Sixties Thesis Statement

Historians tend to portray the 1950s as a decade of prosperity, conformity, and consensus, and the 1960s as a decade of turbulence, protest, and disillusionment. These stereotypes are largely true, though, as with everything in life, there are exceptions to this perspective. Therefore, the historians’ portrayal of the 1950s and 1960s is accurate for the majority of Americans, though some groups were clearly exceptions.

The 1950s were characterized as a prosperous and conformist decade for many reasons. The first and most widespread of these reasons was the development of the suburbs. As masses of Southern blacks migrated northward to the big cities, more rich and middle-class families left to live in the suburbs to escape the crime, redlining, and blockbusting of the cities. This mass migration later became known as the “white flight” (Document A). The white families that moved into the suburbs were the perfect picture of conformity—living in row upon row of identical “Levittown” houses, with little individuality or distinction. Furthermore, American families of the time often took the form of the “nuclear family” with two parents, two children, and often a pet like a dog or cat. This new “middle class” earned between $3,000 and $10,000 a year and included 60 percent of the American people by the mid-1950s. Fortune magazine described Americans as “a great mass…buy[ing] the same things—the same staples, the same appliances, the same cars, the same furniture, and much the same recreation” (Document C). The new “mass market” that developed in 1950s society was caused by two central reasons.

The first reason that this “mass market” developed was the spread of television. Television had helped to create a “popular culture” that millions of Americans tuned into regularly. By the end of 1950, ninety percent of Americans owned a television, and nearly all owned a radio. Television and radio acted as tools for marketers to dictate the values of American society in order help sell their products. By the mid-1950s marketers spent $10 billion annually to advertise their goods or services on television. Television caused Americans to adopt an image of the “ideal” Americans; in doing so many Americans began to succumb to societal demands. Notably, suburban shopping malls began to replace downtown shops during the 1950s. Middle class white Americans became more sheltered in their sheltered suburban neighborhoods and did not see the poor blacks living in the cities. Isolated from others, many middle class Americans found no reason to dissent and sought to merely enjoy the prosperity of the decade with mind-numbing conformity.

The second cause of the development of the new “mass market” in 1950s society was the escalation of the Cold War. The Cold War had isolated and demonized Soviets in American society. The political witch-hunt which took place under the lead of Senator McCarthy jailed hundreds of suspected Communist “enemies” for merely exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Americans became afraid of doing anything that might make them the targets of Federal investigation by organizations like the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Newspaper editors and book authors grew afraid of publishing articles critical of the government in fear that they may might be accused of being Communist sympathizers and put in jail. A famous political cartoon from the 1950s shows Senator McCarthy extinguishing the Torch of Liberty (Document B). The fear of foreign ideas and values created by the McCarthyism scare caused a resurgence in American Conservatism during the 1950s. The government encouraged conformity and political consensus followed.

However, not all enjoyed the political and social prosperity of the 1950s. Two thirds of Black American citizens still lived in the South where they continued to suffer the harsh realities of life in a segregated society. Harsh Jim Crow laws continued to govern all aspects of their existence and keep them economically inferior and politically powerless. However, conditions were improved with the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 which ruled that segregation in the public schools as “inherently unequal” and thus unconstitutional. This decision was largely accepted throughout the North and even in the Border States, but states in the Deep South organized “massive resistance” to the decision. Southern Senators and Congressmen signed the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” which pledged unyielding resistance to desegregation. Conflict arose when the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, mobilized the National Guard to prevent nine Black girls from enrolling in a Little Rock High School. Faced with a direct challenge to Federal authority, President Eisenhower was forced to send troops to escort the children to their classes (Document E). It is clear that while the social and political conditions may have been ideal for the majority of middle-class Americans, conflicts and tensions were ever-present for the underprivileged American.

The ‘60s were different from the ‘50s in many important ways. The worsening conditions in the cities, feminism, and the Vietnam War caused the social and political atmosphere to become turbulent and violent. Protests and war riots become commonplace; influential leaders like Malcolm X encouraged bloody protest; and women become increasingly discontent with their futile existences as homemakers. The political and social grievances, it seemed, had caused Americans to adopt a “counter culture” that encouraged a negative view of authority during the 1960s.

