Archive for Thursday, June 5, 2008

News conjures good, bad of 1960s

June 5, 2008

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot lately about the 1960s. What started this fixation with a decade that's been in the past now for almost 40 years, I think, was a report back in May that authorities in California were conducting tests to see if bodies would be found at the Barker Ranch, the Death Valley hideout where Charles Manson and his followers were arrested after the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969.

Those murders and the spectacle furnished by the trial of the Manson family (although the trial was in 1970) really put a closing bracket on a decade of incredible change.

There's no question that the United States, and the world, were vastly different places on Dec. 31, 1969, than they had been on Jan. 1, 1960. Change, of course, is a constant, and the same might be said of any decade, but I think the wrenching changes that we experienced in those 10 years go far beyond the norm. I can't think of another decade in which we have climbed, and at the same time fallen, so far.

The decade began with the election of a youthful President John F. Kennedy. His inauguration seemed to usher in a time of hope and promise. The young president's administration soon took the name of Camelot, the mythical village where King Arthur was said to have had his Round Table.

The civil rights movement, its flame doubtless fanned by new enthusiasm in Washington, began to gather momentum, as busloads of young people, black and white, took to the streets in the Jim Crow South.

Although much in the early years of the decade was hopeful, it began early on to manifest a darker side as well. The Berlin Wall went up in 1962. That also was the year that Marilyn Monroe was found dead, and the year that Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring."

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Then, as the year wound to a close, on Nov. 22, 1963, the other shoe dropped.

The Kennedy assassination gave us a foretaste of what was to come. The nation watched, stunned, as the young assassin was himself gunned down on live television in a police garage in Dallas.

The operative metaphor for much of the rest of the decade was that of the roller coaster, as we were lifted up or brought down by events. Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing title in 1964; in 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. military, and the New York State Boxing Commission suspended his license and stripped him of his title. He was convicted that year of refusing to submit to the draft. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1970 and he resumed his career.)

The Ali maelstrom was related to the other great event of the decade: the Vietnam War and the growing resistance to it. Opposition to the war came not just from the youth of America, but from older people too.

The '60s began with a challenge by Kennedy to put a man on the moon. After the shocking loss of three astronauts in a fire during testing in 1967, by the end of 1969 man, in the person of Neil Armstrong, had walked upon the moon.

The '60s was a decade of incredible violence - the war in Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy, and then of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969 - offset with developments that continue to reap positive benefits today. The first heart transplant in 1967, for example, or the debut of "Sesame Street" in 1969.

As a final example, consider a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPANET, which linked computers at four universities in California and Utah, exchanged its first message on Oct. 29, 1969. With further enhancements and embellishments over the years, that became the Internet.

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