Vietnam. Women’s liberation. Civil rights. Assassinations. The moon walk. The air was electric with possibility. Change. And the development of television as a way to bring it all into our homes, up close and personal.
The new CNN series, The Sixties, speeds us back in time and then walks us through just how momentous a decade it was, socially, scientifically and politically. I’m a sucker for anything 60s, so this show was tailor-made for me.
Television was the subject of the first show, and rightly so, because it came of age in the 1960s. That was the last decade in which advertisers held tight control over content. Petula Clark, the singer, told a story about singing a duet with Johnny Mathis on her variety show and holding his arm as they sang. Advertisers pre-screened the show and objected vehemently to the interracial touch. Only a touch! She held her ground, and it was one more sign that times were changing. Performers like her and others—Diahann Carroll in Julia, Bill Cosby as one of the leads in I Spy and of course, the first televised interracial kiss between Lt. Uhuru and Capt. Kirk on Star Trek—these performers and TV writers pushed the envelope of the times.
The Smothers Brothers’ social and political commentary was blatant—the network thought they were getting clean-cut, blazer-wearing folk-satirists but they got more than they bargained for, including a ditty satirizing themselves. Here’s an interview with them about why their show was cancelled:
On today’s broadcast networks we have talking heads—no, make that screaming heads—blatantly delivering messages of hate and intolerance as well as ugly insults. Where are those network censors now? Oh, how times have changed.
I don’t remember seeing dogs being set upon civil rights protestors at the time, but I’ve seen footage of it many times since and it always shocks me. Law enforcement sprayed the crowd with hoses and imagine! They actually did set DOGS on protestors. It was a revolting scenario. You’d think it would’ve shocked more people out of their prejudice. But not as many as should have been.
When I see this four-minute clip of footage from Alabama it never fails to bring tears to my eyes:
Television brought into our homes the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Who could forget the chant, “The whole world is watching!” Of course, what that got us was Richard Nixon. But still, it was another glaring example of the ugliness of the status quo.
Here’s a short clip of the violence in Chicago.
As a respite from the vile things going on in the world, shows like The Flying Nun, Beverly Hillbillies, Laugh In and all the various Westerns took us to a more innocent and silly place. Shows like Hogan’s Heroes would never get green-lighted today, and given our modern values, the theme of American POWs in a Nazi camp seems bizarre, doesn’t it?
But programs like the Twilight Zone and Star Trek managed to both entertain and give contemporary social messages reflecting the times.
Television of the 1960s reflected the shift in attitudes that was going on and, in my opinion, accelerated that shift by showing it to us in our own living rooms.
Talking about the show afterwards, M said that he wouldn’t want to go back, that he liked where we were now. But my opinion is different.
The 1960s may have been the last generation in which there was something left to explore in college and after. Today’s young people seem to be far more materialistic than we were. I see apathy and so much entitlement among them. Kids are jaded before they leave high school.
If given the chance, I’d go back to my life in the 1960s and do my own life all over again, just as it was. The whole thing. I say this with full understanding that had I been a student trying to integrate a college or a civil rights protestor being hosed or threatened, I’d feel differently. But in this fantasy, I can only come from my life experience.
I loved the electricity that was in the air and being part of a changing society. I loved coming of age in that environment and I can see how what I saw and experienced helped me formulate my own views, which were vastly different from those of my parents.
I wonder how the young people of today will remember this decade and what will stand out for them. I can’t even imagine.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.