The following essay is an extended closing remark to the exhibition Day-Glo and Napalm: UConn from 1967-1971, by guest curator and contributor, George Jacobi (’71).The exhibition runs until Friday, October 25th, 2019.
Thanks to the GI Bill, the Fifties are a favorable time for most Americans home from the war to build a career and raise a family. Powered by Unions as well, the rise of the largest middle class in history finally includes some Black and Latino citizens. Suburbia is invented. The 1964 World’s Fair in New York promises we’ll all be working far fewer hours and getting there in a flying car, asserting that technology only benefits mankind. Robots will do the tough jobs. The future seems so far away that this is almost believable. Are white kids in New England spoiled? Compared with previous generations, sure we are, and so has each generation since. Growing up then is generally benign, and the result is a chance to examine ourselves and America with less national responsibility than our parents. Our patriotism thus leans toward social betterment, not defense or personal economic progress.
Under the veneer of white middle-class American life rumblings of unrest have begun. Academics are suggesting that modern society is unfulfilling. Rachel Carson has shown America that it is in the process of killing nature with chemicals. Kerouac has been “On the Road” and Jackson Pollock has blown up the art world. Jazz has turned from big band dance music into individual expression. Ginsburg writes “Howl” and thus comes out as a gay man; the book is immediately banned. Yet in Greenwich Village people are “suddenly free of the shackles, the baggage of tradition”: Liam Clancy. Nevertheless, beatniks are portrayed as a joke on TV. The political and cultural events that took place at UConn during the years 1967 to 1971 of course reflect wider American historical forces. For simplicity, label these Politics, Spirituality, Culture, and the Arts. In reality, they are jumbled together; breaking them down in order to clarify each is a rare side benefit of the passage of time.
The following account lists this history, phenomena that took place or began prior to 1967. By that year, society is increasingly seen by an influential youth minority as hypocritical or empty of value. It has become apparent that the norms are mythological and serve only the powerful. Alienation results with what is initially a quiet insurrection against uncritical acceptance of the status quo. While most of the country isn’t paying attention, there is a cultural shift; all of a sudden something changes. Several small groups at first, an anti-establishment minority slowly appears. Most folks in America and at UConn in the mid-1960s go about their own lives whether they are sympathetic to this rebellion or not. A majority of UConn students, including us, will spend most of our hours being students.
How does a profound upheaval begin from such a minor movement? A fifth and crucial factor in the creation of this distinct period is newly powerful television. Starting with the Kennedy assassination coverage, it brings the vivid truth about punji sticks in Vietnam, police fire hoses and German Shepherds in Alabama, to all of America as it happens. It will do the same for college unrest. The Baby Boom generation is at its largest and most potent point in these few years. We don’t invent most of these ideas, but we are poised to take them and run.
THE KOREAN WAR: It shocks America by ending as a disappointing stalemate, stoking fears that Vietnam may turn out the same.
THE COLD WAR: Remnants of McCarthyism, fear of Communism, continue to hold America in a tight grip. Nuclear War is a genuine threat. The Cold War includes the Space Race, and the USSR has a head start. In 1959 Cuba, 90 short miles away, becomes Communist. The negative aspects of Capitalism are kept hidden in order to compare favorably with Socialism. This is deliberate, a relaxing of the right-wing attack on the New Deal. Corporate Imperialism is disguised by support for military dictatorships around the world, a bulwark against leftist revolution. Propaganda touts American industrial modernization as the future for the world; the average American’s life improves at the same rate as the rich elite for a change. The older generation appears to accept conformity as the price of comfort, security, and growth.
THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION in 1963: Almost immediately following the release of the Warren Report, it becomes obvious there is some kind of cover-up going on. Heavy media coverage helps fuel distrust of the Government.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA: Also in 1963 – Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during a March on Washington. The struggle for racial justice in the face of hate is visible to all on the evening news. Cities continue to burn with anger from coast to coast. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is investigating King as anti-American, and will do the same to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy! Astonishing to us now, there is a third party candidate in 1968, George Wallace, whose Presidential platform actually rests on continuing segregation. He WINS five states. But calling it state’s rights or the rule of law and order cannot disguise the vicious repression of peaceful protest.
THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT 1964: An attempt by Berkeley students to have the concerns of the Cold War and Civil Rights penetrate their “ivory tower”, to make college relevant to the real world, leads to an immediate backlash, including arrests. It’s another early warning that those in power don’t like to be questioned.
THE VIETNAM WAR: President Johnson continues the war, in spite of making no progress, because he refuses to have America lose. Through the press, official reports of military success are discovered to be lies; later Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia will become known. Various reasons people oppose the war include that it is imperialism disguised as fear of the domino effect, that it is butting into a civil war on the corrupt side, that it is immoral, and that it is unwinnable (or all of the above). In 1966 the Senate itself has hearings about whether to get the troops out of Vietnam. By ‘68 Eugene McCarthy runs for the Democratic Presidential nomination on a ‘Get out of Vietnam’ platform. High School classmates continue dying because of:
THE DRAFT: This previously accepted fixture of life becomes political. The government, by failing to protect Civil Rights marchers and lying about the war, as well as music, drugs, car safety, cigarettes, pollution, and anything else you can name, has lost the faith of young people. They decide against taking part in such a mistake. It is obvious that kids with pull are escaping the draft while poor kids are “cannon fodder”. Draft cards are being burned. In 1969 the Draft Lottery is instituted. When peaceful protests are made, the reaction is not just arrests but violence.
