On April 5, 1967, representatives of the San Francisco Oracle, the Diggers, the Family Dog, the Straight Theater, and other parts of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene held a press conference to announce the formation of the Council for a Summer of Love. The event scored friendly media notices: The next day’s San Francisco Chronicle described the coalition as “a group of the good hippies,” defined as the ones who “wear quaint and enchanting costumes, hold peaceful rock ’n’ roll concerts, and draw pretty pictures (legally) on the sidewalk, their eyes aglow all the time with the poetry of love.”
Three days earlier and 1,500 miles away, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a very different counterculture was holding its own coming-out party. About 18,000 people—far more than the 4,000 anticipated—gathered for the formal dedication ceremonies at Oral Roberts University. Oklahoma’s governor, a U.S. senator, two members of Congress, and Tulsa’s mayor were on hand. Delivering the dedication address, “Why I Believe in Christian Education,” was Billy Graham, the dean of American evangelists.
The events in San Francisco and Tulsa that spring revealed an America in the throes of cultural and spiritual upheaval. The postwar liberal consensus had shattered. Vying to take its place were two sides of an enormous false dichotomy, both animated by outbursts of spiritual energy. Those two eruptions of millenarian enthusiasm, the hippies and the evangelical revival, would inspire a left/right division that persists to this day.
That split pits one set of half-truths against another. On the left gathered those who were most alive to the new possibilities created by the unprecedented mass affluence of the postwar years but at the same time were hostile to the social institutions—namely, the market and the middle-class work ethic—that created those possibilities. On the right rallied those who staunchly supported the institutions that created prosperity but who shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing. One side denounced capitalism but gobbled its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them. Both causes were quixotic, and consequently neither fully realized its ambitions. But out of their messy dialectic, the logic of abundance would eventually fashion, if not a reworked consensus, then at least a new modus vivendi.
The Summer of Love
By 1967 the San Francisco Bay Area hippie phenomenon had been incubating for several years. The Beat presence had been strong there from the days of Allen Ginsberg’s debut reading of his famous poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in 1955. And since October 1, 1964, when Jack Weinberg was arrested in Sproul Plaza on trespassing charges—he was soliciting contributions for the Congress of Racial Equality without permission—student unrest had roiled the University of California’s Berkeley campus. Romantic rebelliousness was in the air, but now it took a new twist, following the mental corkscrew turns triggered by LSD.
This cultural revolution was a largely underground affair until January 14, 1967, when “A Gathering of the Tribes for the First Human Be-In” grabbed national attention. The event was conceived as a show of unity between hippies and Berkeley radicals, just a few weeks after a glimpse of that union had been seen on the Berkeley campus. At an anti-war mass meeting, a sing-along of “Solidarity Forever” had faltered because too few knew the words. Then someone broke in with the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” and the whole room joined in.
Held on a brilliant blue-sky Saturday at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park, the Be-In was kicked off by Ginsberg and fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder. As 20,000 people gradually filled the park, the Diggers, a radical community action group, distributed turkey sandwiches and White Lightning LSD (both donated by the acid magnate Augustus Owsley). All the big San Francisco bands played, while the Hells Angels guarded the P.A. system’s generator. Yippie leader Jerry Rubin gave a speech, and drug gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert both made the scene. Leary eventually made his way to the microphone and tried out his new mantra: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
The Be-In served as a coming-out party for the Love Generation, a term coined by San Francisco Police Chief Thomas Cahill. The organizers of the Summer of Love were reacting to the Be-In’s fallout, and in the process they transformed the publicity boomlet into a full-fledged sensation. By the end of the summer, some 50,000 to 75,000 kids had made the trek to San Francisco (with or without flowers in their hair). In the process, the Haight’s anarchic innocence was destroyed, as the district was overrun by gawking tourists, crass opportunists, and criminal predators. Its special magic never returned; instead, it dispersed throughout the country, and a thousand sparks began to blaze.
Civil Rights and Psychedelics
The ’60s counterculture had its roots in the ’50s —specifically, in Beat bohemianism and the larger youth culture of adolescent rebellion. But the Beats never imagined they were the vanguard of a mass movement. “In the wildest hipster, making a mystique of bop, drugs, and the night life, there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it,” wrote the Beat author John Clellon Holmes.
What begat the transformation from apolitical fringe to passionately engaged mass movement? First, a mass movement requires mass—in this case, a critical mass of critically minded young people. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 jumped from 16.2 million to 24.4 million. Meanwhile, as capitalism’s ongoing development rendered economic life ever more technologically and organizationally complex, the demand for educated managers and professionals grew. Consequently, among the swelling ranks of college-age young people, the portion who attended college ballooned from 22.3 percent to 35.2 percent during the ’60s.
With their wider exposure to history, literature, philosophy, and science, recipients of higher education were more likely to see beyond the confines of their upbringing—to question the values they were raised to accept, to appreciate the virtues of other cultures, to seek out the new and exotic. By triumphing over scarcity, capitalism launched the large-scale pursuit of self-realization. Now, by demanding that more and more people be trained to think for themselves, capitalism ensured that the pursuit would lead in unconventional directions—and that any obstacles on those uncharted paths would face clever and resourceful adversaries. In the culture as in the marketplace, the “creative destruction” of competitive commerce bred subversives to challenge the established order.
So the tinder was there. But what sparks would set it ablaze? The primary catalysts were an odd couple: the civil rights struggle and the psychedelic drug scene. Both inducted their participants into what can fairly be called religious experience.
By the middle of the 20th century, belief in racial equality was de rigueur for liberals in good standing. Yet notwithstanding liberalism’s towering intellectual and political dominance, progress toward full civil rights for blacks was exasperatingly modest. Despite their frustration, most liberals saw no alternative but steady, gradual gains. But patient advocacy by white liberals wasn’t what gave the cause of civil rights its irresistible momentum. What made the movement move was the decision by African Americans, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, to push past liberal nostrums and take matters into their own hands. Moral suasion was not enough; confrontation, nonviolent but deliberately provocative, was needed. And to steel themselves for the struggle, African Americans called on sources of strength more profound than Gunnar Myrdal–style social science empiricism.
Black churches were therefore indispensable to the movement’s success, not just because they provided organization and fostered solidarity but because the simple, powerful faith they propounded gave ordinary people the heart to do extraordinary things. Even those who lacked the consolation of literalist faith still found some lifeline beyond reason to cling to.
The resulting defiance was sublime in its absolute audacity. Protesters took the truly radical step of acting as if segregation did not exist—ordering lunch, getting on the bus, signing up to vote as if Jim Crow were already gone. With a movement grounded in such extreme commitment, religiosity was always in the air. Marches, stately and solemn, were redolent of religious ritual; beatings, jailings, water-cannon dousings, tear-gassings, and killings sanctified the movement by providing it with martyrs.