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Essay: How did the 1960's protest movements force American society from a position of consensus, to accommodation, and finally to division?

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Sierra Club

by Nicholas Klar

This article is recommended reading from The University of Omaha, Nebraska

The civil rights movement came from a natural evolution of the liberal consensus and it's flaws, likewise the steady escalation of military involvement in Vietnam. The protest movement against that incursion owed much to the example of the civil rights workers. It was also the model for Native and Chicano groups that sprang up during the 1960's, as it was for social protest groups, which included women's liberation, prison reform, welfare rights, and environmentalism. [Blumberg pp.xiv,162]

Indeed, many activists were involved in both civil rights and anti-war groups. All of these organizations collided with a blossoming youth counter-culture, ready to support any cause against 'the establishment'. These movements will be considered, along with the reasons for the Vietnam War, and how they tied together. These were not only a product, but also the destruction, of the liberal consensus.

It will be argued that the main reason all of these movements emerged was due the accommodationist nature of the liberal consensus. When these movements became too strong and could no longer be appeased, they turned their anger against those moderates who had originally supported them in their struggles. The liberal consensus was torn apart, divisions became more apparent, and America deepened into 'moral exhaustion'.[Kendrick p.11] 1960's style liberalism was seriously flawed, and it's failures contributed to the rebellion that convulsed the nation.

Liberals identified the nation's internal concerns as racism, unemployment, and poverty. These were bundled together and fought in what became known as the 'War on Poverty'. In liberal consensus grew the elements of how America viewed itself. The preservation of capitalism was vital, avoiding the excesses of right and left. Between 1948 and the 1960's all Presidents, Democrat or Republican, believed strongly in the 'shared vision'.

Yet there was still a denial of fundamental internal problems. This was brushed away with the assumption that America's problems only came from outside, most commonly the 'red threat'. Opposition to this policy meant only Soviet inspiration or madness! Not many were prepared to consider the 'threat within'. The anti-communist thought had very little to do with what the USSR or communist thought were actually about.

This was to be a very important element as the 50's grew into the 60's. The 'Domino Theory' provided justification for intervention in Vietnam. The legacy of the 50's- Cuba, China, Korea, meant America had to 'prove' it's stance on the 'rollback' of communism. [Rotter p.400] Black violence and rebellion was to be avoided, being seen as, "...the gravest threat to American society." [Matusow pp.70,88]

The growing affluence of American society contributed by blurring class and race lines, and undermining the self-denying ethic. New wealth and liberal policy also ensured the huge growth of higher education, which were to become hotbeds of student radicalism. Students of the 'baby boom' generation had more time, and more money, than their parents to indulge in protest activities. Universities brought forth the 'new left' thinking, which due to clashes of ideology, eventually split into several different variants.

Advertising had taught baby boomers to pursue a self indulgent lifestyle of luxury, freedoms, and sex. Some challenged this world, some adapted it, others accepted it readily. Poor Mexican and Afro Americans resented exclusion from this new affluence. A reason given for many who avoided service in Vietnam was that life was just too good to spend in a foxhole in Vietnam.[Rotter p.460] In this is a long term trend toward conservatism that was beginning to be seen by the late 60's.

Youth began to almost become a separate class, Vietnam exacerbated the 'generation gap', and liberal formulas began to unravel. [Kendrick p.14] The counterculture challenged traditional values of reason, progress, order, achievement and social responsibility - values that underpinned the liberal consensus. They rejected liberalism, and what it stood for. The great uprising by hippies, new leftists, black nationalists, and the anti-war movement ensured the repudiation of the Democrats in 1968, as Nixon swept into office on a 'law and order' platform [Matusow pp.x,xiv,277]

One of the great concerns with Vietnam was how it had moved money away from domestic priorities, including the rehabilitation of ghettoes. Government members, including William Fulbright, wrote to the president expressing their attitudes on this matter, concerned that LBJ was allocating too much attention and resources to the Vietnamese conflict. [Matusow pp.196,385 Capps p.75] Matusow viewed that the 'ingrates' of Watts, with an assist from the Vietcong, were ultimately the ruin of President Johnson. [Matusow p.197]

Mexican - Americans in the south-west had begun agitating for rights in the 30's and 40's. Their leaders were mostly assimilationist, prefering to survive by adapting to the system. LULAC, more militant in its younger years, waned into moderation. After WWII many were moving into the middle class and sensed that acceptance depended on their ability to fit in with Anglo-American lifestyles. In the tradition of consensus the dominant Anglo elites were flexible enough to absorb many of these, even awarding compliant Mexican-Americans positions of 'power'. Assimilation brought the fall of the 'tortilla curtain' over Hispanic culture.[Tyler pp.42,-4]

