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Home > Archives > The sixties in the United States 1

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"The sixties in the United States" by Giuseppe Lojacono

Social crisis and racial revolt in the U.S.A. The attempt of demolition of the traditional culture and the institutions gone out of the second world war. 2nd part of the article

The birth of the student movement

The fifties in the United States were characterized by deep social and political changes that would have had great consequences only in the following decade. At the end of the Second World War, with the reentry in the homeland of million of American soldiers, there was a real baby boom that would have increased the number of registrations to the high schools and the universities in the first years of the sixty. Besides, the spreading anticommunist feeling fomented by the McCarthy's movement, contributed to create an ideological ultraconservatorism that didn't allow any comparison between the new and the old generations. It remained, nevertheless, an ample economic comfort deriving from a world economy in great growth from which the United States more than all other nations profited. Such wealth, if on one side it allowed the children of the average middle class to access with great facility the expensive secondary education (the university students between 18 and 22 years old would have passed from 15% in 1940 to 44% in 1965), on the other one they will underline deep social disparities between the privileged classes and the proletariat, above all the black one.

The studies that have dealt with the birth of the American student movement, have often labored to individualize the causes of his blooming just at the beginnings of the sixties. Conditions had not been different for the years that had preceded that period and they would not changed in the following period (the 70s). Then, for which reason in that decade there was the highest concentration of youth protests that the American history remembers? It can be affirmed that a concomitance of elements that taken separately would seem harmless, they made turbulent the campus of the American universities. Firstly, the teaching imparted either by the parents either from the university structures. The former, educated to the austerity and the traditionalism of the 30s and 40s, for reaction allowed an excessive laxism, also influenced by the pedagogical theories of the doctor Spock that became the model of thousand of American mamas. The latter, in the attempt make up for the parental educational lacks, they were worried more for the morality of their own affiliates than for their cultural preparation. In this environment of family laxity and institutional repression, the American young people didn't recognize themselves, neither culturally neither socially.

In the great American universities, first among all Berkeley and Harvard, the students started that activity of dismantlement of the traditions that the sociologist Daniel Bell defined “the knowledge revolution”. In front of a politics and a society that recalled themselves entirely to the realism and the pragmatism, the young people started seeking new ideals of existentialism derived from the reading of French philosophers novelists, mainly Camus and in smaller way Sartre. The taking of conscience of the lack of a precise destination to the American social development upset the certainties that obstinately the parents had inculcated in their own children. The “American dream” had created a society devoted to the wealth and the exploitation of the fellow creatures, at least for which young people thought. Daniel Bell has given another definition to us that suits well for this period and that is that in the sixties it was reached the “end of the ideologies”, in the sense that the patriotism, the Americanism, the ultraconservative democracy that had characterized the two preceding decades was abhorred by the young people who "tabula rasa" of their own cultural patrimony and they looked for a new not prebuilt one.

The communist influence

Were they really years without ideologies? Had not the students any political or social ideal? It would not be correct to answer in affirmative way to both questions. The American student movement, although substantially apolitical in its development, it was at the origins deeply influenced by the socialist and communist thought, but with great differences in comparison to what it would have happened in Europe subsequently, for instance in the incubators of the juvenile Marxism of the universities in Oxford and Frankfurt. In the Old continent, the students referred to the communist orthodoxy, to the Marxism, or to the newer Maoism. In the United States, after the maccartism, an appeal so open to Marxism was not possible anymore. The political and cultural repression had been too strong to allow an inversion of tendency that brought to the pure communist thought, of class revolt and government of the people, meant as proletariat. The American teen-agers that would have protested in the plazas and in the universities came from families without economic problems and they didn't know the hard life of the ghetto or the countries. In addition to this, the class traditionally nearer to the communist ideas, that is the workers, in the United States it was not inclinable to changes, but it sustained openly the government. The labor unions, after the hard battles of the thirties, had soothed and integrated in the American productive system that in the collective imaginary gave wealth to everybody.

Therefore, to which type of socialism does the students referred to found what would have become the New American Left? Essentially, to a most romantic communism without political connotations. A naïf communism of social equality, of justice and of elimination of the racial disparities. To give great push to this not traditional vision, to give great emphasis to these ideas, it came the Castro's revolt. The generation of the sixties that was conforming quickly to the models represented by Ginsburg in his "Howl" and from Jack Kerouac with "On the road", it was literally fallen in love with the Cuban revolution. Between 1958 and 1961, year when the America State Department prohibited the trips to Cuba and to China and Albania, thousand of students approached in the Caribbean island to take contact with “the empire of the evil” as Ronald Reagan would have labeled the communist world subsequently.

