Baby boomer babble
The sixties was the defining decade for the boomers. It was not a simple time. Dreams were dreamt, than squelched; a government was brought to its knees, and the social morˇs of the World War II generation were under attack. A war divided us, not unlike today, and our leadership lied and deceived us, again, not unlike today. It was at the same time exciting, depressing, fun, tense, stimulating, suffocating, moving, maddening, divisive and uniting. The only difference between then and now is us. We don't seem to get near as excited today.
The decade started with the election of the youngest President we had ever had, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. At age 43, he was also the first Catholic to hold the nationÕs highest office. He was charismatic, a good public speaker, and capable of sparking optimism among the public, particularly young people. As quickly as the spark ignited, it was snuffed out. On November 22, 1963, barely one thousand days into this presidency, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I was a sophomore in high school, sitting in plane geometry class, when the announcement came over the loud speakers. The President had been killed. School was dismissed for the day. LBJ would become our new President. He was no JFK. It was no longer a matter of asking what we could do for our country. It was, what in the world is our country doing to us?
The single defining event in the 60's was the Vietnam War. It affected every baby boomer, particularly the males. It united and divided, inspired and discouraged, an entire generation. Some 58,000 Americans would lose their lives in Vietnam. Two and one-half million Americans served, the large number being made possible by the draft. It remains the longest war we have ever been involved in, and, until recently, the most unpopular. Still, to this day, no one knows what to think about the whole affair. What we do know is that what was actually going on is not what we were told. It ends up having a stunning resemblance to what is happening today in Iraq. From all of Vietnam, nary a lesson was learned.
Many of the happenings of the sixties were in response to the war. Anti-war activities were widespread. Freedom marches were taking place in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., was attempting to lead his people toward equal treatment as human beings. He also was against the war, believing it was hurting the poor, and that blacks were doing more than their fair share of the fighting. In a devastating blow to both movements, Dr. King was killed in Memphis, on April 4, 1968. Another charismatic, accomplished public speaker, struck down in his prime. Riots broke out in many cities, as hope quickly turned to despair and anger flushed out onto the streets. Who was to lead us out of our status-quo, complacent acceptance of an unjust war and racist society?
Lyndon Johnson had won the election in 1964, primarily on a platform stating that he would de-escalate the war. By 1968, it became clear that was not going to happen, and he was forced to not run for re-election on a near loss to Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate, in New Hampshire. Bobby Kennedy would shortly enter the primary and was near winning it when he was shot and killed on the night he won the California primary. Kennedy was young, energetic, charismatic, against the war, and a friend of the poor. For the third time in less than five years, our dreams and hopes for someone to lead us away from war and racism were dashed by senseless violence. That night, June 6, 1968, I remember sitting and crying, wondering what was going on. How could this happen for a third time? Who were we going to turn to for inspiration and leadership? At the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, the Democratic Party folded, and turned towards the middle, making Hubert Humphreys the nominee. The rest, as they say, is history.
With all this disappointment and frustration, a party was needed. On August 15, 1969, in Woodstock, New York (actually Bethel), the Woodstock Music and Art Festival took place. In the neighborhood of half a million people showed up to listen to the best music of the day. It represented a combination of good music, protest, and just plain fun, which at the time was sadly needed. Woodstock is probably one of the biggest markers of the sixties. As difficult as the sixties had been, it ended as it began, with shouts for love, peace, and rock & roll.