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Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

Counterculture of the 1960s

1960s Counterculture and the Hippies

The counterculture of the late 1960s was embodied by groups such as hippies, who embraced a life unrestricted by established American social mores, and their politically active counterparts, the yippies.

A counterculture is a way of life and a set of values and behaviors in opposition to how mainstream society lives and thinks. The countercultural movement of the late 1960s was embodied by the hippies. In their late teens and early 20s, hippies were members of the baby boom generation of the late 1940s into the 1950s. As they grew older, they became disillusioned with the previous generation's middle-class values. The country's engagement in the Vietnam War was a particular source of discontent. Young men were being drafted to fight in the war in southeastern Asia to prevent a communist takeover of the Republic of Vietnam by North Vietnam. Among the baby boomers were those opposed to U.S. involvement in the war to support South Vietnam. They also rejected the materialism of their parents, the perceived repression of society and its social mores, and the concept of war as a solution. As a result, many young people of the 1960s "dropped out," or abandoned conformity and previously held values.

Though members of the counterculture movement did not agree with the government and social policies of the day, they generally did not take part in active militant protest. That was left to the politically active yippies, who were members of the Youth International Party. Hippies preferred to disengage from traditional society to develop their own particular lifestyle. Communal living was popular both in cities and in rural areas. Clothing styles were relaxed, and hair was free-flowing. Also known as "flower children," hippies wore flowers in their hair and necklaces of braided flowers to show they embraced nature rather than more materialistic forms of personal ornamentation. The recreational use of mind-altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD became a signature aspect of the counterculture movement.

The hippies are best known for their advocacy of nonviolence, sexual love unrestricted by social norms, and tolerance. People of all races and religions were welcomed into the movement, and religious practices outside of traditional Judeo-Christian culture, such as Buddhism, were explored. Many in the movement rejected traditional principles of hard work and ambition, instead surviving on taxpayer-supported government welfare, food stamps, and money earned panhandling in the streets. Some spent their time participating at college and university teach-ins, speaking out against the Vietnam War. Others attended antiwar protests and marches. Many were content just to lead lives different from their traditional middle-class upbringings: traveling the country, listening to rock and folk music, and engaging in sexual and artistic free expression.
Hippie culture included the use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD. The bright colors and swirling patterns in their décor were intended to recall the vibrancy of an "acid" trip.
Credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-HS503-2562

Counterculture Political Movements

Activist counterculture groups such as the yippies staged protests and used attention-grabbing tactics such as guerrilla theater to get their antiwar message across.

While hippies championed the notion "Make love, not war," other movements within the counterculture were more militant. Chief among them was the Youth International Party. The Youth International Party, or yippies, was founded in January 1968 by two political activists—Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Hoffman had already made a name for himself through his use of guerrilla theater, which dramatizes political and social issues as propaganda or protest. The preceding summer, for instance, Hoffman and a group of protesters, all dressed colorfully as hippies, gained access to the New York Stock Exchange. They made their way to the gallery above the trading floor and began throwing dollar bills down onto the traders below. Rubin was similarly theatrical. He organized the first teach-in against the Vietnam War and later shadowed a napalm delivery vehicle in a van with a bright yellow sign reading, "Danger: Napalm Bombs Ahead." In October 1967 Hoffman and Rubin brought some 100,000 protestors to Washington, DC, to attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Although the Pentagon remained firmly attached to the ground, the protest drew international attention. Under Hoffman and Rubin's leadership, the yippies also took a theatrical approach to protest.

Soon after their founding, the yippies began recruiting for a massive demonstration at the Democratic National Convention to be held in Chicago, Illinois, in August 1968. They hoped to draw a million protesters. However, fewer than 25,000 turned up, including members of other groups, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, known as "the Mobe." The protesters had repeatedly tried to get permits to gather in the park across from the convention, but their requests had been denied by the city. Knowing that the protest would take place, Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, was prepared. He had assembled a small army—over 25,000—of police, National Guardsmen, and U.S. Army troops. There were confrontations each day, but the worst occurred on the second to last day of the convention in what became known as "The Battle of Michigan Avenue." Not only were some 100 protesters and some 100 police injured, but reporters, doctors trying to help the injured, and uninvolved passersby were beaten by police. The police even attacked and beat a group of young political volunteers who had attended the convention. Afterward, a federal commission was set up to investigate the battle. In its findings, the commission called the event a police riot.

Among those arrested during the convention were the leaders of the yippies, the SDS, and the Mobe. They were part of a group that would come to be known as the Chicago Seven. After several controversial trials and appeals, the Chicago Seven were freed.

Other political counterculture groups included the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a group that formed around conservative William F. Buckley. Staunchly anticommunist, YAF members would stage counterprotests to antiwar demonstrations.
Hippies, yippies, and other antiwar activists gathered outside the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. They were outnumbered by police and military troops sent by Chicago's mayor to stop their protest. The confrontation became a "police riot."
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-40810

Woodstock and the Decline of the Counterculture Movement

The counterculture movement peaked in 1969 and then faded as the counterculture became the norm, complete with commercialism, violence, and discontent.

In August 1969 the counterculture movement was at its height at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York. Approximately 500,000 young adults from all over the country spent three days camping on a 600-acre farm while listening to counterculture musicians such as Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Joan Baez, and the Grateful Dead. Much of the time, it rained. The unexpected number of attendees made sanitation an issue. Also, many attendees had not thought to bring rations, and food was scarce. During the concert, there were three reported deaths and about 800 drug-related medical emergencies. Nevertheless, the much-romanticized festival has come to symbolize the social and political upheaval and ideas of the 1960s.

The counterculture movement faded out after 1969, caused in part by deadly events at a Rolling Stones concert in December of that year. Notions of creating a new way of life gave way to disillusionment, deepened by mounting drug use and lethargy. The movement was also becoming commercial. Retailers had recognized its profit potential, and suddenly everyone was wearing faded blue jeans, bandanas, and army surplus jackets. The counterculture became the norm, accompanied by consumerism, violence, and the discontent it had sought to remedy.