Thursday, August 05, 2010

Passing the Torch: America in the 1960s by Edmund Lindop

--John F. Kennedy, First Inaugural Address

In his address in January of 1960, John Kennedy uttered a lot of memorable phrases. This one, actually referring to his own generation born just before the First World War, actually had a double meaning, both historic and prophetic. For it was in the decade of the 1960s that the "Baby Boom" generation, born in the post-World War II years, began to come of age in unprecedented numbers, a tsunami of population which was bound to change the nation through its simple magnitude.

In some ways like the turbulent and energetic 1920s (see my previous post here), the events of the decade were recorded and written about massively in their own times and since and have echoed mightily through the decades that followed. America went to the moon, experienced repeated economic shakeups, entered and began to withdraw from a war in southeast Asia that it could neither win nor admit as unwinnable. Women sought "liberation" and moved into the mainstream more completely than ever before, and racial inequality set in law was overturned largely through the nonviolent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was then ironically murdered by a Southern racist near the end of the decade, giving rise to the more violent "Black Power" movement and urban riots on a scale never before known in America.

And as if that wasn't enough change, the mass of people under thirty changed the music and social mores of the nation. Just as in the 1920s, there was a radical change in popular music and dress: rock and roll pushed the crooners of the previous decade off the radio waves, hemlines rose dramatically, and patched jeans, tie-dyes, and mini-skirts replaced the more sedate long, crinolined skirts, starched plaid shirts, and muscle tees of the late 1950s as cool costumes for the young. The young were in rebellion, a "counter-culture" as "flaming youth" have always sought to be, but their sheer numbers crowded the schools and colleges, tried some old and some new recreational drugs, protested the military draft, flooded into the work force, and ultimately prompted a new round of consumerism-driven inflation that outdid that of the 1920s and the 1950s.

Edmund Lindop's newest, America in the 1960s (The Decades of Twentieth-Century America) (Twenty-First Century Books, 2010), is a good starting point for middle and high school students whose knowledge of the decade is limited to familiarity with pop icons such as Elvis and the Beatles. "Profiles" provide one-page biographies of significant figures, from Malcolm X to Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Betty Friedan to Marshall McLuhan, Nikki Giovanni to Jackie O., and the "Turning Points" text boxes throughout the text highlight significant moments such as the 1963 March of Washington, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Tet Offensive, and earthrise from the moon. "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," said Andy Warhol, and it seemed as if that prophecy was coming true as television flooded the land with images of the sit-ins, Robert Kennedy dying from an assassin's bullet, helicopters lifting off with the wounded in Vietnam, hippies in the "summer of love" burning draft cards, and women burning their bras. As the author summarizes this hopeful, deadly, chaotic and creative period...

In the first decade of the 2000s, more than half of all Americans alive were born after the 1960s ended. These Americans get their ideas about the 1960s from books, movies, music, and television. but learning secondhand about a time period is never the same as living through it. No matter what their political persuasion, everyone who lived through the 1960s will likely agree--it was a time like no other. And after it was over, the United States would never be the same.

To understand the present, it is necessary to understand something about the past, and getting a handle on a tumultuous decade such as the Sixties is difficult, given the overwhelming information available from reference books to Youtube. Lindop's America in the 1960s (The Decades of Twentieth-Century America) does an admirable job of organizing and presenting some of the seminal events of this time. Complete with a supplementary appendices--a timeline, extensive source notes, bibliography, selected books, films, web sites, recommended reading and iconic films, and an full index to pull it all together. this book, one of the The Decades of Twentieth-Century America series is a good jumping-off point for students doing research or for kids who are simply curious about what it was really like back in the Sixties.

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