The post war peace was not fated to last into the 1960's. Anglo-Americans were not much interested in Mexican culture, which was now largely confined to south of the border. The number of Hispanics in education increased enormously, but discrimination was still rife amongst the poor still living in urban barrios. 'Roundups' and exile of many Hispanics during the 50's sowed distrust toward authorities. [Ibid pp.39,44]

Into the 60's certain influences began to felt amongst Hispanics in the south-west, the political activities of the Kennedys, the rising black civil rights movement, and the appearance of two prominent leaders - Cesar Chavez and Reies Lopez Tijerina. Most Mexican-Americans were not initially sympathetic to the civil rights movement, but became more so as their own struggle increased. JFK was looked to as glimmer of hope, and 'Viva Kennedy' clubs sprang up throughout the south-west.[Ibid pp.46-7]

The status quo remained for Mexican-Americans while the civil rights and Vietnam protests continued on. However by the late 60's committed organizers began to be found in most Hispanic communities where they challenged Anglo domination. This was assisted when Mexican-Americans also began to win a legitimate share of political power. However the status quo remained largely in place until the late 60's when Chavez and Tijerina began to spread the leaven of protest [Ibid pp.46-47]

A series of strikes by poor Mexican-American students began in 1968 which were violently put down. Like the counter-culture the young rejected contemporary white society and strove to regain their Hispanic culture. The 'Brown Berets' and other groups were formed, patterned after the Black Panthers. The drive toward assimilation began to slow drastically as Mexican-American youth proudly redefined themselves as 'Chicanos'. They could not be contained by a faltered liberal consensus. [Ibid pp.49-50]

Unlike Mexican Americans, the Afro-American fight for civil rights had been building right from the end of slavery. It became more focused throughout the 20th century, beginning with leaders like Booker T. Washington. After WWII it was considered that America could hardly fight a war against international fascism and racism without attempting to get its own house in order.

Liberals, particularly those in the north, began to incorporate civil rights into the consensus. Martin Luther King Jr. was seen as a black leader consistent with the liberal consensus, and the media attempted to make him into a leader whites could accept. Time magazine compared him to Ghandi, portraying him as peaceful and religious. [Ibid] King attempted to win over the support of the powerful Southern Baptist Churches. His role was compared to a evangelical revivalist, in the ilk of Billy Graham, who was highly respected in the community.

Nonetheless, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI became suspicious of King and pressed for phone tapping and other surveillance. So while King and others tried to work within the liberal system, they were also victims of its sinister underside. An attempt was made to discredit 'radical' blacks, like Paul Robeson, who claimed negroes would not fight for the USA against the Soviets. The NAACP were quick to disassociate themselves from such talk in an effort to avoid the slurs of 'subversives' and 'communist dupes'.

Two major elements influenced the rise of the civil rights mass movement. First was the mass migration of blacks during WWII. Around 50% now lived out of the traditional southern states, and were able to more effectively raise their voice. Both JFK and LBJ saw the black vote as vital to their chances of election. Kennedy had hardly been interested in civil rights until prompted by his constituents. He knew a civil rights bill could prove to be his 'swan song', and had to tread a very fine line.

Secondly, northern white liberals were motivated by the injustices that were going on in the south. Television brought racist violence into their living rooms. King's strategy of non-violence was an attempt to draw a clear line between the 'good' (peaceful blacks wanting rights) and the 'bad' (violent white southerners). This was not unlike Ghandi 'playing' to the British.

The white south was indignant, claiming that 'their niggers' were happy and it was northerners stirring up all the trouble. There was a comparison with communist 'outside influence'. The resistance to federal law by white southerners threatened state rights and brought much violence. As rights were won in the south the protest shifted north, moving from civil rights to political and economic issues. [Carson p.146]

Civil rights had commanded much support in the north. Liberals, such as Stephen Currier of the Taconic Foundation, had even provided monetary assistance. [Carson p.92] As the personal ground of northerners was threatened they became less accommodating and violent ghetto protests ensued. It was one thing to impose liberal intellectual thought on the south, accepting it in the north was another thing.

Poor black conditions had actually deteriorated in the north and the west whilst the civil rights fight had been going on the south. [Blumberg p.139] Jewish and Italian-American groups, previously appearing as supportive about black issues began to organize vigorously. [Kendrick p.13] In the movie 'Raisin in the Sun', whites appear to be gracious and understanding, whilst trying to dislocate a black family from their all-white suburb. Around this time northern whites began to abandon the Democratic Party in large numbers.

