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Rebellion against the establishment appeared in many forms in the United States during the 1960s.
Caught up in the rising frustration circling around America’s increased involvement in Vietnam, the racial unrest in many urban areas, and the pressure to conform, a growing number of the younger generation rejected the American way of life.
The resulting movement, termed the counterculture, embraced an alternative lifestyle characterized by long hair, brightly colored clothes, communal living, free sex, and rampant drug use.
Distrustful of the American government and what they perceived as an increasingly materialistic society, hippies and other members of the counterculture attracted a great amount of media attention during the 1960s, including feature articles in magazines such as Time.
Throughout the decade many counterculture events increased the movement’s notoriety, but two in particular, the Summer of Love and Woodstock, epitomized the spirit of the protests.
On January 14, 1967, counterculture leaders called for a “human be-in” in San Francisco, California. Thousands of people answered the call, gathering in Golden Gate Park to promote peace, happiness, and love.
During the spring, more disillusioned youth traveled to San Francisco upon hearing a declaration that the summer of 1967 would be the “Summer of Love.” The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco quickly became the gathering place and home for many displaced youth who came to celebrate the counterculture event.
The Summer of Love boasted music festivals, poetry readings, speeches, and even theater. For the most part, the Summer of Love proved successful in its ability to spread the counterculture message, but by the fall of 1967, increased incidents of crime and drug abuse by hippies gathered in Haight-Ashbury signaled a change in the movement.
Cognizant of the shift away from peace and love within the movement, some hippies proclaimed their own death on October 6, 1967, with the “Death of Hip” Ceremony. Burning a gray coffin labeled the “Summer of Love,” the ceremony acknowledged that the counterculture had transformed into something more sinister than “flower power.”
Although a shift away from peaceful protest had begun in the movement after the Summer of Love, one final significant event grounded in the founding principles of the rebellion against the establishment would leave its mark on history.
Throughout the 1960s, music served as an integral part of the counterculture movement. Seen as a way to both embrace an alternative lifestyle and protest against war and oppression, hippies organized outdoor music festivals across the United States.
The most famous of all the counterculture concerts, Woodstock, took place from August 15-17, 1969. Originally hoping for attendance of 50,000, the promoters of the event, who chose a thousand-acre farm in upstate New York as the site for “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition,” seemed as shocked as everyone else when over 500,000 arrived for the three-day affair.
Unprepared for such a large crowd, massive traffic jams ensued, food and water quickly disappeared, and bathroom facilities were scarce. Despite the potential for violence and disaster, the festival advertised as “Three Days of Peace and Music” lived up to its billing.
Listening to popular musicians of the day such as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin, concertgoers seemed to bond because of the harsh conditions and a common desire to promote peace and love.
All in all, Woodstock remains a lasting icon of the cultural movement of the 1960s that looked to change the world through its acceptance of values and beliefs that contradicted the established power structure of the United States.
Research by Kathleen Johnson, Volunteer for the Cold War Museum.
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- Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
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- Morgan, Edward P. The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.