The 1960s was one of the most tumultuous decades in American history. The decade also gave birth to a youth movement that challenged the American political system and conventional middle-class values.

The Rise of the Youth Movement

How were the protest techniques used by student protesters similar to and different from those of the civil rights movement?

The roots of the 1960s youth movement stretched back to the 1950s. In the decade after World War II, the country had enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. Prosperity did not extend to all, however. Some, especially the artists and writers of the beat movement, openly criticized American society. They believed American society had come to value conformity over independence and financial gain over spiritual and social advancement. At the same time, the civil rights movement raised serious questions about racism in American society. The nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union made many of the nation’s youth fear for the future. For many young people, the events of the 1950s had called into question the wisdom of their parents and their political leaders.

The youth movement originated with the baby boomers, the huge generation born after World War II. By 1970, 58.2 percent of the American population was under 35 years old. The economic boom of the 1950s meant more families could afford to send their children to college. College life gave young people a sense of freedom and independence. It was on college campuses across the nation that youth protest movements began and reached their peak.

Pick a partner. Read the lesson on "Students and Counterculture" together. Take turns reading aloud bold-faced words or other words in the lesson that you do not know. When your partner reads a word, tell them what it means. When you read a word, have them tell you what it means. If you need help, ask your teacher.

Students for a Democratic Society

Young people were concerned about the injustices they saw in the nation’s political and social system. In their view, a small, wealthy elite controlled politics, and wealth was unfairly divided. These young people formed what came to be known as the New Left.

A prominent organization within the New Left was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It defined its views in a 1962 declaration known as the Port Huron Statement. Written largely by Tom Hayden, editor of the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, the declaration called for an end to apathy and urged citizens to stop accepting a country run by big corporations and big government.

". . . [H]uman degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry . . . the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ . . . might die at any time. . . .

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living."

—from the Port Huron Statement, 1962

SDS chapters focused on protesting the Vietnam War and other issues, including poverty, campus regulations, nuclear power, and racism.

The Free Speech Movement

Another movement that captured the nation’s attention in the 1960s was the free speech movement, led by Mario Savio and others at the University of California at Berkeley. The movement began in the fall of 1964, when the university decided to restrict students’ rights to distribute literature and to recruit volunteers for political causes on campus.

Like many college students, those at Berkeley were dissatisfied with practices at their university. Huge classes were divided into sections and taught by graduate students. Many professors claimed they were too busy with research to meet with students. Faceless administrators made rules that were not always easy to obey and imposed punishments for violations. Feeling isolated in this impersonal environment, many Berkeley students rallied to support the free speech movement.

The struggle between Berkeley’s students and administrators peaked on December 2, 1964, with a sit-in and powerful speech by Savio. Early the next morning, 600 police officers entered the campus and arrested more than 700 protesters. The arrests set off an even larger protest movement. Within days, a campus-wide strike had stopped classes. Many members of the faculty voiced their support for the free speech movement. In the face of this growing opposition, the administration gave in to the students’ demands.

Soon afterward, the Supreme Court upheld students’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly on campuses. In a unanimous vote, the Court upheld the section of the Civil Rights Act assuring these rights in places offering public accommodations, which, by definition, included college campuses. The Berkeley revolt became a model for other student protests in the 1960s. The tactics used by the Berkeley protesters were soon being used in college demonstrations across the country.

The Counterculture


How did the counterculture movement affect the nation?

While many young Americans in the 1960s sought to reform the system, others rejected it entirely. They tried to create a new lifestyle based on flamboyant dress, rock music, drug use, and communal living. They created what became known as the counterculture, and the people were commonly called “hippies.

Hippie Culture

Originally, hippies rejected rationality, order, and traditional middle-class values. They wanted to build a utopia—a society that was freer, closer to nature, and full of love, tolerance, and cooperation. Many hippies wanted to drop out of society by leaving home. They wanted to live together in communes—group living arrangements in which members shared everything and worked together. Much of this was a reaction to the 1950s stereotype of the white-collar “man in the gray flannel suit” who led a constricted and colorless life. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan expressed the counterculture beliefs through his lyrics:

"Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/and don’t criticize what you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/for the times they are a-changin’"

—from “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” 1964


The Times They Are a-Changin’, by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1963; renewed 1996 Special Rider Music.

The Impact of the Counterculture

After a few years, the counterculture movement began to decline. The fashion and music of the counterculture, however, continued to affect American culture. More individualized dressing, including strands of beads, ragged blue jeans, and long hair for men, became generally accepted. Counterculture musicians made use of folk music and the rhythms of rock ’n’ roll. They wrote heartfelt lyrics that expressed the hopes and fears of their generation. Folk singers included Bob Dylan, who became an important voice of the movement, as did singers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Rock musicians included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who. The music and innovations of these artists continue to influence musicians today.

Reviewing Vocabulary



Using Your Notes


Answering the Guiding Questions



Writing Activity