Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman: murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1964 for registering voters: they sacrificed far more for democracy than most Nixon fans who bitched and moaned about dirty stinking hippies
Part of the challenge of thinking about what we call "the Sixties" is to distinguish between the various social phenomena that made them up.
I tend to think that in a larger perspective, the two most socially significant phenomena in 1960-73 in the United States were the civil rights movement and the widespread usage of oral contraceptives.
The civil rights movement put an end to the most egregious gap in American democratic practice, the widespread disenfranchisement of African-American citizens, a disenfranchisement which had been maintained by illegal means and by both the threat and reality of violence.
The birth control pill - which in German is called the Anti-Baby-Pille - meant that sexual activity was now qualitatively more independent of pregnancy and the risk of pregnancy than ever before. It gave women a dramatically higher level of control and choice in their personal lives, and provided a major part of the context in which the women's movement came to flourish. It also made possible the so-called "sexual revolution", whose real significance was less in the perceived increase in promiscuity than in more open and at least somewhat more honest acknowledgments of sexual realities. It seems to me that the significance of that one scientific-medical innovation, the birth control pill, is generally badly understated in accounts of that period. Freud once wrote, in a time where condoms of questionable reliability and coitus interruptus were the main contraceptives available, "The greatest invention some benefactor can give mankind is a form of contraception which does not induce neurosis."
A prime mover of "the Sixties": the Anti-Baby-Pille
The movement against the Vietnam War was a third major watershed event of the 1960s. For Europeans, the shallow assumptions of war in which glory, honor and selfless patriotism were predominated were permanently undercut at Verdun and Auschwitz. Neither world war had a comparable effect in America. The Vietnam War and the opposition to it called those easy and destructive illusions about war into serious question.
What we know as "the Sixties" - the phenomenon, not just the time period - was very much an international matter, as well. Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, the French worker-student uprising in May-June, student protests in Mexico City are all just as much a part of "the Sixties" as the March on Selma or the Chicago police riot.
In the United States, these different trends created a variety of movements and groups that overlapped and interacted with each other but still had distinct presences. There was the civil rights movement, with its variety of manifestations including SCLC, the Montgomery bus boycott, SNCC, CORE, COFO, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Summer, the Civil Rights Acts, Black Power, the Black Panthers, mass movements in the cities against racial discrimination and police brutality. There was the student movement with SDS, the Free Speech Movement, and campus activism and protests that reached their dramatic zenith in 1970 after the Kent State and Jackson State murders. There was the peace movement with its Quakers and pacifists, the Mobilization Against the War (the Mobe), the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, antiwar soldiers' coffeehouses and underground newspapers. There were movements of alternative lifestyles: the amorphous hippie movement, communes, a new interest in "Eastern religions" and meditation, back-to-the-land efforts.
Particularly from 1968 onward, there was an increasingly visible and self-conscious women's movement, though I tend to think identifying it too closely with "the Sixties" risks understating the breadth and meaning of the movement. In terms of democratic deficits, I would note that even in 2008, the US Constitution still does not recognize women as equal citizens to men, unlike the EU democracies. Maybe that's one reason "macho" Spain has a Defence Minister who just gave birth to a son, while in the US the first major female candidate for President is subjected to a torrent of frat-boy-style sexism and misogyny in our "respectable" media.
The spirit of "the Sixties" lives on: peace demonstrator in Orlando, 2007
"The Sixties" were also a time when violence was very much in the public's consciousness, from the violence in urban riots to the violence in Vietnam to the often grotesque over-reactions of police to civil disorders. (And, yes, antiwar and student demonstrators sometimes smashed windows or trashed cars.) The institutionalized violence of the Southern segregation system became impossible for the rest of the country to ignore. And the rise in regular violent street crime became a very real concern, especially in poor and often predominantly African-American urban areas which were the primary victims of it. And, of course, the assassinations of Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Along with the systematic violence and provocations by officials against black militants in particular.
There are a couple of glaring contradictions about "the Sixties" and the way we remember those events. One is that the 1960s - the time period, I mean here - were economically prosperous times, arguably the most prosperous continual period in the history of American capitalism. Second, even though we remember the civil rights movement, the peace movement and the "new politics" of Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and their supporters as the most prominent political features of "the Sixties", it was the conservatives who became politically ascendant in the US. And what we now call the "culture war" has become the obsession of Republican conservatives, symbolized by their nightmare images of "the Sixties".
Without trying to minimize the mysteries of those contradictions, I would put them in the following context. That 1960s prosperity was more equitably shared among whites than that of the 1990s. But the urban ghettoes, much of the South both rural and urban, large numbers of working-class whites in Appalachia and elsewhere, and farmworkers everywhere did not share in that prosperity on an equal or fair basis. Rising economic expectations, democratic optimism and the Vietnam-era draft that was a major factor in the consciousness of young men and which grossly discriminated by race, class and region, all those were factors in generating popular demands that dramatized the shortcomings in American society and the limits of prosperity.
And while it's true that a conservative political ascendancy occurred beginning in 1966-8, it drew much of its appeal from fear and reaction against the reform movements of the day and the social disruption and violence that was really occurring, though the conservatives often wildly exaggerated them. (George Packer gives an account of that ascendancy in The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans run out of ideas?The New Yorker 05/26/08, though he seems to have drunk the media Kool-Aid about McCain the saintly Maverick.)
It's also important to remember that the single biggest factor enabling that conservative ascendancy was the disrupting of the Democratic coalition that had been based on a shameful coalition with Southern segregationists. The Democratic Solid South was persuaded to change their partisan voting patterns by the Republican Party's transformation into the rightwing, segregationist Party it has become today. The Democrats' ability to have a pro-civil-rights Senate Majority Leader like Lyndon Johnson or an antiwar Senator like William Fulbright of Arkansas as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee was due to enough pro-segregation whites voting for the Democrats to give them Congressional majorities. Fulbright himself voted against the key Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
Segregationist sentiment and institutional racism weren't new in the 1960s, but the quality of the challenges to them were. In foreign policy, the arrogance of power and bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age militarism weren't new, but the intensity of the peace movement was. Hypocritical sexual prudery and soulless materialism were scarcely new, but the nature of the challenges to them were. Discrimination against women was no novelty, but the breadth and the power of the women's movement were.