Christianity and Judaism fail to rise to the challenge of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, on the heels of an inability to respond to the emptiness and materialism of the ‘50s. Individual religious figures act, larger organizations are silent. Thomas Merton, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Berrigan, and others cry out unheard in the wilderness. How does a Christian believe the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” doesn’t apply to war – when Jesus refused to defend himself? Once people question standards and beliefs and find them wanting, they look for meaning elsewhere. The stage is set for Alan Watts and Gary Snyder to introduce seekers to Zen Buddhism, and for LSD to introduce hippies to the idea of expanding their own minds enough to discover God – WITHOUT organized religion.
REBELS: James Dean in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” and Bill Haley’s song “Rock Around the Clock” signal in popular culture even back in the mid-50s that an undercurrent of unhappiness and a search for meaning exists in post-war America.
MAD MAGAZINE: It’s satire exposes the absurdity of the American Dream.
THE PILL: the first oral contraceptive is released in 1960. The Kinsey Report, followed by Masters and Johnson’s research, shocks prudish Middle America by actually discussing sex, and women gain the freedom, the power, and the understanding to control their own sexuality and pregnancy. These are no small things; they are a critical key to a changing society and lead to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. In 1953 Playboy magazine has added to the “decline of morality” with the first legally published breasts outside of National Geographic Magazine.
MUHAMMED ALI: Heavyweight Boxing Champ, the most well-known person in the world, sacrifices his career (temporarily) by refusing to go to Vietnam when drafted. An attempted boycott of the 1968 Olympics by black athletes fails, but the BLACK POWER salute on the medal stand by Tommy Smith and John Carlos is seen around the globe.
HIPPIES/DRUGS: In San Francisco and elsewhere, a small group of avant-garde folks smoke marijuana, having discovered that it’s no more harmful than alcohol, and ingest Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD in a serious attempt to expand their consciousness. They piggyback on a decade of scientific research, much of it sponsored by the CIA. Though their use becomes “recreational” (and then abused) in a few short years, some of us are introduced to psychedelic drugs as a potential spiritual path. Add live rock and roll and sexual freedom to this pot (pun intended) and you have an alarming-looking curveball thrown at society, which the excitable media runs with. This confluence of events colors every bit of the following years of politics, arts, and life in general. By 1967, even as the hippie dream dies in San Francisco, its light spreads to the rest of America; the Monterey Pop Festival brings it into the mainstream. “A noble experiment”, recalls Ed Sanders. (In an amusing coincidence, that year the US, USSR, and others sign the “Outer Space Treaty”, barring ownership of celestial bodies.) Radical politics is separate from counter-culture, which follows the lead of ‘peace and love’. There is no cocaine or heroin in this world; that appears later. In Haight/Asbury, the Diggers have raised some issues. At their Free Store, “everything is free” is not about self-gratification, but about consciousness. Is it time for a step forward in human civilization in which food, shelter, and health care are basic human rights? Fifty years later we’re still asking ourselves this question.
FM RADIO: This garden of musical freedom on the airwaves, until now ignored by commercial interests, is planted (and grows, especially at colleges) with the following-
ROCK-AND-ROLL: Rock is biracial. Musically simple, founded on the emotional and sexual energy of Blues, rock is instantly frowned on. Alarmed by ‘devil’ music, the older white generation cannot relate. The dominant society reacts with racism and fear, stoking teen enthusiasm; the more adult America lies about music and dance (just as it is lying about drugs) the more popular Rock gets. A message that “things don’t have to be this way”, it talks to the young; it becomes an actual barrier between old and new. Pop music is created to appeal to the masses; Rock and Roll is created to appeal to an “in” group. And if others don’t like it, that is just further incentive to push the boundaries. Youthful rebellion is in rock’s DNA, and THAT is a new frontier in popular music. By ‘67, psychedelic songs from the hippie culture dominate the airwaves, expanding the Generation Gap. As ‘leaders’ of this movement, musicians embrace its ethic: most of them act normal instead of being stars. No theatrics, no egos. The Beatles alternately scorn and hate their own fame and try Transcendental Meditation when being brilliant, famous, and rich turns out to be not enough. Bob Dylan gets tired of being our social conscience and explores his own. The Grateful Dead play for free to support myriad good causes. Neil Young still refuses to let any of his songs be used for commercial purposes. All this crashes and burns later in a media storm of cocaine, elitism, and cynical marketing, but will not change the lives and beliefs of those of us on the ground.
