Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin: Summer of love beats cynicism of today

Roundup: Talking About History

[Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, history professors at Hamilton College and Georgetown University respectively, are authors of "America Divided: The Civil Wars of the 1960s."]

In the current wave of media-generated nostalgia over the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, it's fitting that one of that summer's most recognizable songs is "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Procol Harum's lyrics had nothing to do with race - die-hard fans still debate what "One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the coast" means - but for historians the title is suggestive. For the images usually recalled from that summer are tinted in all too pale a shade, as if the only ones involved were the sons and daughters of White America.

Black America gets segregated in a different corner of our historical memory of the 1960s. But it was examples set by the black freedom struggle in the years leading up to the summer of '67 that made possible all those well-remembered long-haired waifs dancing in San Francisco with flowers in their hair.

In popular culture, summer had long been associated with youth (school's out) and escape from adult responsibilities (surf's up). The idea of devoting a summer for something, of young people traveling to a particular place in pursuit of an idealistic goal, was of more recent vintage, specifically the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when 1,000 college-age black and white volunteers braved death threats to aid the Mississippi freedom movement's voter registration drive.

Underscoring the seriousness of their commitment was the death of three young volunteers at the hands of local Klansmen.

Then there is that word "love" - which came to mean something more than summer romance. Thanks to the freedom movement, "love" came to be linked with the hope for a redemptive transformation of American society.

In his 1963 "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. challenged those who regarded civil rights activists as extremists. "Was not Jesus an extremist for love?" he asked. Civil rights activists routinely spoke of their movement as a "beloved community." A shared commitment to human equality would, they hoped, prefigure a just and caring society.

Much of the media coverage that Haight-Ashbury generated during the summer of 1967 focused on the music, fashions and illegal pharmaceuticals associated with the hippie lifestyle - what became the stereotype of the long-haired, bell-bottomed, flower child. But the sex-drugs-rock-and-roll version of the summer fails to capture a more wrenching historical moment. This was also a summer of conflict, with great and tragic issues fought over by Americans. It was the deadliest year yet in the Vietnam War. The 11,000 Americans who died that year nearly doubled the casualty rate of the previous year. And scores of black people died in inner-city riots in Newark and Detroit.

What did any of that have to do with hippies? While they never had anything like a unified hippie ideology, within the emerging counterculture of 1967 were some common themes. Most salient was the belief that America was on the verge of a cultural and moral reformation, in which communities (or "tribes") of believers would shelter and nurture more humane and harmonious ways of living and self-expression. It was a vision that owed much to the civil rights movement's "beloved community."

The trouble with anniversary observances as they roll around every decade or so is that they divide the past into a series of unrelated vignettes, usually linked to a few powerful but fragmentary images - Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial, hippies in Golden Gate Park and so on, with nothing seemingly connecting them.

But young white Americans did not simply wake up one morning in the summer of 1967 and decide to become hippies because they had swallowed a little pill the night before. They were living in a historic moment that had just witnessed a stirring upheaval by a long-oppressed people, who defied violence and hatred to overturn centuries-old institutions and injustices.

That the old nonviolent civil rights movement was being pushed aside in the headlines by militant black power advocates that summer did not mean that the movement's influence was not still being felt by many, black and white. To young people in particular, the world seemed open to change in 1967 - in ways that today are difficult to remember or imagine.

Looking back at the Summer of Love, 40 years on, the hopefulness of the moment may seem extravagant. It seems to deserve ironic condescension as much as it does media-driven nostalgia. But given a choice between the values of that long-ago summer and those of our own Summer of Cynical Resignation, who would choose the latter?

