How It All Went Down
Oct 4, 1957
Sputnik Launches Space RaceThe Soviet Union successfully launches Sputnik, an unmanned satellite, into space. Earlier American efforts to launch a similar satellite had failed.
Nov 8, 1960
JFK Wins PresidencyDemocratic candidate John F. Kennedy is elected President of the United States. His margin of victory over Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon is just over 100,000 votes. Kennedy wins 300 Electoral College votes to Nixon’s 219.
Jan 20, 1961
Kennedy's Inaugural AddressJohn F. Kennedy is inaugurated President of the United States. In a memorable address, he urges Americans to "ask not what your country can do you—ask what you can do for your country."
Mar 1, 1961
Peace CorpsPresident John F. Kennedy issues an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. The Corps aims to disseminate good will and practical knowledge by enlisting volunteers, most under age 30, to two-year terms of service.
Federal Protection for Freedom RidersPresident John F. Kennedy orders U.S. Marshals to provide protection for “Freedom Riders” attempting to integrate interstate bus travel.
May 5, 1961
Minimum Wage HikePresident John F. Kennedy signs legislation raising the minimum wage in stages from its current $1 per hour to $1.25 per hour by September 1963.
May 25, 1961
Kennedy Proposes Moon ProgramIn a congressional address, President John F. Kennedy pledges to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Jun 30, 1961
JFK Appoints Segregationist JudgePresident John F. Kennedy appoints Judge William Harold Cox to the federal court. The appointment of Cox, a segregationist, angers civil rights advocates. According to some accounts, Kennedy appoints Cox in order to gain Senate Judiciary Chairman James Eastland’s support for Thurgood Marshall, an African American who Kennedy wanted to name to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Other America PublishedMichael Harrington publishes the The Other America, a shocking exposé about poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world. President John Kennedy is among those influenced by the book; he and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, declare war on poverty and launch a decade-long political mission aimed at reducing unemployment, increasing federal support for schools and adult education, and expanding the network of government programs assisting the poor and elderly.
U.S. Steel Crosses KennedysU.S. Steel announces that it's raising prices just weeks after President Kennedy convinced the steel workers union to temper its wage demands. Kennedy's anger with U.S. Steel is reported in the press and Attorney General Robert Kennedy adds further to business anxieties by convening a grand jury investigation of the steel giant. The stock market will fall in the following weeks, climaxing with a 6% drop on May 28th.
Sep 29, 1962
National Guard Desegregates Ole MissPresident John F. Kennedy orders federal troops and the federalized National Guard to the campus of the University of Mississippi to enforce the court-ordered admission of James Meredith, an African American. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett had blocked implementation of the court order citing the states rights doctrine of interposition.
Dec 14, 1962
JFK Proposes Big Tax CutsIn a speech before the Economic Club of New York, President John Kennedy unveils a plan for economic recovery that emphasizes large tax cuts and credits for businesses. One of his liberal economic advisors labels it the most “Republican speech since McKinley.”1 These proposals will become part of the Tax Reduction Act signed into law in 1964.
Nov 22, 1963
Kennedy AssassinationPresident John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson is sworn in as president the same day.
Jan 8, 1964
LBJ Declares War on PovertyIn President Lyndon Johnson’s first inaugural address, a little over a month after assuming the presidency, he declares war on poverty and outlines an ambitious domestic agenda aimed at reducing unemployment, increasing support for education and job training, and expanding public services for the poor.
Feb 26, 1964
Johnson Slashes TaxesPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the Tax Reduction Act lowering income tax rates from a range of 20–91% to 14–70%. Corporate rates are reduced from 52% to 48%.
Aug 30, 1964
LBJ Signs Jobs BillPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the Economic Opportunity Act, one of the centerpieces of his domestic agenda. In order to combat unemployment and poverty, the act allocates funds for job training, adult education, and loans to small businesses. VISTA, the Job Corps, and Head Start are also administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity.
May 22, 1964
Johnson Proclaims "Great Society"In a speech at the University of Michigan, President Lyndon Johnson introduces the theme for his domestic agenda in stating that we must "set our course toward the Great Society."2
Jul 2, 1964
Civil Rights Act of 1964President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act outlaws discrimination in public facilities, such as parks, and in public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, and it prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.
Jul 9, 1964
Johnson Signs Transit BillPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the Urban Mass Transit Act allocating $375 million for the construction of urban transit systems.
