To most experts, the 1960’s was a defining period for the Americans; one which saw the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, whose clout and influence extended to the far reaches of the globe. America’s glorious victory in World War II has paved the way for a leadership role that the United States took to with effortless skill. This newfound sense of economic and political power changed the lay of America’s land. After the dust of World War II has settled, most of the world was struggling to rise from the ruins of war. In the United States, the situation was different.
While the country was deeply involved in the war, the United States came to the war, but the war was not able to reach its shores. American soil was untouched by the ravages of World War II. As such, while other places in the world struggled to rebuild homes and regain their sense of sovereignty, Americans were busy redefining their identity. From the victories of war rose a renewed and reenergized America, with a new culture that most historians refer to as culture of change. Following the repressive and tension-filled fifties, the United States was ready for a change.
This need to empower oneself is perhaps a direct result of the new-found affluence that Americans were enjoying in the 1950’s. (Bloom and Breines, 1995, p. 3) The prosperity that Americans enjoyed in the 1950’s gave them the financial freedom to pursue other avenues of thinking which saw fruition in the 1960’s, a decade which was marked as a decade of defiance and change. Americans became more aware of the issues going on around them; they were no longer preoccupied with making a living as was more concerned about the world.
Americans began looking outwards after a decade of paranoia and looking out for themselves. (Roche, 2003) The 1960’s brought with it a legacy of “assimilation and cultural legitimization” (Benham, 2002, 3), and it left on its heels a society that is more aware of their rights and more assertive in pushing for those rights. All of these heightened awareness made Americans more involved in social issues. As a culture of defiance, two events best captures this image of change: the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the rise of women’s liberation.
While on the surface all of these two developments may seem disparate, they are all interrelated to the need to change the status quo. The civil rights movement dares to defy and altogether eliminate the enduring legacy of racial discrimination in the United States. The civil rights movement began when Rosa Parks, wanting some rest after a hard day’s work refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. By that simple act of defiance, Rosa Parks defined the culture of disruption in the 1960’s and sent into motion the civil rights movement.
The sixties saw the peak of the black civil rights movement. After making minor but pioneering breakthroughs in the fifties, African Americans began pursuing more peaceable means to forward their cause. In 1963, black Americans gathered in Washington in what was to be the largest organized rallies in the movement’s history. This was where Martin Luther King Jr. , the leader and charismatic spokesperson for black civil rights, gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The people gathered there demanded for equal rights. As per the words of Martin Luther King Jr. hat day, “”I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. ” However, while Dr. King embodies the ideals of brotherhood and nonviolence, black Americans gravitated towards the likes of Malcolm X, who was more radical and aggressive. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr. , African Americans became impatient and looked for a leader who would fan the flames of African pride and someone who would fight back in their behalf. (Lawson and Payne, 2006, p. 3)
More court decisions and legislation slowly allowed for the integration of black Americans and over the decades, the efforts of the civil rights movement began showing itself as next generation African Americans benefit from the struggle their predecessors made in their behalf. (Lawson and Payne, 2006, p. 59) The civil rights movement was not limited to black-Americans alone. Labor groups also pushed for more rights, better pay, and better job conditions and benefits in the 1960’s. Leading this movement was Cesar Estrada Chavez, a Mexican farmer the United Farm Workers.
Chavez is recognized as one America’s best labor and civil rights leaders and has been acknowledged for lobbying for better treatment and legal protection for laborers. (Etulain, 2002) By leading a labor strike of grape-farmers in California, Chavez was able to paralyze the wine industry and forced the government to take action and heed their plight. The strike gripped a nation and lasted for half a decade until finally the Senate chose to take action. Chavez had the full backing of the then Senator Robert Kennedy and resulted in the first major victory for American farmers and laborers. Etulain, 2002)
Americans and Mexicans regard him with respect and admit that the United States is a better place for his courage and strength of convictions, becoming the voice of laborers, not just in the United States, but the rest of the world. Women’s rights groups also gained momentum in the 1960’s. While experts in history acknowledge that the final years of the 19th century up until the first decades of the 20th century was the period that saw the rise of women’s liberation, it was in the sixties that the pioneering efforts of the earlier years were cemented.
The 1960’s seems like a right time as any for women’s liberation. The time was ripe, and conditions were ideal. During World War II when most American males were doing their tour of duty, the women took the cudgels for keeping production up and supply lines coming to the soldiers in the frontline. While America was at war, the women left their homes to work. When World War II ended, the United States saw its women dominating the labor force. However, while females did the same work as they were paid so much less than what the men would have been earning given the same job.
This sowed the seeds of discontent and the women slowly began to coalesce into a united movement that demanded better pay and protection from the law. In 1963, the book The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan came out. The volume encapsulated all that was wrong with society at that time and became the rallying point for American women all over the country. Friedman called on to the women to break out of the oppressive roles that society has imposed on them. (Rosen, 2006, p. 3) The book challenged and inspired women to come out of their own and claim their own individuality. The women’s liberation movement rebelled against stereotypes and policies that are put women at a disadvantage. The movement was able to make advances, among these is the passing of the law that prohibited gender discrimination in the work force. (Rosen, 2006, p. 31) Truly the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of political enlightenment and activism, not just among black Americans, laborers, and women, but among other disenfranchised groups such as the Native Americans.
In the case of the Native Americans, the activism was spurred by poverty and lack of support from the government. By the 1960s, while most of the United States was experiencing prosperity, American Indians have remained among the poorest of the country’s minority groups, and the government has remained largely indifferent to their plight. This resurgence in Native American Nationalism resulted in armed confrontations and death, but it managed to bring desired results as well. Sometimes it does take militant action to compel a government to pay attention and take action.
Other Americans, who did not know any better, became more aware of Native Americans and their plights, and some became active supporters to their cause. Elected officials such as senators and congressmen were compelled to support legislation that protected the rights of the American Indians and ensured their equal protection. Indeed a repressive society is self-limiting because it goes against the very grain of human nature. The need to change is inherent in all of us, and to try to contain that will only be possible for a short time.
Eventually the culture of concession and compliance will give way to change, and change, by its very nature is defiant and disruptive even as it is renewing and restorative. And that is what the decade of the sixties has shown us. Much like the Black Americans, laborers and American Indians, the women were seeking respect and equal rights under the law and wanted a society that did not discriminate of the basis of color, religion, gender, or sexuality. Indeed it might be said that the sixties was an era that saw all discontent and unhappiness come to a boiling point.
For the United States, the time was perfect for change, having achieved stability and prosperity after decades of war and other upheavals. Having overcome its growing pains and stabilized as a country, it was time for American society to mature. The civil rights movement and all the rest that came under its banner was a movement that has been a long time in the making. And when it did take place, it did so at the best possible time. The movement came at a time when Americans were becoming aware of their rights and the rights of others. Thus American society was only too willing to heed the winds of change.