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The 1960s
Skylar Leatherman
Antelope Staff
Photo by Kate Benzel
Photo by Kate Benzel

Not just an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but also a time of The 1960s was not just a time of drugs and music, but also a time of social and political reform.

College students across the nation organized protests demanding to exercise their basic constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Counterculture activists became aware of the ongoing plight of the poor, and community organizers fought for the funding of anti-poverty programs. The post-war baby boom forced young people to challenge the direction of American Society.

English professor Kate Benzel participated in protests she feels made a huge impact on our culture today.

“Today you see more employment of women, and more diverse populations,” Benzel said. “You see they are involved in areas that have an impact on the culture. Making a voice heard opens a door, and people have walked through that door to speak for themselves and others and pass on that tradition of speaking. It’s not as loud as it used to be, but it has those same issues of equality.”

The beginning of the 1960s was generally a peaceful time—until the United States entered the Vietnam War. The United States first sent Army personnel to Vietnam in May of 1961, and the war did not end until March 30, 1973.

The public voiced opposition against the draft and had moral, legal and practical arguments against the United States’ intervention in the war. Many U.S. citizens didn’t want tax dollars going to the war effort. In 1972 an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 people refused to pay their excise taxes on their telephone bills and another 20,000 resisted paying all or part of their income tax bills.

For most, the draft was the target of determination to protest.

“If you got drafted, you could go and serve or refuse and go to jail,” said John Lillis of Kearney. Men who knowingly burned or mutilated their draft card were fined up to $10,000 and sent to federal prison for up to five years.

Approximately 4,000 draft protesters were sent to prison. Canadian immigration reports estimate 20,000 to 30,000 men chose Canada over going to Vietnam. One estimate goes as high as 60,000.

Most young men drafted were too young to drink alcohol or to vote. The image of young people forced to risk their lives in the military without the privileges to vote or ability to drink alcohol legally successfully pressured legislatures to lower the voting age nationally and the drinking age in many states.

The 26th Amendment was added to the United States Constitution on July 1, 1971. Lawmakers pushed the “Age of Majority” Amendment, lowering the voting age in federal elections from 21 to 18, and by 1974 all 50 states dropped the voting ages for state elections to 18. Twenty-nine states changed their drinking ages, most to 18 or 19. Nebraska changed the drinking age in 1969 to 20, then to 19 in 1972.

The draft was set up like a lottery.

“They drew birthdates out of a container and the birthday drawn would be called to serve,” Lillis said. Every day was numbered from 1 to 366 and put into capsules in a large jar. When capsules were drawn, the first date was Sept. 14, and men born on that day who had registered with the draft board were drafted immediately unless they could obtain a deferment.

Many young men attended college to gain deferment, though they had to remain in college until their 26th birthday to avoid the draft. Some got married, which remained an exemption throughout the war, and other men joined the National Guard or the Peace Corps.

Those against the draft found many unusual ways to protest the war.

“A professor at my college gave everyone in his class an A,” Lillis said. “The administration found out and fired him. He was doing this because it was a protest against the war by giving students high grades so they could be deferred from the draft.”

On Nov. 15, 1969, over 40,000 protesters silently paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Protestors walked single file, each calling out the name of a dead soldier.

Benzel marched in one of the most well-known protests.

“I marched in the 1969 Washington, D.C., march that involved a lot of Vietnam War veterans,” Benzel said. “There were other marches, but this was about the Vietnam War not working. It was about honoring soldiers who had participated in the war and died, and those who were currently at war.”

Benzel was a graduate student in English at the University of Toledo and was involved with a branch of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was a student activist movement that grew rapidly in the mid-1960s before dissolving in 1969.

The D.C. march was an incredible experience and really well organized, Benzel said.

“The march started at Arlington Cemetery, and we were given bracelets of names of soldiers who had died in the war. We marched from the cemetery by the White House to the Capitol Building. When we arrived at the Capitol, they had a big coffin and we dropped our bracelets in there.”

Benzel said that the march was long, but the whole experience was eye-opening and confirmed that people weren’t so bad. “In the midst of horror, you have people who don’t know you take you in and trust you,” Benzel said.

