The Sixties were a decade synonymous with change. In the previous decade, the world settled into their post World War II lives. For Americans, it was white picket fences, the birth of the suburbs and a sense of not being able to do any wrong. All of that was shaken to its core in the Sixties as American superiority was challenged from within. Citizens banded together for causes — those who felt voiceless before demanded to be heard. Music changed, fashion changed, the drug culture was on full display. We sent a man to the moon; we questioned Vietnam. We protested in the streets, at schools and in Washington, D.C. Leaders and those who dared us to dream were slain. For a country that was founded on rebellion, it was a shock to see its own citizens questioning the way things had always been. Fifty years later, a lot of direct comparisons can be made to the events that unfolded in the Sixties and today. In this article, I plan to explore them and ask what exactly did we learn from the Sixties?
The Sixties saw the rise of activism in matters such as civil rights, women’s rights and the beginning of the fight for LGBTQ rights. All it requires is a simple Google search to see countless examples of famous protests and landmark events in the quest for equality in all of the examples I mentioned and more. Those efforts yielded results over the years. They weren’t perfect by any means, but progress was undeniably made. In modern-day over the last few years, torches largely laid down were re-ignited—this time to acknowledge that the progress made in year’s past still hadn’t resulted in the equality desired.
Much like in the Sixties, there a vocal group of people who feel that these pushes for social justice and equality have gone too far, that the requests have become extreme in nature. This divide, which can be a seen as one group wanting to push society in a direction they feel benefits all and another group which longs for “how things used to be,” had grown larger and larger recently, resulting in extremes we haven’t seen since the Sixties.
I’m fortunate enough to know a few people who were on the frontlines, so to speak, with Sixties activism. As someone who enjoys both history and listening to other people’s personal experiences, stories of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and anti-war movement have always been of great interest to me. Something that seems to come up a lot is the notion that history always repeats itself. The way that people feel today isn’t unique, no matter how different we may feel today is vs. then. Another constant is the need for action above all else.
Over the last few years, groups such as Black Lives Matter have become household names, organizing and appearing at any demonstration they felt their presence was warranted. Their spirit is undeniably comparable to those who came before them, their mission; ultimately the same. Women have organized in large numbers, namely since Donald Trump took office in 2017, marching in major cities all over the United States. The #MeToo movement showed that in this modern age, uniting and showing solidarity can be done in a variety of ways. Perhaps in a testament to progress as a society, we have not seen these demonstrations end in violence the way they routinely did in the Sixties. Of course, there weren’t cameras all over the place and the threat of viral moments weren’t looming over their heads then either.
When it comes to matters of activism and social issues, the spirit of the Sixties seems alive and well today. People who are angry today over conditions they feel to be unjust are making their voices heard. Our right to protest and assemble peacefully has been threatened, but it’s still a right that people both cherish and cling to. We’ve seen a whole new generation of activists born in recent years who not only are protesting but are also making politicians listen as well. The Democratic Party is continuing to move further left of center because Americans are making their opinions known. Issues such as Medicare for All that opponents refer to as socialist are what a growing number of people in America want and politicians have no choice but to listen.
An entire generation of children has grown up with gun violence in schools being a widely known fear of theirs, with lawmakers essentially throwing up their hands about how to solve it. Finally, last year, a group of teenagers in Parkland, Florida, had enough. They refused to be silent, they refused to take no for an answer and they inspired people from all over to join them in an attempt for real change. Whether that real change will happen or not is unclear. What is not unclear is that these young people saw how Democracy works, they saw what activists from years past did and they did the same. If the Sixties taught us anything, it’s that we can question what we’re being told. It’s our right.
The Sixties didn’t end on any climatic note, no resolution to the decade’s problems. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were both gunned down. Two men who were each inspiring a nation, shot to death before their respective dreams could be realized. 1968 as a whole was a violent year, a year that hopefully, we’ll never see the likes of again. That’s not to say that 1969 was without its issues. While certainly toned down from the year before, the threat of violence was still strong. Even without MLK, his mission lived on. The anti-war movement lived on. However, in that year, we put a man on the moon. A quest many deemed impossible, was achieved. In some ways, a tide was turning. It would take a few more years, but Nixon would leave office and Vietnam would end. The social movements, while far from over, became less violent. Progress was slowly beginning to get made. It took almost a decade to get there but there was more hope than there was before. The work of all of the activists, the people in the streets, the people who organized, inspired, and in the most extreme of cases, lost their lives, was paying off. The will and voice of the people mattered, no matter how great the odds. The perseverance of those who believed was making a difference.
Here in the present day, we’re still very much in the middle of the problem. We haven’t begun to see any hope yet but history has shown us the results of doing our part. The activist spirit of the Sixties broke down walls in the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, the anti-war movement and the beginning of the fight for LBGTQ rights. That spirit was not dampened or disheartened, no matter how great the opposition. That spirit endured until change was tangible. The Sixties taught us how to persevere, how to dream big and how to make change happen. Today, we have people standing up for many of the same issues as back then. Is history repeating itself, or was there just more work left to do? Either way, the result is the same. The Sixties laid out a blueprint for activism and standing up for what we believe to be right, and we’ve seen a lot of people take their cues from the past and do what they have the power and right to do. The fight isn’t over yet though. There’s still more work to do.