It was a watershed decade in America’s history, a period in which the country was torn apart by the struggle for social justice, the fight for civil rights, and a war in which more than half a million Americans were fighting on the other side of the world. As a restive younger generation was finding its voice, the world witnessed a revolution in long-held values and social norms, from culture and fashion to politics and identity.
Half a century later, as many of the hard-won victories of the 1960s are being debated, Carnegie Hall turns for the first time to a figure outside the music world—Pulitzer Prize–winning author and historian Robert A. Caro, famed biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson—for inspiration, presenting a citywide festival that examines this pivotal decade. In a recent conversation at Carnegie Hall, Caro shared his personal thoughts about the ’60s. In the following excerpts, he discusses what makes it a relevant and important topic of exploration for audiences today.
What makes now the optimal time to focus on the ’60s?
Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The 1960s was a decade when, in some ways, that arc bent really fast—Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, voting rights, Head Start, the Peace Corps. But there was also Vietnam. For a nation to move forward, it must remember and understand its history. So much of what we’re dealing with in this country today began in the 1960s, and unless we understand that time, we’re not going to really know where we are today and where we should be going.
Though civil rights has been an ongoing conversation in this country for centuries, it arguably came to the forefront of the wider consciousness in the ’60s.
The movement escalated to new levels during that decade. Of particular note was the Freedom Summer of 1964—the summer when thousands of students went down to register black voters in Mississippi. Three of these civil rights workers suddenly disappeared. Gradually, the realization came over the country that they had probably been murdered, and then finally—44 days later—their bodies were found. The three had been arrested and then turned over to a lynch mob. They savagely beat the one black student and ultimately shot all three and buried their bodies at the base of a dam in Mississippi.
But as we know, that didn’t stop the overall movement.
For the rest of that summer, the students were not deterred. They would come from colleges in the North, and they would be trained. “You’re going to get kicked in the kidneys. Here’s how you protect your kidneys.” But they didn’t stop coming. Before they got on the buses, they would link their hands and sing the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.” And they added the verse, “We are not afraid.” The next year—1965—in the midst of the marches from Selma to Montgomery to promote voting rights for African Americans, President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered a speech to Congress that was also televised for a national audience. “It is not just Negroes,” he said, “but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” During all his years of fighting for civil rights, often against unimaginable adversity, Martin Luther King Jr.’s aides had never seen him cry. But when LBJ—the President of the United States—echoed the chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” they turned to look at Dr. King, and he was crying.
You mentioned that LBJ’s speech was televised. There was also a greater news presence in general, correct?
There’s an interesting cultural change that helped to make the 1960s so pivotal in American history. A little more than two months before President Kennedy was killed, the nightly television news went from being 15 minutes in duration to 30. And consequently, the news suddenly became a much bigger part of America’s consciousness. Night after night on the TV news, you would see beatings of demonstrators. You would see policemen prompting their dogs to lunge at protesters and bite them. And you would see the disappearance of all these people into jails, singing as they went inside, “We Shall Overcome.” The people watching at home could see clouds of tear gas. And through that, they could see deputy sheriffs and state troopers on horseback carrying bullwhips. And as they uncoiled those whips and spurred the horses forward into the crowd of people, the marchers would still be singing “We Shall Overcome.” When I think of the ’60s, there is no major event at which people, at the end, did not link their hands and sing this poignant song.
Visuals on TV also presumably aided in promoting the widespread anti-war sentiments.
Vietnam was the first time a national audience saw what war truly was. It was there, in their living rooms, in all of its horror. America saw, night after night, the body bags coming home. During the 1960s, we were seeing this every night—wounded men being carried out of battle, blinded men with their horrible bandages around their heads and the blood seeping out through the bandages.
And again, like “We Shall Overcome,” music was used as a social and political tool.
So much of this relates to music. It relates to protest songs. When Pete Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” you were seeing American troops on television, wading through the rivers and the marshes and the swamps of Vietnam, holding their rifles up in the air so they wouldn’t get wet, being ambushed from the farthest shore, bodies floating away. And all of a sudden, this song is written: “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.” In my view, there’s no way of exaggerating the impact, the effect, and the intertwining of music with the great movements and the great tragedies of the 1960s.
In light of our current cultural and political climate, what can we learn from the ’60s?
This festival, I think, will remind people how far we’ve come. The ’60s was a time when people saw that government could be a great force for social justice. So it was a time—at least at first—of hope, of promise. And therefore I hope that this festival will remind us that no matter where we are today, there is still hope—there is always hope. It will remind us to keep pushing forward, to make advances, even when it seems like the country is too divided. There is always hope to bend the moral arc of the universe. I think the ’60s teaches us that.