The enthusiasm and the ardor of the Castro's troops had to be contagious, because between 1960 and 1963 It was created a discreet number of American associations that followed the socialist and communist teachings. Among them, it is rightful to quote the Progressive Labour Party (Plp), the Student Peace Union (Spu), the Young People Socialist League and the W.E.B. Du Bois that got the name from a Afro-American researcher curiously become communist at the age of 90. All these groups, though they were very active, remained always of scarce numerical weight. The reasons were essentially two: the strict control of the FBI to which they were submitted all subjects that professed themselves communist and the inconstancy of the affairs of the young people. Analyzing better this second point, it can be noticed how the affiliation to an organized group didn't often last more than few months and only for well-determinated causes. The young people often met for local protests only without any other type of finality.

This is particularly true if we analyze the affairs of the Students for Democratic Society (Sds) the largest student organization created in the United States. Created in 1960, it was completely refounded in 1962, following the principles dictated in the “Declaration of Port Huron”, an ideological manifesto almost entirely written by Tom Hayden. In the writing, it claimed the right of the American young people to modify the existing social and political inequality in the U.S.A, through a direct action. This action was manifested firstly with the collaboration with the Movement for the Civil Rights in States of the South. The white university students devoted their free summer time to the struggle for the abolition of the segregation and for the social equality, in collaboration with the black associations for the whole period 1961-1964. However, the increasing number of accidents and repression of not authorized demonstrations, mined at the base the collaboration between races. The black movements, particularly dissatisfied of the help given by the white young people, started to meet in the nationalists of the “Black Power” of which we shall speak subsequently. The attention of the Sds members was moved on those institutions where they lived for large part of the year: the universities. As already explained, the study institutions were seen as class-conscious and deniers of the fundamental right to a free education. To change the status quo was formed a spontaneous movement denominated “Free Speech Movement” in which had great role the Sds organization itself.

The first real clashes happened in the University of Berkeley in 1964. The stiring up cause was enough futile. The rector of the university prohibited the distribution of political material near the gates of the campus. Theoretically, the reason was of the students, because the zone of distribution was not under the authority of the university, but in practice the intervention of the police prevented any activities in proximity of the university structures. The occupation of the campus was so decided and involved several thousand of students. The accidents that followed the forced clearing of the university, brought to the attention of the whole nation the new student movement. Some of the leaders of the movements were arrested and among them also Mario Savio who was accused to have wildly beaten a police officer. The forced repression didn't do anything else other than increasing the desire of liberty of the young people. Other better organized demonstrations developed in 1965 spring giving great strength to the Free Speech Movement. Despite the increasing affiliates to the Sds that became the first organization at national level headquartered in all the states of the Union, it missed a true project and a leader that dictated the directives to be followed. It was so that the interest for every new struggle diminished quickly: the civil rights, the liberty of word, the Vietnam war, the sexual freedom were firstly elevated to dogmas of faith for then to be abandoned.

The protest against the Vietnam war.

With the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam through the dispatch of regular troops at beginning of 1965, there was also a change in the finalities, always very confused, of the student movements. From the social struggle, they passed to a political confrontation. The government was attacked for the presumed imperialism shown in intervening in such a distant war that was not felt as “right”. All previous armed conflicts in the American history had been painted as “struggles for freedom” and as such mantled with patriotism and rhetoric. In the era of television, the lies could be easily unmasked. In August 1965, the reporter Morley Safer of the NBC (the American National Television), transmitted a journalistic service in which there was a platoon of American soldiers that after having combed a Vietnamite village looking for Vietcong, it set fire without reason the huts and the cultivation. The disdain provoked by the revelation of cruel and inhuman behaviors perpetrated by the American soldiers, baited a reaction of collective scorn among the young people, the same ones who would have had to participate in the war as recruits.