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Vernon Clayson - 8/20/2007

Oddly, Mr Matthewson, you've gone from writing about the 60s to writing about today's alleged failures of Bush and Cheney and you seemingly have replaced the Camelot days of JFK with the halcyon days of Bill Clinton. Where you got the notion that they were prosperous years is beyond me, as nearly as I can see the Clintons prospered financially but for the rest of us it was the same old grind. By the way, you seem of the opinion that a president is responsible for the national economy, that seems socialistic or something along that vein; whatever your trade or profession, you and your employer, assuming you work, are responsible for your economic interests. The president didn't put you in whatever position you hold and isn't going to be involved in your tenure nor is he going to decide your wages. He does, however, play a leading roll in the operation of the federal government and in the economical engine that runs it, you must know his tax cuts have given the government record income. Were it not for the profligate spending of Congress the nation would be well on its way to some kind of balance, not the far off projected balance of the Clintonians, of course. Don't blame Bush for Katrina, hurricanes are a common occurrence in the tropics - also it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter, glaciers calving used to be an event that drew interest from tourists, now Algore has found out about them and the world shudders. Don't blame the war, the military is the one federal responsibility that deserves every dime. Don't blame health care, the part of that run by the government, Medicare and Medicaid, is projected to fail in just a few years and Hillary health care advocates want the government to take that over. That will work! Yeah! One more thing, you presume I am an elderly white man; I presume you are a young white man and grew up in comfort with few challenges but your parents are now elderly white people and therefore without worth. They no doubt saw some changes they might not have appreciated but being adults they likely forgave you for changing from an inquisitive child to having the wisdom of the ages and not agreeing with any of it. I'm not going to write anymore, it's time to move on.

Tim Matthewson - 8/20/2007

People used to say about Republicans, Well, they may not like government, but at least they know how to run things. But today that is no longer true. "Competence" is the issue facing Republicans, especially Bush-Cheney, owing to the disasters of Katrina, Iraq, Afghanistan, the pursuit of bin Laden and many other major and minor catastrophes. Indeed, the entire two terms of Bush-Cheney have been a disaster and Americans and much of the world look back on Clinton era as days of the best economy ever and Bill Clinton is now considered the most popular many in the world and Hillary Clinton's flawless campaign seems like an inevitability. Even No Child Left Behind now looks like it will be over turned as it arouses more and more controversy as another example of Washington's ill-advised medling. And don't forget Bush's miserable handling of the immigration issue, as well as the home mortgage disaster producing record numbers of bankruptcies. Bush looked good for a short period of time following 9/11, but like his father before him he has squander his record popularity and is only supported by a minority of a minority, even by broken glass Republicans such as yourself.
You sound as if you are feeling beleaguered and embattled. Earlier you indicated that the new groups entering the mainstream of American society -- women, blacks, hispanics, Native Americans and others just "don't fit in." That's a very revealing comment for an elderly whiteman, a group that numbers perhaps less than 15% of the overall American population. Believing that should be the mainstream, you find yourself pushed to the side, marginalized, unable to keep up with the pace of change, and as a result, you take ever more extreme political positions, attempting to turn the clock back to the good old days. You probably want to see women confined to the kitchen and bedroom, blacks returned to the back of the bus or Africa, hispanics back to Mexico or elsewhere, and Indians back to their invisible status. As people grow older, they seem to lose their ability to keep up with changes and indeed resent change itself, any change. I once said to an elderly gentleman that he must have seen many changes in his life and he responded that yes he had and he had opposed every one of them. That's real sad, but it is entirely an individual shortcoming. You must be getting angrier and angrier and spend you days watching the news as your blood pressure rises. It may be beyond your capacity to keep up but you should realize that the world will get along quite well without all of us no matter how hateful we become. And remember that it is not enough to win elections, it's even more important to be able to run things and to know how to govern.

