A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Part 6
YEARS OF POLARIZATION

During the late 1960s American society was more profoundly divided than at any time since the Civil War. As the peaceful petitions of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement were replaced by Black Power slogans, white support for blacks plummeted. The emergence of feminism created profound divisions over traditional family roles and definitions of masculinity and femininity. The student movement began as a request for moderate changes, but with the growing crisis over Vietnam it began to challenge to the very structure of the university. As the protests over Vietnam grew, many cities and university campuses became domestic battlefields, with police barricades confronting student demonstrators.

The seeds of division lay in what many saw as the quiescent years of the 1950s. As a generation of youth came of age, raised in at least relative security and optimism, they—like their presidents—believed in great possibilities. Some measured American principles against its reality and found the nation wanting. They would be the core of what, by 1968, seemed a whole generation of activists. What’s important to remember, however, is that all the youth inspired to activism in the 1960s were not on the left; conservative youth also measured the nation against its principles—though different ones—and set out to change the world.

The Civil Rights movement was crucial to the development of political activism on America’s campuses. As white students and black students joined together in civil rights protests, they came face to face with the duplicity and brutality of law enforcement officials in the South. When, as frequently happened, the federal government failed to provide corrective assistance, demonstrators began to suspect that even those authorities they thought they would trust were part of the problem. What had begun as a specific protest against southern

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