News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Summer When Everything Changed

The momentous events of the summer of 1964 – forty years ago – created many of our current cultural, social and political divisions.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Even though we're rapidly approaching the 2004 presidential election, it often seems as though we're still shadowboxing over the meaning of the 1960s.

This is the 40th anniversary of a momentous summer that created many of the cultural, social and political divisions that make it so difficult to find independent voters who haven't yet decided how they'll vote in November.

Consider what happened during the summer of 1964. More than 1,000 Northern college students, black and white, "went South" for Mississippi Freedom Summer. They lived among the segregated Southern rural poor, taught in Freedom Schools, and tried to register black citizens who had been denied the vote. Every day, their lives were at risk. At night, cars filled with armed white vigilantes chased them down dark, single-lane country roads.

My parents would not sign the consent form required to join Freedom Summer. "I'm not allowing my daughter to enter a war zone unarmed," my father said.

Though I vehemently disagreed, he wasn't entirely wrong. Some activists died. Early in the summer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil-rights workers, disappeared and were later unearthed from a dam in August. (Schwerner's mother had been my biology teacher in high school). The deaths and beatings of white young people forced a nation still indifferent to black casualties to recognize the violence that had terrorized the Southern civil-rights movement.

Many of these college students returned home transformed. They had stood up to authority and challenged received wisdom about racial superiority. No surprise, then, that many of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, which erupted in early fall at the University of California at Berkeley, had been among those who had fought segregation in the South. No surprise, either, that some of the young women in the civil rights movement jump-started the feminist revolution after they had learned to question the "natural order of things" and because some felt they had been subordinated or exploited during Freedom Summer.

In early August came the surprising news that Vietnam, a country most of us couldn't find on a map, had attacked one or more U.S. Navy destroyers. On August 7th, Congress, with only two dissenting votes, quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized the funding of the Vietnam War. Few of us who opposed the war the very next day could have imagined that it would shadow the next decade of our lives. And even now, after former Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara and many others have acknowledged that those attacks never happened, it's hard to believe how little it took to convince Congress and the American people that Vietnam, like Iraq, represented an imminent threat to our country.

Later that month, the dream of a racially integrated society also collapsed at the Democratic National Convention, held in Atlantic City. Long excluded from the political process, African Americans had formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and demanded to replace the state's all-white delegation at the convention. Afraid to lose Southern whites to Republicans (which happened anyway when Richard Nixon launched his infamous "Southern Strategy" in 1968), the Democratic Party shamelessly granted the MDFP token representation and refused to seat the delegation. Many African Americans in the party felt betrayed. The alliance with white liberal Democrats was shattered and many date the growth of separatism and black power from that humiliating moment in Atlantic City.

As the summer turned into autumn, the country was at war. The media began to notice that a new "sexual revolution" was gradually changing campus culture. At the same time, the news of the Free Speech Movement, just then erupting in Berkeley, rapidly spread across American college campuses. Police hauled off 800 students for protesting the university's prohibition against recruiting civil rights activities on campus.

Across the nation small groups of students, inspired by the news of a youth movement, joined local civil rights movements and began protesting an escalating war. In the wake of the student movement came new struggles to protect and expand the rights of women, gays, and the environment.

The summer of 1964 is when the sleepy 1950's ended. During those months, and in the years that followed, many of us lost our innocence. Official lies led to skepticism, which eventually gave way to cynicism and political indifference for too many Americans. The demand for equality – for minorities and women – created new fault lines and irreversibly altered the political landscape.

The two presidential candidates both came of age during this decade. But President George W. Bush essentially skipped "the sixties." He drank, rather than inhaled. He played fraternity pranks, honed his cheerleading skills, and later ducked the draft, even though he didn't oppose the war.

Unlike Bush, Sen. John Kerry fought in Vietnam. Later, he risked his future by joining other anti-war veterans; he even testified before Congress about why that war had to end.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry identified himself with the dreams of a generation of young people who had hoped to change the world: "It was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for peace. We believed we could change the world. And you know what? We did. But we're not finished. The journey isn't complete. The march isn't over. The promise isn't perfected."

Bush, by contrast, is a master at exploiting the politics of fear, and has instead tried to repeal or restrict – by law or executive order – women's reproductive rights, protection of the environment, freedom of information, and has promoted a foreign policy guaranteed to give peace not much of a chance.

To be sure, the summer of 1964 was less sexy and far less photogenic than Woodstock, the event that has become the stock image of the 1960s with its half-naked, drugged and dazed young people writhing in the mud. But if you want to understand the present, you should never forget that it was the summer of 1964 that changed the trajectory of our country. From that decisive summer sprang new demands for an expanded democracy. But it also ignited the cultural wars and political divisions that still separate us today, forty years after the battles of the sixties began.

Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Davis, is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, California and the author, most recently, of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (2001).