Vernon Clayson - 8/19/2007

Mr. Matthewson, your reply was fine, albeit a little dreamy, until your bias was reflected in the mention of Bush and Cheney to their detriment. Whatever your feelings for them you have to know that someone had to say "no" to the terrorists. Have your forgotten the feeling you had, one we all shared, when the bastards attacked us on 9/11/01, killing thousands of our fellow citizens and not a few foreigners here freely and with little fear? Bush and Cheney, and the majority in Congress, declared they would not stand for this. As the memory of 9/11 fades, so does the pronouncements of the previous administration, Bill Clinton's, that terrorist including Saddam Hussein were seeking to be come nuclear armed. Granting that the terrorist countries weren't very far along in their program, Clinton, Gore, Albright, Cohen, etal., all warned us. Save some of your dislike for them, they failed us miserably, think Somalia and the USS Cole, among others. This, as you say, is a great country, however, you fail to allow reality into your mind set, "from time to time there will be lumps in your mashed pototoes."

Tim Matthewson - 8/18/2007

I celebrate American democracy and for all its shortcomings, America is still the envy of the world because of its openness, its efforts to protect individual rights, its freedoms and its equality, and its receptivity to new groups. America is a truly great country that is truly devoted to liberty and equality. It is the world's last best hope and has a precious heritage for the world, and it is still celebrated around the world despite the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration. Of course there are fundamentalists who feel threatened by its freedoms. But America is still a beacon of hope and enlightenment for much of the world.

Vernon Clayson - 8/18/2007

Changes of values, Mr. Matthewson? You are misguided, if you review the statistic for the liberated blacks, for example, you will find that the incareration rates of black men made an alarming jump; don't think it was because so many of them believed the new found "freedom" gave them license, do you? LBJ and his "great society" was in on that, welfare rolls increased to the level that local assistance was not affordable, the feds had to jump in on that because they could afford it - and it added the black inner city vote to the Democrat bloc seemingly for all time. What really changed for the better, working people were burdened with more taxes to pay for non-working people's leisurely life style and there was a war, courtesy of JFK and LBJ, even farther away and with less reason than the present one. The groups you say entered the mainstream still don't fit in, does anyone really believe Hillary Clinton's conduct in the 60s, she was still Republican, makes her "your girl" today? Shrill fishwife became a Democrat and wants to be president, all those old Russian anarchists, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, approached their cause much as she is today, through fear and loathing. Don't speak of Native Americans, round eye, you have no idea of the struggles of Indians. Just because a few casinos have raised the standard of living for a few Indians, the vast majority still live on the Rez and depend on the Feds for sustenance and that's from treaties in the 1800s, not welfare legislation in the 60s by the crude ruffian LBJ and his "great society". I fervently hope you aren't teaching history, your view of just that 60s perioud is too far naive and off base to pass on to others.

Vernon Clayson - 8/18/2007

Mr. Loftin, actually I was, basically as an observer, because there was far too much degrading, immoral conduct, that's another meaning for bestial, for anyone to do anything, even medical people were help up by the celebrants. All in all, it was best to let it flame out in its mindlessness. There were few facilities, mostly the flower people squatted, puked and whizzed where they were, sex in most of its human animal forms about the same, smoking weed, ingestion of drugs and cheap wine interspersed with arm waving, handclapping and some kind of, it seemed, wood nymph-like gyrations. You obviously weren't there, the views you've seen on MTV ennoble a rather trashy episode in our culture. Woodstock wasn't beautiful, neither was the similar gathering later at Watkins Glen although there were more flower people at the glen. Study it all you like, twist it all you like, it was a stain on our way of life. I don't think I've mentioned seeing the same kind of people living in fallen down buildings and ragged tents along with the VW vans in Colorado, even ugly and filthy guys and girls could participate as long as they were holding, flowers and peace, my behind.