Initially, the protest was pacific. They were organized sit-ins in a lot of universities and protest demonstrations. The students thought that in a true democracy as the American one, it was enough to show the errors committed by the political men so that they could correct their own behavior. The ingenuity of such a thought is explainable surely with a blind pacifism that was present among the young people. Nobody in that first period would have ever imagined that the government of the United States would have continued in the conflict in the Asian South East, arriving to use really weapons like napalm. To partially lift the veil that covered the eyes of these revolutionary teen-agers, it arrived the great number of forced enlistment. At the end of the war, 1.800.000 American young people would have spent at least six months in Vietnam as members of the armed forces. The answer was not collective, but generally individual. The escapes abroad multiplied, especially in Canada and Sweden, as well as the increasing number of exemptions for medical causes among the high middle class that let suspect a certain connivance between the physicians that certified the illnesses and the families the enlisted men.

These two solutions were possible only for those people that had enough money to pay for the exile or the very discussed medical certificate. For all other people, there was the Vietnam War or the clandestinity. The division between the black students that, originating from poorer families, could not avoid the war and white students was one of the explanations for the quick decline of importance of the Sds. After a march near the Pentagon to which around 75.000 persons participated, the Sds organization had believed that the moment had come to create a political party that gathered all the groups of the United States in a formation that pleaded the juvenile cause inside the Congress. This way, in a general Conference in Chicago it was tried to find some finalities common to all the participants of the student movement. The meeting was a failure for the lack of real general ideal, but, above all, of a true leader.

1968 was the year of the apotheosis and the decadence of the Sds. In January and June, hundreds of demonstrations upset almost all the university. Despite after the offensive of the Tet, according to a survey 'Gallup', the people favorable to the conflict had gone down from 56% to 42 %, nobody among the opponents to the war considered right the methods of opposition used by the students. The crisis was increased in 1969 when the Sds were divided in intransigent radical corpuscles that transformed themselves in terrorists in some cases. In June of that year, the group of the “Weathermen” was created (from a strophe of a song of Bob Dylan). Initially, it had as purpose “to change the weather” above the heads of the political men in Washington, but well soon it degenerated in a gang of armed action, guilty of terrorist attacks, useless and above all misunderstood by the other students. After the beginning of the American withdrawal from Vietnam (that however would have lasted until 1975), nobody understood for what reason was had to attack with violence (and weapons) the institutions. The Weathermen accelerated the breakup of the Sds that ended up with losing that character of national organization splitting up in subgroups that struggled for the most disparate causes, from the defense of the environment to the struggle against the death penalty. In ten years, the movement of student protest had crossed the whole possible arc of evolution, from expression of protest up to the armed struggle, for then to go off in a spontaneous death.

The “Hippies” and the sexual revolution.

To decree the premature end of the Sds was also the limited time duration of the political and social interest of the young people. The period coincided, in wide measure, with the duration of the university quadrennium and once reached the so-called “maturity” it diminished, being substituted by career, family, and children. That the feeling of revolt was a generational aspect it can also be deduced from the increased number of home escapes of the teenagers and from the creation of a style of alternative life. The Puritanism and the cultural preclusion of the parents was only partially the base of almost 90.000 escapes certified by the FBI in 1966. Juvenile wish to find a parallel world to the daily reality had increased the interest for the oriental cultures and religions and for the experience with narcotics. The boom of the light drugs, first among all marijuana, was a consequence of the search of feelings that transcended the human being.

The development of the hippy communities was very faster than that of the student movements, either on the East Coast either on the West Coast. In fact, already in 1965, in the East Side in New York and in the district of Haight Hasbury in San Francisco were founded the first true communities that grew to dizzy rhythm up to half the seventies. The use of narcotic substances didn't respond to a necessity of breakup with the dominant culture only, but it becomes a real religion. A teacher of the Harvard University, Timothy Leary, expelled from the teaching order for founded suspicions that he delivered to the students LSD during the lessons, founded the League for the Spiritual Search that through the use of drugs wanted to reach a new stadium of the human development. Famous writers as Ginsburg and Kesey, singers of international level as Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were near to this movement for a more or less long period.

Other characteristic element of the hippy communities was the concept of free love in all its forms that was practically resolved in a great sexual freedom. In an extremely puritanical society, the accented promiscuity present in the communities aroused greater scandal than whatever else “vice” that the hippies could have. The fact that the largest part of them was teenagers, increased the resentment of the middle class. The radical change of the sexual habits brought to important consequences in the personal relationship. The homosexual love was no more considered an absolute taboo and the first gay organizations did their appearance especially in the zone of New York. Besides, the strong increase of the sexual activity in adolescent age was followed from an increase of the births. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration had approved the use of the contraceptive pill and immediately the women had discovered what advantages its use furnished. The large diffusion of a system of prevention of the pregnancy, freed the girls from the terror of the fifties, that is an illegitimate child because born out of the marriage. Instead, the mature women could pursue working success with great safety, without the fear to see interrupted their own career from an unwanted child.