Oct 1, 1964
Berkeley Free Speech MovementHundreds of students at the University of California, Berkeley spontaneously surround a police car as it attempts to remove a political activist for engaging in political advocacy on campus. Roughly 3,000 students will join the 32-hour protest marking the beginning of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement.
Nov 3, 1964
LBJ Trounces Goldwater in ElectionDemocratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson is elected President of the United States. He defeats Republican Barry Goldwater by the largest margin in American history. Johnson wins 61% of the popular vote and 486 of 538 Electoral College votes.
Dec 8, 1964
Cal Faculty Backs Free Speech MovementThe Faculty Senate of the University of California, Berkeley passes a resolution supporting the position maintained by the student leaders of the Free Speech Movement. The Senate urges the administration to acknowledge rights of student speech subject only to reasonable time and place restrictions.
Jan 3, 1965
Berkeley Administration Compromises with Free Speech MovementThe Administration of the University of California, Berkeley announces a new student speech policy that largely meets the demands of student protestors. An “open discussion area” is established on the steps of Sproul Hall, and student political organizations are permitted to staff tables at several locations on campus.
Jul 30, 1965
Creation of Medicare and MedicaidPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the bill creating Medicare, a national health insurance program for the elderly. Companion legislation creates Medicaid, providing health care for people on welfare. Later, Medicaid will be broadened into a more comprehensive program financing health care for low-income persons.
Aug 6, 1965
Voting Rights Act of 1965President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act abolishes literacy tests and other tests used by local and state governments to inhibit African-American voting.
Oct 20, 1965
Higher Education ActPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the Higher Education Act creating the first federally funded college scholarships.
Sep 23, 1966
Minimum Wage IncreaseThe minimum wage is raised in stages from its current $1.25 per hour to $1.60 by February 1968.
Jan 30, 1969
Tet OffensiveNorth Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launch a massive assault on South Vietnamese towns and American outposts on the Lunar New Year or Tet. American and South Vietnamese forces eventually repel the attack and recapture most territories lost. The Tet Offensive, however, reveals that the communist forces are still strong and, thus, American administration claims that the war is nearing conclusion are discredited.
Mar 31, 1968
Johnson Abandons Hope of Second TermPresident Lyndon Johnson announces that he will not seek another term as President of the Untied States.
Apr 1, 1968
Housing Discrimination BanPresident Lyndon Johnson signs the Open Housing Act outlawing discrimination in the sale or rental of most privately-owned homes and apartments.
Apr 23, 1968
Protests at Columbia UniversityStudents at Columbia University seize several campus buildings to protest the university’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analysis—a Defense Department think tank—and university plans to build a gym on a park in a neighboring Black community. The protestors will be removed from the buildings on April 30th after a violent battle with the police.
Aug 1, 1968
Johnson Signs Low-Income Housing BillPresident Lyndon Johnson signs into law a housing act allocating more than $5 billion to meet the housing needs of low-income families. The bill finances the construction or renovation of 1.7 million units and provides subsidies for housing purchases and rentals.
Aug 26, 1968
Protests at Chicago DNC ConventionThousands of protestors converge on the Democratic National Convention to protest the war in Vietnam. Violent confrontations between the protestors and police lead to thousands of arrests. Republican nominee Richard Nixon will take advantage of the disorder in Chicago in the upcoming presidential campaign and promise to restore law and order to America.
Nov 5, 1968
Nixon Wins PresidencyRepublican candidate Richard Nixon is elected President of the United States. In defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Nixon wins 43.4 % of the popular vote and 302 Electoral College votes. Humphrey receives 42.7% of the popular vote and 191 Electoral College votes. Former Alabama Governor George Wallace receives one Electoral College vote.
Man on the MoonAstronaut Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon, fulfilling President John Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Curt Flood Sues Major League BaseballSt. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood is traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, prompting Flood to sue Major League Baseball. He argues that the reserve clause in players’ contracts, which binds them to a club for life, violates the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the nation’s antitrust laws.
Oct 8, 1969
Days of RageThe Weathermen, a radical political organization growing out of the Students for a Democratic Society, launch the Days of Rage in Chicago. For three days, a few hundred protestors will smash storefronts and vandalize public and private property to demonstrate their willingness to employ violence in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam and fight perceived social injustices in America.
Mar 6, 1970
Weatherman Bomb AccidentThree members of the Weathermen, a radical political organization growing out of the Students for a Democratic Society, are killed when the bomb they are constructing in their Greenwich Village townhouse explodes.
