Shanti Emerson: What lessons did we learn from the ’60s? |

Shanti Emerson: What lessons did we learn from the ’60s?

Shanti Emerson
Shanti Emerson

The 1950s, an era many of us remember well, was marked by stability, conformity, suppression of feelings and thoughts, and Dwight David Eisenhower, a man who evoked respect and affection not only in the U.S. but around the world.

But underneath all the passivity, white male dominance (WMD) and compliance brewed a big pot of soup of repressed feelings of oppressed people who cried out, “I can’t take this any longer.” This soup was about to boil over into the ’60s.

The changes between the two sequential decades is significant. People who had been quiet began to shout out, and these shouts were heard by others who felt the same way.

Nearly half the population was under 18 years old and enjoyed being the most affluent society in history. Color TVs were instantly embraced and 95 percent of all homes had at least one TV. There were only three major networks plus PBS.

It is said that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. The changes to our society were for the best. So we must protect these precious freedoms that we gained during the 1960s.

Music was heard everywhere. We happily let the British invade us, and folk songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez filled the TV screen, record players and car radios. The protest music movement culminated in 1969 in the iconic Woodstock Festival. The importance and relevance of this event cannot be denied, but the nation was as divided on its message as we are today.

The most popular books of the decade were “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) and “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), both made into popular movies.

The daughters of the women who had short-coiffed hair, wore shirt waist dresses and high heels, were wearing tight jeans and tie-dye shirts or long flowing gowns. Their hair was unruly and fell past their shoulders. They threw away their bras and lamented the millennia of unrecognized talent and failed ambitions.

Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem articulated the secret wishes long held in the hearts of women. Women were angry and that anger turned into the Women’s Rights Movement, which is still going on. We’ve come a long way, baby, and we have a long way to go.

The love children who experimented with new ways of living together and promoted free love were into a different kind of world. The birth control pill had taken the fear of pregnancy out of sex, which was given more freely than ever before. Drugs entered mainstream society. Their world was about non-materialism and peace. Most of these hippies went back into mainstream society having 9-to-5 jobs and left enduring images of young people with flowing hair living with high ideals in communes.

Blacks who had been emancipated in the 1860s were still subjugated in the 1960s. The brilliant orator Martin Luther King Jr. inspired millions to follow him in his non-violent expression of protest. Inspired by the example of Gandhi, he emboldened people to break the unfair laws of segregation. The legendary action of Rosa Parks in 1955 was being emulated in lunch counters and schools. African Americans were angry, too.

Instead of the venerable older president, we had the young charismatic leader, John F. Kennedy, who had new ideas and a different way of looking at the world. He, like Ike, was loved and respected internationally and his mere presence brought inspiration. President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, was his conscience and taught JFK of the horrors of segregation. The Kennedys wanted change.

Vietnam was a divided nation with the Communist North and the anti-Communist South, and our involvement divided our nation also and still divides us today The number of suicides, PTSD cases and homelessness among Vietnam veterans forms a deep scar in our history.

The misfortune of the assassinations has left a tragic overlay over this tumultuous decade. What would the world be like today if the Kennedys and MLK had lived?

Lyndon Johnson, the consummate politician, used Kennedy’s death to bring about some of the changes JFK wanted. Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation but it was blocked by filibuster in the Senate. After the 11/22/63 assassination, LBJ pushed the bill forward and signed it into law on July 2, 1964.

Although Johnson realized the Democrats would lose their hold on the South, he took the moral high ground and did what was best for his country rather than what was best for his party.

Another Texan, my Houston Representative to Congress, supported integrated housing and received sharp rebukes from his very conservative district. His name was … George H.W. Bush. He put his conscience before politics.

So if we assessed what we learned from the ’60s … what would it be? That society can change when we have strong leaders and many followers who protest in a peaceful manner? That we might want to live for love alone but still have to go to work? That we don’t win wars with tiny nations but hurt ourselves and divide our people? That sex is too sacred to be wasted in casual relationships? That music can express ideas and feelings that can take the world to evolved places?

It is said that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. The changes to our society were for the best. So we must protect these precious freedoms that we gained during the 1960s.

Shanti Emerson is a Nevada County resident and a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the board or its members. She can be reached at

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