Film and Media

Making Sense of the Sixties

Terry H. Anderson, December 1990

During the turbulent protest at Columbia University in 1968, Richard Hofstadter allegedly remarked that if he wrote a history of the recent past he would call the chapter on the sixties "The Age of Rubbish." Two decades later, his mentor at that institution, Merle Curti, thought back over his ninety years and remembered the sixties as "more full of excitement and change than in any other part of my life, including the 1930s." When considering the achievements of the sixties, Curti continued, these years would be "among the most significant in our post-Civil War history."

Starting the week of January 21, 1991, historians and the public will be able to relive and judge the decade for themselves. For the last three years Varied Directions, Inc. of Camden, Maine, and WETA of Washington, D.C., have been working together to produce a six-part series, Making Sense of the Sixties. As an advisor to the project, I have previewed preliminary versions of the show and it appears that the final project might be as interesting and even provocative as the decade itself.

The aim of the series is its title—to make sense of the sixties, and that in itself is a challenge. To do that, Varied Directions collected an impressive archive of over 1200 films, TV shows, home movies, and musical recordings. The company's president, David Hoffman, and others on his production team, conducted over 160 interviews with witnesses of, or participants in, significant events, and with experts who have written on some aspect of the decade. This prodigious research has paid off generously. The producers have used a wealth of rarely viewed historical footage, and they have incorporated their own interviews to provide historical perspective. The result is not rehashed sixties, but a fresh look, the first documentary series to try to analyze that momentous decade.

Five shows divide the era chronologically from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The first one, "Seeds of the Sixties," examines the postwar period, especially the 1950s. It adopts the traditional interpretation that the era was bent on consensus and conformity, the result of the anti-communist crusade at home and abroad, and it investigates two different groups that would have an impact on the 1960s—white northern kids usually growing up in the suburbs and southern blacks. The program contains interesting footage of babyboomers in schools learning nationalism and patriotism, and at home learning respect for authority. By the late 1950s, of course, a few blacks and some white teenagers became restless, and the show listens to participants describe the aspects of the 1950s that lead them to become activists in the next decade. Eventually, the program demonstrates that babyboomers grew up in circumstances considerably different than their parents, and that postwar society planted the seeds of rebellion.

The second show investigates the early 1960s and the idea that, as President Kennedy said, "The torch has been passed." A new generation was beginning to dominate the American scene, and the program examines the sixties generation and makes sense of their involvement in the civil rights struggle, rise of the new left, and early campus demonstrations. Furthermore, the show attempts to define this young mass of kids going to college in the first years of the 1960s, their hope and idealism demonstrated during the struggle, their disillusionment with the assassination of John Kennedy, and how their commitment during Freedom Summer 1964 was translated into activism in subsequent years at numerous university campuses. The program is entitled "We Can Change the World."

The producers in the third show shift to the most controversial topic, the counterculture. Just the idea of making sense of that phenomenon is difficult, for as Abbie Hoffman supposedly said, "If you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there." Also, a generation later in "just say no" America, presenting the reasons for "getting stoned" is fraught with peril. Fortunately, "Breaking Boundaries, Testing Limits," attempts to explain the reasons for the revolt against mainstream culture, its forms and symbols, its growth and excesses, without heavy editorializing. Like the counterculture, some scenes are joy and love, some are desperate and painful. The authors have tried not to alienate former "freaks" or "straights," and while that might not be possible, at least the show seems authentic as it roams all over the decade. While more could have been said about the lasting impact of the counterculture, Varied Directions has produced an improvement on any other documentary on this emotional topic.

In the next show, "In A Dark Time," the producers return to the "reality" of the 1965 to 1968 era of city riots, black power, campus confrontations, and the Vietnam War. The show's theme is the decline of idealism, rise of frustration, and the subsequent "fire in the streets" violence that symbolizes this decade for most Americans. The show ends in 1968 with the nation beleaguered and divided: you're either left or right, part of the solution or part of the problem. Ultimately, this program makes sense of the election of "law and order" candidate, Richard M. Nixon.

The Nixon Administration is the time frame for the fifth and final chronological program. The show explores pro- and antiwar activity after the Cambodian invasion and Kent State, and the rise of the silent majority—"Love It or Leave It." The program shifts to new forms of social activism in the early 1970s such as ecology, brown and red power, and the rise of many grassroots organizations that demonstrated empowerment—everyone had a cause. Some scenes from women's liberation encounter groups are engrossing, and the cut from the movie Diary of a Mad Housewife should justify feminism to any critic. The producers have not shied away from police brutality or from the government's illegal attacks on the Black Panthers, which leads the program to Watergate and the uneasy and despondent mid-1970s. By the end of the show the title becomes the theme, "Coming to a Peace...with Ourselves."

In the final show the producers attempt to analyze the era by recounting the themes and relying on flashbacks and on interviews with participants and experts. They try to place the decade in perspective, and to answer: What is the legacy of the sixties?

Funded by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Varied Directions has produced a series that paints a broad canvas of a colorful era. The series should be appropriate for the classroom, and it will be especially interesting to students today who were born after that tumultuous decade. Like Vietnam: A Television History and Eyes on the Prize, this is an important production, and the writers and producers deserve credit for Making Sense of the Sixties.

—Terry Anderson is a professor in the history department at Texas A&M University and is currently writing a book entitled The Movement and The Sixties.