Under these pressures the civil rights movement began to split. The black struggle began to be seen by some in an imperialistic sense, where negroes would have to violently throw off the shackles of white domination. Huey Newton and the Black Panthers sprung to prominence, inspired by the influences of Malcolm X, H.Rap Brown, and Frantz Fanon. The SNCC accused white liberals and affluent negroes of 'selling them down the river' in order to protect themselves [Ibid p.151]

At the same time the SNCC were moving from a stance of civil rights to one of liberation. [Matusow pp.355-7] Blacks wanted to responsible for their own destiny and whites began to pushed out of the organization. Many black leaders disliked the accommodating attitudes of white liberals, who were seen as limiting to their aims. Blacks believed white actions were only tokenistic, while according to opinion polls, whites considered blacks as wanting to move too fast. [Blumberg p.135]

The war in Vietnam was seen as an indication of liberal hypocrisy. [Carson p.184] Lyndon Johnson lost the support of Martin Luther King for his escalation of Vietnamese hostilities. Black soldiers in Vietnam were accused of fighting in a 'white mans war' and being 'Uncle Sam's flunky'. [Rotter pp.310,343] Around the same time as the bodies of 3 civil rights workers were being hauled from a Mississippi dam, President Johnson was ordering retaliatory attacks against North Vietnam. [Capps p.49] The civil rights fight was not yet over but the pendulum of protest had begun to swing.

The war that ensued would eventually shatter the fragile consensus. LBJ saw it as America's obligation to protect a 'sovereign nation' from outside communist invasion. This was a matter of international significance, and no-one else could 'do the job'. [Film - 'Hearts and Minds'] Divisions grew rapidly. Liberal intellectuals had quickly protested, stating that communism was misunderstood. It was not inherently expansionist in nature, but polycentric, exemplified by the state of Sino/Soviet relations. [Matusow pp.376,378]

Student peace movements sprung up as spinoffs of other movements. However, the anti-war movement was quite divided. There was the non-political counter-culture (more commonly known as the drug culture), non-militant activists, and the militant and dogmatic. The most influential organization, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), was founded in 1960 and was profoundly affected by the New Left. It was considered the 'success story' of the new protest movement and released the influential Port Huron Statement in 1962.

The SDS not only railed against the war, but minority rights, apathy and the impotence of capitalist affluence. UC Berkeley was attacked for repression of free speech and for being complicit with militarism. [Ibid] Anger was not directed at conservatives, but at the liberal figures of Clark Kerr (UC Chancellor), Lyndon Johnson and 'corporate liberals'. [Capps pp.54,9] Protest turned to resistance as militance and violence spread at campuses across the country.

As the young burned their draft cards and withdrew their allegiance to the United States the question remained, were they doing it for 'the world's oppressed' or themselves? Only those without "...wit, background, or money..." failed to escape service in Vietnam. Unlike previous wars, those serving in Vietnam came disproportionately from lower classes. [Rotter pp.459,60]

The New Left did not believe in the liberal thought of working within the system, direct action was needed to resolve conflicts and bring about a more moral society. [Matusow pp.310,325,] The SDS was eventually to split into factions, with many driven towards 'Old Left' thought. The revolutionary Che Guevera was considered the new hero, yet judging from many protesters actions it is doubtful they ever carefully studied his writings!

One of the most important sources of 60's radicalism was disillusionment with liberalism. As groups formed, split along ideological lines, and re-formed, they drove divisions into the fabric of American society. That society could no longer agree on reforms needed, and their pace. It had been moved from a time of consensus into accommodation, and finally to bitter division.

The attempt by Lyndon Johnson to form the 'Great Society' was overshadowed by his failed Vietnam policy. The huge cost to the US, including the lives of 50,000 of its citizens, removed the chance of greater reforms that may have assisted the poor and minority groups. Just as important was that the "...'idea' of America, the cherished myth of America, received a shattering blow." [Capps p.111]

The civil rights movement and the Vietnam war brought tensions to the surface that could not be covered over. It created divisions between rich and poor, black and white, young and old, Anglo and Hispanic, north and south. Romantic liberal ideals had been tested, and found wanting.


Rhoda Blumberg 'Civil Rights : The 1960's Freedom Struggle' Boston:1984

Walter Capps 'The Unfinished War : Vietnam and the American Conscience' Boston:1982

Clayborne Carson 'In Struggle : SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's'

Alexander Kendrick 'The Wound Within : America in the Vietnam Years, 1945-1974' Boston:1974

Allen Matusow 'The Unraveling of America : A History of Liberalism in the 1960's' NY:1984

Andrew Rotter 'A Light at the End of the Tunnel : A Vietnam War Anthology'

Gus Tyler (Ed.) 'Mexican-Americans Tomorrow' NY:1975

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "How did the 1960's protest movements force American society from a position of consensus, to accommodation, and finally to division?" - + date accessed

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