Youth Culture & Politics of the “New” Generation Origins

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Youth Culture & Politics of the “New” Generation


The beginning of the student movement, which arose during the 1960s, can be traced back to the post-Second World War era of the 1950s. The older generation, those who survived the depression and war years, viewed the 1950s as a period of security. It was a time of peace and relative prosperity for the nation.

Yet, the youth culture of the period viewed the era in vastly different terms. Many believed that the 1950s represented a period of complacency, stagnation and authoritarianism. The younger generation was largely dismayed with the notion that little was being done by authorities to prevent future wars from taking place. They rebelled against the notion of conspicuous consumption, which is spending in order to show off one's wealth. Additionally, the plight of African Americans was seen as an incredible social injustice that was being ignored by their elders.

It is important for you to remember that the catalyst for the rise of the student movement is attributed to the desire to end the conformist culture of the 1950s, and to liberate African Americans from the social inequality and persecution that they faced. The ideas of the younger generation of the 1950s were translated into action during the 1960s.

Rise of the New Left

At the beginning of the 1960s, disillusioned college students banded together to form a new and greater political movement known as the New Left. It was called this because its members separated themselves from the Old Left, which rejected change in favor of the status quo, while rejecting the extremist conservative right. The most recognizable political organization that developed within the New Left movement was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It is important to note that the antithesis to the New Left and organizations like SDS was the Young Americans for Freedom; while not as large as the SDS, it projected a conservative approach.

Members of the New Left rejected a government led by a few elected officials in favor of participatory democracy, which called for decision-making by all Americans. The belief was that this type of grassroots effort was the only way to address the growing societal ills of the United States. The notion of participatory democracy was developed by SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Al Haber and issued via the Port Huron Statement in 1962. This manifesto was the template for the student movement throughout the rest of the 1960s.
Tackling Racial Injustice and Poverty

The first major initiative of the New Left was to address the largely ignored racial injustice and poverty within the United States. Members from SDS joined other student groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the Freedom Riders in 1961, in an attempt to eliminate the deep seeded racism and discrimination found in the Deep South. These same individuals from SDS would also join prominent equal rights groups, such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Aside from addressing racial discrimination, the student movement attempted to engage in a highly idealist program of improving American cities. In the spring of 1964, students marched into urban ghettos, Newark and Detroit to name a couple, under the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) in order to revitalize the area and find meaningful work for those who were impoverished. Unfortunately, the campaign failed, not because it didn't have the support of students, but because the task was too large for a grassroots organization to handle.
Student Movement on United States Campuses

Another large aspect of the student movement was the lengthy battle against the old guard college administrators. Students viewed administrators as being a part of the consensus culture of the older generation. Administrators had supported unfavorable concepts, such as 'in loco parentis', or in place of the parent, meaning the college assumed the role as the students' mother and father. Additionally, administrators supported dress codes, appropriated funding for research related to the Vietnam War and curbed students' free speech.

The tipping point came during the fall semester in 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley. Students who supported the civil rights movement in the South were actively campaigning for volunteers on the campus. However, administrators decided to terminate the students recruiting efforts. Students decided to defy the administration and continue to recruit for the civil rights movement, regardless of the implications. Yet, when administrators began arresting students for violating the university decree, a sizeable revolt formed.

The student revolt against the intransigence of the Berkeley administration became known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). The FSM was led by student activist Mario Savio, who organized dozens of sit-ins, public protests and issued the infamous 'Bodies Upon the Gears' speech in order to protect the student's right to free speech and the ability to recruit for the civil rights movement. The student led Free Speech Movement became a catalyst for additional protest on college campuses throughout the United States.

For example, another prominent form of protest against what was viewed by students as racial discrimination came in 1968 when students commandeered several buildings at Columbia University. This was done in opposition to the Columbia University's desire to expand the institution onto lands that had been typically reserved for the surrounding black neighborhood residents. Students objected to dress codes, dorm hours, racial discrimination and college administrators acting in place of the parent. Students wanted the ability to break away from the old guard establishment in favor of a creating a new way of learning and living on college campuses.
Protesting the Vietnam War

The first third of the 1960s student movement was dedicated to resolving issues involving civil rights, poverty and liberating college students. By 1965, the tide of protest changed for students as they began focusing on the war in Vietnam. 1965 was the year of escalation in the war; President Lyndon Johnson introduced the first ground troops in March, followed by a massive increase in July.