May 21, 1970
Weather Underground Declares War Against "Amerikan Imperialism"The Weathermen declare “a state of war” against “Amerikan imperialism” and pledge to use their “strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire.”3
Dec 6, 1970
Weathermen Back Off ViolenceThe Weathermen, a radical political organization growing out of the Students for a Democratic Society, announce a new tactical direction in a communication labeled "New Morning–Changing Weather." Admitting that they had succumbed to the "military error" of believing that "only bombing and picking up the gun was revolutionary, with the glorification of the heavier the better," they urge activists to maintain faith in more traditional forms of protest and mass demonstration.
It was "time for the movement to go out into the air, to organize, to risk calling rallies and demonstrations, to convince that mass actions against the war and in support of rebellions do make a difference."4
Flood v. KuhnIn Flood v. Kuhn, the United States Supreme Court rules that, due to baseball’s “unique place in our American heritage,” the nation’s antitrust laws do not apply. Curt Flood’s challenge to baseball’s reserve clause is rejected.
The '60sBell-bottoms and incense, long hair, free love and psychedelic rock—the 1960s are commonly reduced to a set of easy-to-replicate images, phrases, and styles.
Once branded as immoral, anarchistic, and revolutionary, the counterculture of the 1960s is now playfully imitated. Its sounds, styles, and slogans are the subject of high school spirit days and rally skits. No longer the harbinger of cultural meltdown, the '60s have become a party theme.
Lost, of course, in this transformation is any deeper understanding of what the counterculture represented. For those most deeply invested in the movement, the counterculture was more about philosophy than style. American society, these claimed, had been corrupted by capitalism and the materialist culture it spawned. In pursuing "success," people had lost sight of the more meaningful experiences life had to offer.
"Turn on, tune in, and drop out" was less an invitation to party than a call to experience life more intimately and deeply.
America's institutions were the targets of much of this cultural critique. Even those founded on lofty ideals, it was argued, had become props for a morally bankrupt society.
- America's democratic government was corrupt—filled with dishonest, self-seeking politicians and corporate-serving lobbyists.
- Churches were less spiritual oases than repositories of self-righteousness and social complacency.
- Schools had long abandoned the more noble purposes of education. Instead, they merely churned out the technicians and middle managers needed by the corporate order.
- And marriage had become little more than a loveless prison, demanded by social convention but wholly incompatible with the more expansive human potential for love—and sex.
In fact, his only hope was to escape in some fashion, perhaps into the woods where a person could rediscover the fundamental truths that nature revealed, or into hallucinogenic drugs that pushed the mind past the limitations drilled into it by education and upbringing, or into a completely different lifestyle grounded on more humane and authentic values.
An American TraditionThese deeper philosophical aspects of the counterculture remind us that there was far more to it than clothes, hair, and music. But they also reveal that it wasn't particularly revolutionary. Most of its themes had surfaced much earlier in American history.
In the 1840s, transcendentalists retreated to Brook Farm to look for the truth in nature and pursue lives far removed from the materialism, meaningless work, and corrupted values of mainstream society.
Henry David Thoreau cultivated this ethic more privately and retreated to the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the classic prescription for discovery of self and truth within nature. His observation that most "men live lives of quiet desperation" would aptly summarize the conclusions of cultural critics a century later.
And his following phrase would provide 1960s counterculturalists with a slogan for individual self-realization: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."45
In the 1850s, advocates of "free love" blasted the hypocrisy of contemporary marriage and urged people to give their emotional and sexual feelings free rein. Inspired by Charles Fourier's doctrine of "passional attraction" and Emanuel Swedenborg's idea of "conjugal love," these reformers argued that the passions were essentially good and ought to be indulged rather than denied. Both physical illness and psychic dissatisfaction stemmed from society's demand that our instincts be repressed.
The application of these ideas was far ranging, but the most notorious implication was that individuals were entitled, even obliged, to pursue their romantic and sexual passions to their natural ends. Divorce, polyandry, and polygamy were all possible and legitimate outcomes.
Mary Gove and Thomas Low Nichols became the most prominent spokespersons for this philosophy. When they married in 1848, they pledged neither perpetual commitment nor absolute fidelity. As Gove emphasized, even in marriage, "I resign no right of my soul." Therefore, the only fidelity that could be pledged was to "the deepest love of my heart." And should that love lead her to another, "I must go."46
50 years later, a loosely connected group of authors, artists, and architects undertook the elaboration of more authentic forms of expression—ones that broke free from the stuffy conventions and material complacency of Victorian culture. They celebrated "real experience" and urged people to rediscover the primal essences lying buried beneath Victorian politeness.
