Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART EIGHT
The 1960s

In the 1950s, the nation's intellectuals often complained of boredom. There seemed to be so few new ideas abroad in America, so little introspection, so little critical thought. The political and intellectual atmosphere was stifling, insufficiently leavened by the spirit of creativity and experimentation. With the coming of the 1960s, the people who had been bored in the 1950s got what they wanted; and by the end of the 1960s they were often getting more than they wanted- more questioning, restlessness, social criticism, challenges to existing institutions and ideas. At first, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the rising level of social criticism seemed liberating and entirely salutary. It was discovered that perhaps one-quarter of the population was trapped in poverty, but this realization at first led to hope, not to despair; for the Kennedy administration promised to face the problem and cope with it through sustained economic growth and a War on Poverty. At about this same time writers like James Baldwin and mass leaders like Martin Luther King shattered the national apathy on race relations, but the federal government promised to face and improve that situation as well, when Kennedy in 1963 demanded a broad legislative assault upon racial discrimination. Although more social flaws were exposed with every passing season, at first it seemed that the political system was operating exactly as it should, since it provided in John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier the apparent solution to the problems that crowded forward in the awakening climate of the early 1960s.

Before the decade was out the volume of social criticism had outstripped the capacity of the political system, at any level, to provide a convincing image of constructive response. Considering the volume and range of the criticism, the relative calm of the 1950s must have looked appealing to all but the most steelnerved and angry of America's citizens. There were severe urban riots from 1964 through 1967; campus violence broke out first at Berkeley, then at Columbia, then at hundreds of universities and even high schools; violence disfigured the Chicago convention of the Democratic party in 1968; John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were victims of assassins; and from 1965 onward there took place a succession of huge demonstrations against the war in Vietnam in most major cities. All of this was, of course, social criticism of the most direct sort. Paralleling these disruptions came an avalanche of words in criticism of a wide range of social flaws -- words in books and essays; words on television panel shows and documentaries; words at congressional hearings; words from the pulpit and lecture platform, condemning racism, poverty, unresponsive political institu-

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