At first, students gathered to protest the war in general. They chided the war as an unnecessary display of imperialism by the United States. Students rejected the notion of protecting Southeast Asia from communist aggression, especially when there were unresolved issues within the United States that were more important. Protests generally occurred via sit-in (March 24 and 25 was the first nationally recognized anti-war sit-in at the University of Michigan) and mass gathering (the largest antiwar gathering at the time occurred on April 17, 1965 in Washington, D.C. where 25,000 students protested).

Yet, like the ocean ebb and flows, so too did the interests of the students surrounding the Vietnam War. By late 1965 and into 1966, the protests were initiated not as a rejection of the United States war policy, but for personal reasons. Since most male students were between the ages of 18 and 25, they became a prime target for the draft. As a result, students began burning their draft cards, rejecting induction and attempting to sabotage transportation networks that carried draftees to basic training. Prominent events included the July blockade of the Oakland Army Terminal and the November draft card burnings in Washington D.C. and New York City.

Protests against the war continued throughout the rest of the decade. Draft card burnings continued, defiance to induction ran rampant and large-scale displays of dissatisfaction took form, including the protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968. The culmination of student activism against the war came in May 1970 when thousands rallied to protest the Kent State shootings, which were haphazard killings of students protesting aspects of the Vietnam War by members of the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus.
Fracturing of the Student Movement

While the student movement had engaged all aspects of society and recorded some commendable changes, it was inevitable that the momentum would not last. Its visible organization, SDS, played a major role in addressing societal ills from its inception to roughly 1968. Yet, when the United States policy in Vietnam remained unchanged and racial discrimination continued, many members of the 100,000-plus movement second guessed the overall strategy. This led to a fracturing of the student movement into those who remained committed to peaceful grassroots politics and those who decided to delve into radicalism.

The radical arm of the student movement that splintered from the larger organization became known as the Weathermen, or Weathermen Underground. Members of this movement included former SDS members Mark Rudd and James Mellen. The overarching goal was a hostile takeover of the United States government. Instead of peaceful protests, the Weathermen engaged in violence and vandalism, such as the Days of Rage in Chicago in 1969. Eventually, the Weathermen would fizzle out after an untimely accident claimed the lives of three of its members. By the 1970s, the student movement, both peaceful and radical, had run its course.

The student movement of the 1960s rested on the notion of change. Students wanted to end the consensus culture that formed following the Second World War, eliminate racial discrimination and free themselves from the authoritarian rule of the establishment. As a result, students became a part of a newer, greater entity known as the New Left.

Students for a Democratic Society was the most recognized aspect of the New Left. These students engaged in campaigns, such as the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), the Free Speech Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Eventually, the student movement suffered internal strife and fractured into numerous factions, including the ultra-radical Weathermen. The student movement faded by the onset of the 1970s.
Defining the Counterculture

The counterculture that developed during the 1960s was an alternative lifestyle chosen by individuals who would eventually become known as hippies, freaks or long hairs. Members of the counterculture held convictions similar to that of the New Left movement in that they wanted to overhaul domestic policy within the United States. Hippies were generally dissatisfied with the consensus culture that had developed after the Second World War and wanted to distance themselves from American society (hence the term counterculture). As a result, members of the counterculture attempted to establish their own towns, economy, political institutions and societal values. Let's take a closer look at the counterculture of the 1960s.

From Beats to Hippies

So, how did the counterculture begin? Unlike the New Left, the origins of the counterculture had deeper roots in American society. The movement that was recognized in the 1960s as the counterculture was known a decade earlier as the Beat Generation or Beats.

Dissatisfied with American society, the Beats alienated themselves into a small underground movement. These individuals rejected American standards, introduced new concepts of societal norms, shunned materialism and spawned a new drug culture. Prominent leaders included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr. The Beats generally maintained a low-profile and attempted to stay away from the burgeoning political issues of the decade.

Yet, as mentioned above, the Beat Generation would ultimately transform into the counterculture. The Beats struggled to maintain their inconspicuousness, especially when more and more members of the Beat Generation began to tackle political issues. By 1960, the transformation was complete. In the place of the Beat Generation arose a counterculture that held the same ideals but promoted vibrant colored clothing, long hair, folk music and the participation in politics - all while being known as hippies.

