Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Maybe "The '60s" Really Did Begin in 1960

Feb 17, 2014

Maybe "The '60s" Really Did Begin in 1960

Not long ago I wrote a column asking, "When did 'the '60s' begin?". It evoked a lot more comment than my columns usually get. It seems there's still a big appetite out there for recollecting the '60s. Most of the comments nominated the writer's favorite candidate for the year or the occasion when "the '60s really began."

One of those comments is uppermost in my mind now: an email from someone who was among the throng protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee hearing at San Francisco City Hall on May 13, 1960. That throng was literally washed out of the building by police wielding fire hoses. Many were also smashed by police billy clubs. And 68 were arrested. Nevertheless, they managed to shut down the hearings (and eventually got the charges against them thrown out of court).

Some say it was the beginning of the end of HUAC as a meaningful political force.  HUAC never held a hearing outside of Washington, DC again.

More to the point, my correspondent and others who were there say it was the beginning of "the '60s." "It was the end of the '50s," one of them recalled on the 50th anniversary of the event. "It made possible the 1960s in all its variations," added another. PBS (whose documentary on "1964" triggered my original column on the origin of "the 60s") says that "the entire [anti-HUAC] episode lays the foundation for subsequent eruption of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964."

Maybe those are exaggerations with a grain of truth. But no doubt 1960 was the first time in many, many years that a crowd of (mostly) college students took to the streets in political protest -- the kind of action we now see as such an essential feature of "the '60s."

We see "the '60s" that way, though, only because of what happened in 1968 and 1969, when the crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands. I took eight or nine years for the seed planted at San Francisco City Hall to bear its full fruit.

That incident sticks in my mind because, shortly after I got the email reminding me about it, I read about a huge crowd -- estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 -- on a "Moral March" through the streets of Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 8, 2014, demanding a wide array of progressive changes in American society. It moved me to write a piece suggesting that "this could be the start of something big."

 I didn't try to predict how long it would take until that "something big" might appear. I'm not that foolish. Historians are not supposed to play at prophecy. It's worth remembering, though, that after the 1960 anti-HUAC demo nothing quite like it happened in the Bay Area for more than four years, until the Free Speech Movement hit the Berkeley campus in the fall of 1964.

So if nothing like the Moral March happens again for another four years, or even more, we still may look back on it some day as an important seed of a major left-wing movement that could take eight or nine years, or even more, to reach its peak.

There are some important differences between San Francisco 1960 and Raleigh 2014 that say a lot about how American life has changed over the last 54 years. The San Francisco protesters were nearly all white. They readily acknowledged that they were inspired by the black civil rights movement in the South. But they did not directly connect their issue -- the rights of white people to express progressive political ideas -- with the issue of African-Americans' legal rights.

It would take eight or nine years before white students recognized that all political issues -- including the question of race relations -- were connected. By that time they would have welcomed people of color marching with them. But most people of color were quite happy to create political action on their own, thank you. And by the mid-'70s most of the white protesters were fragmenting again into single-issue campaigns that often resisted making connections with others.

In Raleigh, on the other hand, the crowd was multi-racial. And the march promoted a wide range of issues: economic justice; a living wage for every worker; support for organized labor; well-funded, diverse public schools; affordable health care and health insurance for all, especially women; environmental justice and green jobs; affordable housing for every person; abolishing the death penalty and mandatory sentencing; expanded services for released prisoners; comprehensive immigration reform to provide immigrants with health care, education, and workers rights; insuring everyone the right to vote; enhancing LGBT rights; keeping America's young men and women out of wars on foreign soil; and more.

The long list of March sponsors reflects its comprehensive, multi-faceted political aspirations.

They came together in one coalition because they all saw their own issues as connected pieces in one huge puzzle: How to make moral concern the guiding light of every public policy in America?   

That moral focus reflects the leaders who inspired the Raleigh march. Most of them were clergy or faith leaders. In that long list of sponsoring groups, the biggest chunk was the ecumenical collection of religious and faith groups. And the March leader, the man who inspired it, was an evangelical preacher, Rev. William Barber.

The anti-HUAC activists of 1960 surely included religious people. But as a group they did not give faith any credit for inspiring them to their actions, as so many of the Moral Marchers did.

In fact throughout the '60s white students never managed to recognize how their political power could be enhanced (probably immensely) by allying with the power of organized religion. Many of them who have remained active as progressives, and many of the younger progressives who join them, still don't get that key point about successful political strategy in America.

But the Moral Marchers did get it. They connected not only all the issues and all the races and ethnicities, but also the secular with the religious. March organizers proclaimed their event "open to all, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof when it comes to religion." And that's what they got. "The march brought together a diverse group from Baptists to Muslims and gay marriage supporters," as USAToday reported.

  Perhaps, then, just as the 1960 anti-HUAC protest foreshadowed big things to come years later, so does the Moral March in Raleigh. Perhaps it augurs a progressive movement that grows because it has learned important lessons since the '60s and '70s, a movement ready to be more diverse in its makeup -- even welcoming religious and secular people marching side by side -- but more unified because it sees all political issues tied together by the same thread of moral concern.

Uh-oh, that's coming perilously close to prophecy, isn't it? Well, at least a historian is entitled to say that the protest of 1960 is a useful reminder of how long it can take for political seeds to come to fruition.

And the American historical record also seems to bear out another conclusion: If you are going to go into the streets crying "Power to the people!" and want to have real political effect, you are better off adding "The Bible says!" rather than "Tear down the walls!".  

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