The people of Washington, D.C., generously opened schools, seminaries and other places of shelter to the thousands ofstudents who gathered for this purpose.

 “What was extraordinary about rallies was that you drew together with the people you’ve never met,” Benzel said. “There was a common bond for goals and reasons you were there. Rallies became something even larger than the issue. It was a sense of community joining together to act on something.”    

Curt Carlson, the UNK Vice-Chancellor of University Relations, agrees the protests made a significant impact.

“Without the protests, we wouldn’t have had the civil rights law or equal employment,” Carlson said. “The whole civil rights movement and women’s rights were started by protests, and all the movements had a profound influence on today. Women’s rights wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are today without protests. I think those kinds of movements do affect society in profound ways. It’s even affected college campuses today.”

Carlson was a student at  Memphis State University, now University of Memphis, during the late 1960s.

“You couldn’t live through that period without your perceptions being challenged,” he said. “But we have our own challenges today that are just as intense and problematic.”

As a result of violent confrontations between college students and law enforcement officials, the younger generations began to show deep distrust in the police force, which was based on police brutality during political protests.

The social tension between the counterculture movement and law enforcement reached a breaking point at many colleges across the country.

Carlson recalls a time when a protest on Memphis State University’s campus ended in a peculiar way. He was working as a photographer and videographer at the public educational television studio on campus.

“I was on campus, and a call came in that students were gathering for a protest. I grabbed a camera, and by the time I got out there, there were 5,000 students together. The supporters of the Vietnam War were trying to prevent the liberals from hoisting up the Vietnam flag after taking the United States flag down,” Carlson said. “That event stirred the blood of every war supporter on campus, and the two groups were fighting.” There were rumors of the National Guard coming on campus to break up the protest.

“The president of the university came out onto the steps of the administration building and tried to bring order to the protest, but no one was listening to him,” Carlson said.

“Someone brought out the college chorus, and they began to sing the song ‘Age of Aquarius.’ The song was about peace, and they made their way into the center of the crowd. Students created a massive circle and everyone was listening and singing,” he said.

The volatile protest finally ended quietly.  “When the song was over, the crowd diffused and dissipated.”

The Vietnam War had profound effects on society.

“I felt the Vietnam War was badly conceived and badly executed,” Carlson said. “There was a lot of deception going on by the administration of what was really happening there.”

Carlson said when he was in Vietnam about three years ago, he noticed the booths in shopping malls raising money for Agent Orange victims. Agent Orange was used by the United States to strip the foliage from the trees so the Vietnamese couldn’t hide. The chemical has had a devastating effect on the health of the Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers in the war.

Carlson said his views of the war haven’t changed.

“I think it was a mistake to go there,” he said. “There was no subtlety in it; we were going in and bombing. In Vietnam they call it the ‘American War.’”

Carlson said he doesn’t think students today are aware of the rights the 1960s brought.

“I think young people today are tremendously informed through the media and the Internet,” he said. “The only way you can appreciate what went on before you is to make a study of it.” Carlson said he is fascinated by the depression and early history of the country.

“I hope young people today will study and make themselves aware of the events that helped create our country today,” Carlson said. “If we have a society that doesn’t care about the past, we’re doomed to repeating it. The 1960s was an extremely important and transitional period; it’s easy to take this era for granted.”

Carlson and Benzel both said they see technology as the biggest difference between youth today and those in the 1960s.

“Young people would rather send an e-mail or text; they don’t even want to talk on the phone,” Carlson said. “There are life skills of working with people that have been lost in this generation because of technology and electronics. There’s nothing more important than talking to someone face-to-face. You can’t understand people unless you have face-to-face contact, and I worry people have lost that.”

Benzel says she uses technology but sees a difference.  “…I mean literally a kind of addiction and dependence on it,” she said. “Sitting to read a book or listening to music is a real educational opportunity.”  

Carlson and Benzel believe young people today could protest if they took the time to get organized.

“It’s my observation that there are more opportunities for action for young people,” Benzel said. “Trying to coordinate a rally today is really complicated because everyone is so busy with a variety of activities. Young people don’t take time to prioritize their values, activities and beliefs.”great social and political reform.


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