The Decade That Changed America Forever

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By James A. Morone

America in the 1960s
By Kevin Boyle

Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford walked alone through the crowd of jeering whites. She hadn’t heard about the escorts assigned to the nine Black youngsters integrating Little Rock’s Central High School because her family had no telephone. So Elizabeth took the city bus, filed past the screeching adults, went up to the guardsmen who blocked her way with raised bayonets, turned around, returned to the bus stop, sat down and tried not to cry as the mob around her kept screaming. It was 1957 and Americans were about to plunge into the 1960s. A seemingly unified nation would confront its original sin, endure all kinds of vertiginous changes and never quite recover.

Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Northwestern University, tells this story and many others in “The Shattering,” his luminous guide to a tumultuous decade — “a season of hope,” he writes, “and a season of blood.” Boyle grounds his narrative with individuals caught in the whirlwind: Eckford holds her head high and ignores the obscenities. Cpl. James Farley weeps over a dead comrade in an empty supply shed in Da Nang. Sarah Weddington finally gets her first client (women rarely had the opportunity to practice law) and eventually wins her case by persuading the Supreme Court that the Constitution protects abortion rights. And, going back to one of the book’s cover photos, three dozen smiling neighbors pose on July 4, 1961, to celebrate the 38 flags they’ve hoisted over their bungalows on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s a snapshot from the time before: a simple era of patriotism and consensus. But not for everyone.

Not for African Americans pushing against white supremacy. In the South, they demanded simple things — the right to vote, play in the park, get care at the nearest hospital, attend a school whose roof didn’t leak. Boyle emphasizes both the implacable violence they met with and the media images that shocked so many. Birmingham’s snarling police dogs, leaping at young Black students, flashed onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. In the early days of television, NBC interrupted its programming with video of helmeted troopers, some on horseback, slamming their clubs into peaceful protesters in Selma. Those pictures changed the United States.

For starters, as Boyle explains, they transformed both political parties. Democrats had traditionally defended enslavement and then segregation, but in the 1930s and ’40s Northern Black voters clambered into the party — Republicans were taking their votes for granted while Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered help during the Great Depression. Democratic leaders frantically tried to hold together an improbable coalition of Southern segregationists and Northern civil rights activists — till the images streaming out of the South forced a moral reckoning. After Selma, President Lyndon Johnson bet everything on civil rights: “Should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” This was, he insisted in a national address, nothing less than a test of America’s soul.

Across the aisle, Republicans — long the party supportive of Black rights — grabbed the Southern votes that the Democrats were leaving behind. Barry Goldwater modeled the new approach during the 1964 presidential election: Stick to high-minded government bashing and avert your eyes while allies inflame white racial resentments. President Nixon, elected in 1968, honed the tactic to a fine art. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the white vote since.

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    Beyond the parties, Boyle traces the racial reckoning as it coursed through the nation. Young African Americans in the North bristled at the Southern violence. Up north, they did not face legal segregation, but they were jammed into congested neighborhoods, pushed into marginal jobs and always at risk of violence. White police officers or angry mobs attacked and even killed them for venturing into the wrong part of town. Violence begot violence, south and north, until Martin Luther King Jr.’s horrific murder.

    I was in high school at the time. We were numbed by the killing, uncertain what to say or think. Who cared about math class now? Then, just before summer vacation, Robert Kennedy was also murdered. We didn’t remember Johnson’s speech, but we knew that America had “failed as a people and as a nation.”

    Boyle twines this story of racial revolution with two others. First, the rise of a sprawling military. He portrays four presidents — Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — flailing to get control of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex. College campuses increasingly raged against the government as it blundered into an Asian war that seemed unwinnable.

    Second, a sexual revolution had taken hold in the country. Magazines like Playboy were bringing sexuality out of the shadows. And then Estelle Griswold challenged Connecticut’s ban on birth control devices. In 1965, the Supreme Court, balancing the rights of married couples against Victorian-era moral codes, found a right to privacy in the penumbra (or shadows) of the Bill of Rights. There was not much fuss — until those constitutional shadows began to lengthen.

    Boyle elegantly narrates the ’60s through his three lenses — race, militarism and sexuality — and “The Shattering” wears its scholarship lightly. Still, there are some things he might have done differently. His early chapters sketch the background decades but try to cover too much ground and end up disjointed. He also might have made less of the War on Poverty’s original intention — it was a grandiloquent name for a smattering of insignificant programs languishing in Congress. More important were the activists who seized the war’s theme of “maximum feasible participation” and rocked urban America, changing the way the cities were governed. And he could have taken readers to the floor of Congress, where segregationists dropped the word “sex” into the Civil Rights Act, making ribald jokes and trading guffaws with nervous (male) liberals who feared it might sink the entire package. “The laughter that greeted this proposal,” Representative Martha Griffiths commented, showed that “women were second-class citizens.” But these are all small challenges on the margins of Boyle’s bright narrative.

    “The Shattering” traces each of its themes to a different finale. Racial reform seemed to drift to a dead end when Nixon’s Supreme Court appointees limited school busing. Northern whites were fine with racial equality until it impinged on their own privileges. Dreams of racial justice would have to await future generations.

    The peace movement petered out, too. Nixon succeeded in diffusing antiwar politics while troubling questions about the military-industrial complex slipped entirely from sight. No future president would warn the country, as Eisenhower had done, about the Pentagon’s voracious grip on both Washington and Wall Street. In contrast, the era’s sexual politics ended with Roe v. Wade. A terrific hullabaloo — over abortion, gay rights, morality and the nature of sexuality — was about to burst onto the American scene.

    “The Shattering” begins with middle-class Americans proudly waving their flags. You could say it ends the same way, with Richard Nixon rousing his “silent majority” against the protesters. But along the way something vital did indeed shatter. White Americans were forced to confront the injustices perpetrated in their name, both at home and abroad. Those flags would continue to fly over Chicago for a few more years, but they would never mean quite the same thing.

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