The two elements quoted above were only the point of the iceberg of that general feminist movement that was born in the sixties. The twentieth century in the United States until the Great Depressions had seen the woman in the traditional role of housewife and mother. With the desperate need of money that gripped the families in the thirties, the female job became more and more frequent. During the Second World War, what in principle was a family necessity it was transformed in a national duty. The women had to replace the men in the factories and often also in the fields. With the end of the conflict, the smaller production involved an occupational cut that mainly strokes the so-called “weak sex.” How this definition wasn't true, it had to be already shown in the fifties. The media of mass communication started to pay attention to that category of housewives, former workers who felt frustrated from the return to the “civil life” after the war. The improved conditions allowed to a larger percentage of women to achieve university degrees equal, if not superior, to the men but the clear contrast between the personal worth and the reachable managerial levels or the obtainable pay unmasked the depth sense of female dissatisfaction for the American social reality. The middle salary of a woman was between 59 and 65% of that of a man with the same office and to parity of schedule of job. In 1963 the writer Betty Friedan published the book The Femine Mistique that can be considered as the manifesto of the American feminist movement. In it, it was described mercilessly the incongruity between the social stereotype of the happy housewives and the existence of a lot of dissatisfied and depressed female professionals.

Initially, the female dissatisfaction was assembled in the student groups and around the same ideal shared by these movements: the freedom of thought and the civil rights. Well soon however, the leaders of the movement realized that the masculine component of the student movements had the tendency to put in minority, consciously or unconsciously, the other sex. It is difficult to establish whether it was a wanted behavior or not, but it is a fact that, although the female groups as the Women's International Leage for Peace and the Women Strike for Peace picked up a large number of registrations, it was only in 1966 with the creation of the National Organization for Woman (NOW) that the female claims assumed an autonomous course and addressed to the gaining of the full equality between the sexes. The NOW, founded by Betty Friedan, had as principal purpose a political struggle that conducted to the realization of legislative actions of concrete equalization and not simply paternalistic measures as those happened in precedence for that that it concerned the world of the workers.

The feminist political struggle was not stopped at the formulation given by the NOW, but it went well further. A most radical stream of that organization separated for originating the “Movement for the liberation of the Woman", real fulcrum of that fighting feminism that would have characterized the seventies. The exponents of the movement affirmed with conviction that every personal aspect of the female universe could constitute matter of struggle politics. Therefore, not only the professional world, but also that of the family and, above all, of the health. Under this aspect, the absolute right of the woman to the pregnancy was exasperated. Screeming 'Off Our Bodies' (title also of a diffused radical magazine of the period), the women pretended the legalization of the abortion. The struggle would have concluded in 1973 only, with the sentence Roe v. Wade that would have allowed it at least in the first months of the pregnancy.

As mentioned in precedence, the feminist movements had started its own activity within the civil rights and then it has changed its goals. This is not entirely true for the black exponents of the movement. The black women continued to have great importance in the Movement for the Civil Rights and in the Black Power and even in the Black Panthers. This is due to the fact that in the forties and fifties, they were the only ones in their family to have a well-remunerated job, often as waiter or housekeeper in white families. With the progressive embitterment of the racial revolt and the consequent detention of the black men, the women reached more easily power positions that they preserved with extreme ability. Among them, it is important to quote Fannie Lou Hamer. Born in 1917 in the state of Mississippi, one of the more segregationist one of the whole nation, she had had to change life when, pushed by the legitimate desire to participate in the political vote, she had enrolled in the electoral lists, being dismissed for such motive from her own employer. From that moment on, she fought with vigor for an full racial equality, through the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party and the organization, also at juvenile and student level, of the black protest against the status quo. The sixties were doubly important for the black women. They could not only get important victories for their sex, but also for their race. In fact, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the black women, finally level up to the white, had new and unexplored possibilities in the field of the job and the education that allowed the amelioration of the life condition in an exponential way. With the increasing of the economic resources and of the level of education, however, the serious social discrimination in which the black minority was living in the United States was more and more underlined. For such reason, the claim of the black women gradually met those of the Afro-Americans as race, becoming an essential component of it.

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