James T. Patterson: Everything You Know About the 1960s is Wrong

Roundup: Talking About History

Excerpted with permission from “The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America,” by James T. Patterson. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

Late 1964 was a buoyant time for the majority of Americans: a prosperous year that promoted extraordinarily high expectations about the future. As in the previous twenty years, large numbers of people were flocking to buy houses in the suburbs and climbing into the middle classes.

If there could have been a nationwide soundtrack for late 1964, it would have been especially upbeat, featuring hit songs by the Supremes (“Baby Love,” “Come See About Me”), the Beatles (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Feel Fine”), and the Beach Boys (“I Get Around”).

John F. Kennedy’s eloquent calls for a New Frontier had raised expectations his death could not dim. Liberals, led by President Johnson, redoubled their efforts for reform. In May, speaking before some eighty thousand enthusiastic listeners (including Republican governor George Romney) at the University of Michigan’s football stadium, Lyndon Johnson had called for congressional approval of a Great Society — a hugely ambitious set of domestic reforms and programs. That August, Congress appropriated $1 billion to support the Economic Opportunity Act, which promised to wage a “War against Poverty.”

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But no social issues in 1964 were more divisive than those involving race and civil rights. These revealed the power of rights consciousness, the most important force behind the turbulent changes in the years that followed. Generated by the extraordinary affluence of the early 1960s and by the soaring rhetoric of Kennedy’s New Frontier, this new awareness greatly heightened the expectations of millions of Americans, especially the young, whose increasingly urgent quests for rights, freedoms, and entitlements set off innumerable conflicts and confrontations in 1965 and thereafter.

Though direct-action protest on behalf of civil rights for American Negroes (as African Americans were called in 1964) had a long history, it increased dramatically in the early 1960s. Militant young people in organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) spearheaded protests, mainly in the racially segregated South. In 1964, ten years after the Supreme Court had ruled against state-mandated segregation in the public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, only 1 percent of black elementary and secondary school students in the Deep South attended schools with whites. All eleven Southern states (along with seven others) enforced laws banning interracial marriage. Very few Deep South blacks had been allowed to register to vote....

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