly grew in Southeast Asia, a lot of men had come back wounded, or lying under a flag, and the children of those who mattered were being drafted. Even when LBJ promised guns and butter. America was ready for a protest movement and it gave birth to one. I feel fortunate to have been one of the babies. It was a grand time, learning to question authority, to find our own voices. While we should have done a better job in the 60′s of separating the Vets from the War in what we said, our complaints found good soil and grew. When the clamor began again decades later for intervention in Iraq, the soil for protest was even better, and I found myself chaperoning one of my sons and his classmates when they walked out of class to protest, and marching with my other son in hopes of stopping the war. Today, even red states are growing tired of war, 10 years into Afganistan, and not just to be anti-Obama. The right of citizens to speak out and organize against war has come a long way since the Palmer raids, built on the sacrafices of the past and the common sense of those asked to make them in the future. We stood on shoulders in the 60′s and have ours to share now.

  15. Thank you Lou for being the “counter-indicator” that brings so much fine writing about the sixties together. The mis-direction plays of elites, such as fictional flag burnings and false flag operations such as the Gulf of Tonkin hoax, the Warren Commission Report, “WMD of Iraq”, are not aberrations. They are the woof and weave of power. If you’re on the Board of Lockheed you don’t want to defend the Vietnam war by telling Truth to the Powerless, “I know we are immolating children but I don’t care as long as my shares go up”….No, “Domino Theory” and “Flag Burning Youth” is the order of the day. Then the faux Leftist, like Eric Hoffer, or Eric Severeid can be brought in for a low price to “Manufacture Consent”.

    It reminds me how the people who get it right on any issue are marginalized to keep the Master Narrative in place. Listen to PBS, NPR, Newsweek, any of the “Liberal” media; no Bob Scheer, no Tom Hayden. Come to think of it, very little insight or useful information of any kind. “Everyman’s Guide to Ignorance”, as an old history teacher of mine used to call Reader’s Digest – and “Guides” they are- to self censorship. In other words, stories to tell yourself while you are being robbed.

    So Lou, my friend, if you want a Jewish past to romanticise, start with the Prophets; speak Truth to Power, because regardless of how “practical” we think we are when we elect synchophants, such as 90% of the Demo party, we at least can start out with Truth and see how far we can take it be acting on it together. My favorite political word is “Satyagraha”. That is the core word in Gandhian political thought. It translates “Truth-Action”. The exercise of collective Truth-Action is probably more of what differentiates us from Apes more than anything else- even more than scientific discovery, because it is moral progess itself. The fact that Alpha Males come along and usurp such progress for their own narcissistic egotism is the Distraction of human progress, not its engine. So let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

    The “trees” are SDS, Freedom Riders, Draft Card Burners, Pete Seeger, yes, all the hollowed Principled Action people and movements that were in the business of taking back the power from the Military Industrial (Congressional) Complex. Eisenhower wasn’t just “riffing” Lou- he was giving us a huge tip – and our inability to “beware” of that locus of power has this country and this world upside down right now. My kids and yours are hurting because we have not heeded our own wisdom and fought these powers adequately–but the fight is still on.

    Our failings of the Sixties is not that we had pony tails or that we were “too radical”…..We were not “radical” enough! We didn’t realize that we needed to keep moving toward a Social Democratic wealth-power sharing more like EU- where at least they have a more sensible/practical society- better education, transporation, healthcare- and so better health by far, better industrial output, a more successful society by Any measure – with all its flaws and intense contradictions. All because we went to sleep at the switch on our consciences and stopped growing politically and morally.

    It’s not to be a Marxist, for example, or not to be a Marxist. It is how to incorporate All of the political insight that has been accumulated and passed down to us – including the 19th century kind, such as Marx, and JS Mill, or any other. (I don’t believe you can discard Marx and be a serious political-economic thinker).

    Thanks again for creating this conversation, Lou. It’s a very necessary one. – Rick Chertoff

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