Lifestyle Within the Counterculture

Long hair, vibrant colors and peace signs are typically the most associated characteristics of the hippies and counterculture. However, the lifestyle was dramatically more interesting. Hippies tended to set up living quarters or communes within bigger cities. These areas were known as hippie villages or districts. Locations such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York City and Old Town in Chicago became prime locations for hippie living. All of these locations witnessed the erection of gardens, head shops, restaurants and music venues that provided cheap and alternative ways of living.

Hippies encouraged the experimental use of psychedelic drugs, such as peyote and LSD (acid) to alter the mind. Individuals, such as Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, promoted acid tests, which allowed individuals to consume acid in a peaceful environment surrounded by friends, music and good vibes. Leary campaigned for experimental drug use through his 'turn on, tune in and drop out' advertisements.

One of the largest events for promoting drug use, music and alternative ways of thinking occurred in 1967 at the Human Be-In at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In addition to drugs, the hippies also enjoyed music, especially the folksy, psychedelic riffs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Hippies enjoyed music so much that they assisted in the planning, organization and promoting of the infamous Woodstock music festival in 1969.

Members of the counterculture also believed in the notion of 'free love' and the sexual revolution. 'If it feels good, do it' became a popular slogan amongst hippies during the 1960s. Hippies welcomed all versions of sexual preference and encouraged individuals to experiment with concepts such as group sex and all nude communes.

Hippies promoted free love as the ability to be with whomever you wish, whenever you wish. Love was a way to combat the societal ills of gender inequality, racial discrimination and war. The largest display of free love came in 1967 during the hippie orchestrated Summer of Love. Thousands of individuals traveled to San Francisco in order to experiment with drugs, establish new communities and spread love with one another. Additionally, with the sexual revolution came a decline in Christianity in favor of more experimental religions, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Western spiritualism, also known as the New Age or Age of Aquarius.

Politics of the Counterculture

The very basic political positions of those involved in the counterculture should be obvious. Hippies supported the free use of prolific drugs, sexual experimentation, gender and racial equality and a freedom from the United States federal government. However, the most important political issue of the period was the war in Vietnam. The counterculture rejected the war on two fronts. First, the hippies supported the idea of peace and harmony throughout mankind. Second, since many hippies were young adults, the males rejected the idea of registering for the draft and being sent to war.

The most outspoken arm within the counterculture against war, inequality and the United States government was an organization of individuals known as the Yippies. The designation Yippie was the title given to an individual within the Youth International Party created by the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. The Yippies participated in sit-ins, protests and political events. This group was typically viewed as the political arm of the counterculture. These individuals orchestrated mass gathering events, such as an anti-war march on Washington in 1967, where they attempted to levitate the Pentagon, as well as the Festival of Life in Chicago in 1968, where they protested against the Democratic National Convention.
Downfall of the Counterculture

The counterculture faded by the late 1960s for a number of reasons. First, a rivalry was established between hippies and the radical left-wing group known as the Diggers. The Diggers held a general disdain for the hippies simply due to differences in philosophy regarding economics and society. Simply put, like the hippies, the Diggers envisioned an alternative society. The difference was that the Diggers believed in providing free products (food, healthcare, music). This ideology led to regular clashes with the hippies over what an ideal society should look like. The rivalry extended as far as the Diggers attempting to promote the 'death of the hippie' by 1967.

Second, the idea of free drug use and sexual experimentation caught up to the hippies. Those within the counterculture began abusing drugs and eventually turned to more illicit narcotics, such as heroin and cocaine by the 1970s. Additionally, sexual promiscuity led to an increase in rape and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Finally, a general distaste for the counterculture blossomed by the end of the 1960s. The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, California provided proof. The Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels, a group of renegade motorcyclists, as security for the event that saw over 300,000 in attendance. Unfortunately, members of the Hells Angels were anything but pleasant to those associated with the counterculture. By the end of the night, the Hells Angels and hippies clashed in a violent brawl that claimed the life of an African American man. It became evident that the idea of peace and love had run its course.


The counterculture, and the hippies associated with the movement, was a transition from the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Hippies supported peace, drugs and love and shunned war, inequality, materialism and the United States federal government. They created towns and villages in places such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City. Hippies promoted drugs, such as acid and peyote, rock-n-roll and the sexual revolution, which encouraged free love. The political arm of the counterculture was known as the Youth International Party or Yippies. The Yippies encouraged political dissent, including events such as levitating the Pentagon and the Festival of Life. Unfortunately, the mass counterculture movement fizzled by the late 1960s due to the onset of an intraparty rivalry, drug and sexual abuse and a general societal disdain toward the movement.

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