THE GENERATION GAP: A cliché, usually explained by stating that my generation reacted to our parent’s lives of denial and service with a desire for instant self-indulgence. This is a simplification which inaccurately portrays Baby Boomers as well as 1950s society. The “Baby Boom Generation” refers to an eighteen year period on which has been heaped negative trends that took place long after the shorter Vietnam Era. There WAS a Generation Gap, and it began with music (see above). My research suggests that each of us, while rebelling against previous mores, do so for personal reasons that are all different, but when united are a backlash against the older generation’s acceptance of the obviously (to us) unsatisfactory status quo. At this point the World War II Generation has had enough struggling; they relax. Early Baby Boomers are without an externally imposed purpose but desire a meaningful life. It is later Baby Boomers who are called the “Me” generation.
MOVEMENTS: The hippie motto “Do Your Own Thing” has ramifications for the Women’s movement, Gay Pride movement, etc. – If Black people should be able to live free from oppression, so should everybody else. And right now. The Stonewall Riot takes place in 1969, alongside continuous Red Power and Chicano activity. The Environmental movement, Health Food, and Back-to-the-Land movements come from mounting evidence that the dominant culture is run by businesses for profit without regard for the safety of humanity or the planet. My generation is unhappy with the glacial speed of positive change and the negativity toward it. Once the backlash occurs, you can call us furious. In short, the struggle for dignity, justice, and freedom includes all.
THE BEATS created a new climate of freedom in literature. The boldness of Be-Bop did the same for music. Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art confused most of America, but not all. Boundaries of what is acceptable were pushed past the limits most average people can relate to. Beatniks dressed in black radiated gloominess, though, which made their ideas less attractive. Those ideas will catch on with a newer, more colorful generation. It is rarely commented on, but most of the cultural, artistic, and psychological changes associated with the Sixties began with the Beats. In addition, most of the ‘leaders’ (Kesey, Leary, Cleaver, Rubin and Hoffman, for example) were of that age, a few years older than Sixties hippies and students and thus able and willing to exercise personal power more effectively.
THE BEATLES: That they deserve their own category is itself significant. Just months after the JFK assassination, the Beatles show up in time to renew hope among America’s youth. They create joyful invigorating music, the opposite of much Beat art. Already the biggest news on Earth, the Beatles meet Bob Dylan, then combine that joie de vivre with drugs and a new mindfulness. The no-longer three minute single Pop song, simple and made for radio, now borrows from folk and country, classical, world music, and more – and the Beatles make it into Art before our eyes. Indeed, it is rock music that pulls together all the other elements; it is rock that creates a community out of young people that don’t have all or most of these concepts in common. Somehow the Beatles give us permission to be ourselves, even if normal or nerdy. They replace traditional rules of behavior. There is no precedent for this. They survive a self-created group mind thing (7000 girls rushing a stage), the scary force that looks like Nazism. What’s different is that the Beatles blow it off – make fun of the fanaticism as it is happening. Lennon: “We were a ship at sea, not just the Beatles, but all of us…and we went somewhere.” Of course despite (or because of) the innocent ‘cosmic’ part of it, the ship later sinks anyway, for them and for us. Listen again – electric 60s rock music not only encapsulates the peace and love ideal, but also manifests the dramatic sounds of combat, that of actual war. The reason the music is so influential was that it reflects the beauty and horror of the times – the same way Elgar captured the heartbreak of WW1 in his Cello Concerto, the same way Picasso captured Spanish Civil War terror in “Guernica”. Rock’s anti-establishment power is enforced by the raw sound of the electric guitar. By the mid-Sixties, the sense of freedom and creativity expressed by psychedelic music captures the hearts of many. Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, the Small Faces, the Dead, and of course the Beatles during their Sergeant Pepper/Strawberry Fields phase are playing directly to us freaks. At some point it becomes clear that the music is transcendent and has been since “She Loves You”. It’s greater than the four guys doing it, greater than the notes and rhythms; it expresses the spirit of humanity. Try this on: the elder generation’s rejection of the Beatles – their music, attitude, and even hair – and the music’s own response, was as significant a reason as Civil Rights and Vietnam in my generation’s equivalent rejection of previous values.
Yes, I was in the middle of all this, both culturally and politically. Not as hippie-dippy as some, not as aggressively anti-American as some, but thoroughly a part of that brief left turn. In 1967 I found my tribe, the people who contributed to this exhibit and then showed up at a 50 year reunion this summer from all over the country. The exhibit and all these words are merely my personal view, yet I have been assured that they also are very close to the attitude of most of those who were around me. Almost every one of us still believes that the human world needs taming, not the natural world. As Edwin Way Teale (another writer and nature lover whose work is proudly housed in this building) said once “The long fight to save wild beauty represents democracy at its best. It requires citizens to practice the hardest of virtues–self-restraint.”
My hope is that this small effort helps today’s University of Connecticut take the lead in human rights and earth-centered sustainability. Thanks to UConn, the Dodd Center, Archives and Special Collections, and in particular Human Rights Archivist and now friend Graham Stinnett. It has been a privilege and an honor to be part of this conversation about UConn history in the context of American history.
George Jacobi (’71), 2019