The Ballad of America was first published in 1966 in the midst of stirring events. The year before, the civil rights movement in the South had reached its climax with the march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965. By that time a primarily Southern movement was spreading to the North and the West as well. Uprisings had taken place in Harlem in 1964 and in Watts in 1965. These ghetto riots were sparked by immediate burning grievances, in particular police brutality; they also produced manifestoes for social justice which all the world had to read in the light of the burning buildings.
In 1966, too, intervention in Vietnam reached its height with the presence in that country of half a million American troops. The United States found itself in the morass of the longest, bloodiest, and most costly colonial war in which it had ever engaged.
These events were accompanied by a transformation in the mood of American youth. The early fifties had been a time of youthful passivity. The silent generation, as it was called, accepted with little protest the conclusion that conformity to established norms was the wisest course if you wished to hold a job or to achieve advancement in a professional or business career. Young women absorbed the message beamed to them through the slick magazines, movies, and television. The purpose of a woman's life, it seemed, was to raise kids, polish floors, and, in general, devote her hours to creating the home beautiful.
1955 to 1965 was the period during which this transformation in the mood of youth occurred. The Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, was interpreted by black Southerners—primarily young ones—as a decree wiping out all discriminatory barriers separating the races, putting the ax to segregation as a badge of slavery. These young people took to the streets both to demonstrate support for the Supreme Court's position and in order to enforce it personally, with their own hands. The first of these great street actions, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, ended with the overthrow of the city's discriminatory bus ordinance and a clear-cut victory for equal rights over municipal bigotry.
During the following years there took place hundreds of street actions against compulsory segregation in all its forms. Many of these demonstrations were interracial. White youth as well as black now began to see that the struggle against racism was the most honorable of causes, the advancement of American democracy itself. This new goal was not merely the possession of the avant