Tim Matthewson - 8/18/2007

The importance of the 1960s is mainly in the changes of values that took places during the period. American society opened up, welcoming new groups into positions of real choice and democracy and free inquiry. Women, black, hispanics, Native Americans and others all found their voices during the 1960s and entered the mainstream of American culture. The democratization of America in the 1960s enormously helped improve our image in the world. As some have claimed, our parents were the "Greatest Generation" because they experienced the great depression and WWII. But they continued to adhere to the racism, sexism and class prejudices which had been conventional in America since the founding of the American republic. Our generation, my generation, which is celebrated by Leonard Steinhorn as The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, broke with the exclusionary values of our parents and helped to democratize America opening it to more groups than ever before. This was the true achievement of The Greater Generation and the inability of the aging critics of the 1960s to grasp the positive achievements of the 1960s demonstrates that it is not the baby boomers who are hung up over the sixties, but the critics who cannot see beyond the fireworks of the era and can't let go of the view that the sixties were nothing more than a miserable and tawdry time.

Vernon Clayson - 8/18/2007

I was an adult in the 1960s, Mr. Matthewson, and while I am aging/aged I witnessed the decade and and its decadence, its failures and its misery. I saw it for what it was. I also attended a major, and liberal college, and while a few demonstrated, futilely in most instances, the majority of students came to class and conducted themselves civilly, although there were a few Blacks spouting off inanities in the student union and a few hippie types in shaggy clothing on the campus; both were largely ignored. There were the riots, of course, but there was no uplifting purpose, the rioters mostly wanted to loot stores and attack people who would have preferred to be left alone. Latter day aficianodos of the "summer of love" are similar to those of the Camelot days of JFK, dreamy and detached from the reality of life as it was. The "summer of love" was conjoined by worsening conditions in Vietnam, for every bedraggled piotous hipster bludgeoned by "the pigs" on the streets here, young Americans were dying by the hundreds from a war started by the hero of Camelot, JFK, and the ill-mannered ruffian LBJ. That's what the "summer of love" was about. For every pious remark by MLK Jr., young blacks were calling "the pig" a "white MF", kind of offsetting, don't you think? It was a different time, no generation before or after has had such a difficult time letting go of those years. The hapless psuedo anarchists changed nothing and still can't believe it. While the majority of the veterans of the Vietnam war came back and made a life for themselves, there are still a few who choose to wear their old cammies and head scarves and affect a war weary and bearded countenance. Some affect the look of berserkers on motorcycles while some stand on the corner with their little cardboard signs. The ragged hipsters of the 60s now wear suits and some feel guilty because they avoided military service. Get over the 60s, it was a miserable and tawdry time.

Craig Michael Loftin - 8/18/2007

Hmmmm, so Woodstock was "freaks wallowing in mud in mindless sexual orgies and bestiality." You were there? If not, how could you arrive at such an opinion? And did you see the bestiality yourself? Really, there were people having sex with animals at Woodstock? Can you verify this, or is it just a typical unfounded slanderous attack on people you don't happen to like?

Tim Matthewson - 8/18/2007

The 1960s still raise the hackles of certain segments of American society, as one can see by reading the response of Vernon Clayson. Whether it's 1964 or 1967, critics lose all perspective when the subject of the Summer of Love is raised. Like a gaggle of spinsters worried about other people enjoying sex, critics of the summer of love can see nothing of value happening in the 1960s and attempt to manufacture a phoney image of the 1960s, construct a series of straw men, and knock down bogus "enemies." But the aging enemies of changes of values that happened at that time are running out of steam and dying off even more rapidly than the aging baby boomers. The 1960s remain a major water shed in American history and the attempts by zealous counter revolutionaries have proven as barren of achievement as the foreign and domestic policies of Bush, Cheney and Rove.

Vernon Clayson - 8/17/2007

Perhaps if one hadn't lived through the "summer of love", the author uses 1967, one might believe that the time was something remarkable, it wasn't. No matter how the story is twisted it was a stupid time, a few people thought it was perhaps the apocalypse and they should over-indulge in sex, drugs and mild anarchy. If the media hadn't glorified it, no one would have noticed. There was nothing nice about Woodstock, it was freaks wallowing in mud in mindless sexual orgies and bestiality. There were no values in any of it. There was no lasting effect, except perhaps in San Francisco where a few hanger ons still try to relive the times.