On February 1, 1960, four neatly dressed freshman students from a Negro college took seats at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, politely asked for coffee, and refused to leave until the store closed. Ten years and a thousand marches later, Fred Hampton lay dead in Chicago, the latest casualty in the police war against the Black Panthers. In early 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society adopted the Port Huron Statement, which argued that both “the liberal and socialist preachings of the past” were inadequate to the present, and pledged the formation of a “New Left” based in the universities and committed to the methods of “participatory democracy.” On March 6, 1970, a few young members of that New Left, now divided and dispirited, accidentally obliterated themselves with their homemade bombs. The decade of the metaphorical “youth explosion” ended with a literal bang. One era had ended and another begun.
During the Sixties, the young achieved a distinctive status for themselves, a status almost as sharply defined as that of other accursed or blessed groups, such as blacks, Jews, Junkers, and right-wing deviationists. The young demanded and received recognition of their distinctiveness as a group bearing its own values, possessing a unique culture, and dedicated to its own ends. Youth made a deep impact on politics, education, fashion, art, and the consumer economy. The entire nation was aware of the new presence: a Gallup Poll of March, 1969, reported that campus disorders had replaced the Vietnam was as the primary concern of Americans.
Nowhere was the youth presence more visible than on the political scene, where it brought into being a phenomenon requiring a special name. Throughout most of our history, Americans, whether young or old, have not shown a great passion for politics. But the youth of the Sixties showed more political passion than any earlier generation, giving promise of a revitalization of American politics, perhaps even the birth of the American as a political man. The generation experimented with a rich variety of truly political actions and showed a genuine concern for public things, thereby reversing the long trend toward privatization. The young argued, sang, marched, organized, sat in, milled around, walked out, and disrupted. And always the system responded too little, too late, or not at all. Starting with the last half of the Sixties, the politics of the young grew more desperate and factional; and, since the Democratic Convention of 1968, more frantic, more clandestine, and more violent. Apparently fearing that political energy could not move the system, more and more of the young began to seek political substitutes in the illusions of potency provided by Woodstock, dynamite, or drugs.
It is now evident that the youthful politics of the Sixties is over. The mutilated bodies in the rubble of that Greenwich Village house speak loudly of desperation and exhaustion—of too many hopes and dreams wrecked, too much enthusiasm thwarted. The swift, savage years of the Sixties may come to …