Victorian architecture was scorned as overly and soullessly ornate, and Victorian parlors were mocked as perfect expressions of a culture obsessed with material goods and physical comfort. Contemporary work, equated with the emerging legions of white-collar clerks, was described as emasculating and unfulfilling. As an alternative, these cultural critics celebrated the craftsman who worked with his hands, produced something real, and invested his entire being—his creative intellect, his physical labor, even his soul—into his work.
During the 1920s, a new batch of critics emerged to condemn the moral and cultural emptiness of American society. Sinclair Lewis mocked "Main Street" and lampooned the materialism and mania for success of America's Babbitts. H.L Mencken attacked the moral smugness and intellectual shallowness of the "booboisie," and a whole group of cultural critics fled to Europe where they claimed to find a less materialistic and intellectually sterile society.
Another group stayed at home and toured working-class and minority communities where they hoped to find more authentic expressions of the human spirit. Most famously, they frequented Harlem where they drank, smoked, and snorted their way to what they believed were more vital, less repressed, forms of existence.
This quest was interrupted by the Depression and World War II. But during the 1950s, another group of cultural critics resumed the search for self-realization and deeper experience in San Francisco's North Beach and New York's Greenwich Village. The Beats, much like Thoreau a century earlier, ignored politics and shunned social activism. Instead, they placed the highest value on personal fulfillment and developed theories of art that emphasized expression over communication. What was important was that artists explore and express themselves, not that audiences understand, be moved or influenced by a work.
Placed within this history, the counterculture of the 1960s appears less revolutionary than cyclical—part of a tradition of cultural criticism that periodically revives similar themes and pursues similar alternatives.
Still, there was something different about the 1960s. Earlier movements remained relatively small, esoteric expressions of a cultural elite. But the counterculture of the 1960s grew to be the dominant expression of an entire generation. In addition, at least its images and styles persisted much longer. A half century later, its music is still performed, its styles are still imitated, and its slogans still draw a cheer.
Measuring the Legacy of the 1960s CountercultureBut is there any depth to it all?
Some would argue that there isn't, that the very success of the counterculture was its undoing, and that the more broadly it was embraced, the more shallow it became. These folks might argue that the real legacy of the 1960s was the proof they provided of our consumer society's amazing ability to dilute and absorb even the most revolutionary cultural expressions. What might have begun as a philosophically deep and radically ambitious assault on the very bases of American society was turned into a set of consumable products: a style of dress, a type of haircut, and a collection of record albums.
There's plenty of evidence to support this argument. The "commodification" of the counterculture may have begun as early as 1968 when President Richard Nixon, leader of the "silent majority," went on the popular TV show Laugh-In and muttered, "Sock it to me." The most painful moment may have come when Bob Dylan, the countercultural poet, appeared in Las Vegas, the city known for material excess and the empty replication of history and art. More substantively, those arguing that the counterculture proved ultimately ineffectual might note that Wall Street is still Wall Street, and that American society is still riddled with inequities tied to race, class, and gender.
Others, however, might argue that there's plenty of evidence suggesting that the counterculture produced more and remains more than just a bundle of stereotyped images.
For starters, Americans are far more ecologically conscious than they were 50 years ago. Virtually everyone acknowledges the imperative of respecting and preserving our natural environment. The workplace has been transformed—flex-time, job-sharing, and e-commuting contrast sharply with the button-down corporate culture of the 1950s.
America's sexual ethic has undergone revolutionary change. In 1963, the use of contraceptives was illegal, and now, condoms are distributed at school. A 2008 Census report revealed that 6.4 million unmarried heterosexual couples live together, while in 1980, there were fewer than one million.47
Even attitudes toward drug use have softened. In 1975, President Gerald Ford's son Jack caused a public relations storm when he admitted using marijuana. And now, several states have legalized its use. In 2008, President Barack Obama, one of the more popular presidential candidates in American history, openly acknowledged using cocaine as a teenager.
In other words, while countercultural purists might lament the degradation of their movement, while their last act of rebellion might lie in condemning the corruption or commodification of the very culture they created, others would argue that the '60s are still very much with us.
The principles may be diluted, America's free market foundations may remain unshaken, but closer to home, profound changes have occurred in the way people work, think, and live.