The ‘60s saw even worse conditions in the cities than the previous decade. As whites continued to leave the cities and move to suburbs the poor city conditions only worsened. With less revenue in taxes, cities fell into disrepair, crime and drug use increased, and cities become “black, brown, and broke.” Blacks began to realize that the pacifist philosophy encouraged by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading nowhere; conditions remained the same. Radical new leaders like Malcolm X encouraged “Black Power”, also known as Black Supremacy. X believed that “revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way…you don’t do any swinging, you’re too busy swinging” (Document F). This violent, confrontational approach to dealing with social problems encouraged political upheaval and unrest. Law enforcement did not ease the situation either as demonstrated by the riot in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 where attack dogs and fire hoses were turned against protestors, many of whom were in their early teens or younger. Even pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed during the ensuing protests. While in jail, he changed philosophies and joined X in advocating civil disobedience against the law. Hundreds of demonstrations took place across the country during the 1960s from the East coast to the West; the country was truly coursing with the need to protest and be heard. The biggest and most important protest during the 1960s was the March on Washington where more than a quarter million people participated. Protesters demanded passage of better civil rights legislation, the elimination of racial segregation in public schools, and protection for demonstrators against police brutality. However, there were still other political problems that troubled the country during the ‘60s.

The Vietnam War was a large point of contention in the minds of Americans during the 1960s. Unsure of the war’s purpose and disillusioned at the enormous human cost, Americans everywhere decried their opposition to the war. President Lyndon Johnson desperately tried to convince the nation that the Vietnam War would “restore world order” and “defend its [Vietnam’s] independence” (Document H). However, many Americans believed that the U.S. should leave Vietnam. The controversy over the war continued to boil because American politicians continued to support the war despite widespread American resentment for the war. Eventually, Nixon would respond to Americans’ wishes through “Vietnamization” of the war. However, there were also social issues that troubled Americans during the stormy sixties.

The fight for women’s rights raged on throughout the ‘60s. Women began to feel dissatisfied with the simple lives they currently lived and they wanted change (Document G). Unable to obtain high-paying jobs and equal rights in the workplace, women were living as “second-class citizens” in a country where everybody is supposed to be equal under the law. The struggle for equal political rights was also accompanied by a radical social revolution. The “sexual revolution” was started when the birth control pill was introduced in the early 1960s. The pill made it easier to avoid pregnancies; thus, women could become more sexually “free.” Gays and lesbians also joined the “sexual revolution” by proudly parading in New York City in 1970. The unprecedented openness of the 1960s was yet another catalyst for controversy, turbulence, protest, and disillusionment in the 60s.

It is clear that the 50s and 60s differ from each other; the 1950s were more conservative than the 1960s; the 1960s were more turbulent and prone to protests than the 1950s. However, there were some clear exceptions to these rules in the 1950s. The important differences between the decades are what make each decade a special chapter in the grand American story.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "The ‘50s and ‘60s: Decades of Prosperity and Protest (DBQ)" Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <>.

new adult education master’s level course, fall 2015 @ northwestern university.


Robert Rauschenberg, Signs (1970).

Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies


“If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there,” goes a famous saying, yet as we move through the fiftieth anniversary of that decade, fewer and fewer people were actually there even if they did remember. What does it mean, then, for this tumultuous decade in the American past to move fully from memory to history? How do we understand the sixties now as more than just a caricature as it recedes into the past? In this course, we investigate primary documents such as political tracts, essays, novels, poetry, art, film, and music in order to take stock of subjects such as race, class, gender, sexuality, nationalism, transnationalism, popular culture, and politics in the sixties. We also read a wide range of historical studies that offer analysis and arguments about ways that the sixties continue to matter. Students will complete readings, viewings, and listening assignments; annotate and analyze materials on our course website. write short interpretative reviews of materials; participate in seminar discussions; and develop one longer multimedia essay on a particular aspect of the sixties as a final project for the course.  (This course may count towards the American Studies, History, or Interdisciplinary Studies specializations in the liberal studies graduate and advanced graduate study certificate programs.)

Course Info

IPLS 492-50

Thursdays, 7-9:30 pm

Wieboldt Hall 509

Chicago Campus

Course Website


Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies

Contact: <>

Office hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 2­–3 pm

Office: Harris Hall 212, Evanston Campus


All books are available at the Northwestern Bookstore or can be purchased online. Reserve copies are also available for one-day use at the Northwestern Library. Additional viewings and readings are available on our course website.

  • David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the Sixties (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994)
  • Alexander Bloom and Winifred Breines, eds.,“Takin’ It To The Streets”: A Sixties Reader (3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) **Be sure to purchase third edition**
  • Steven F. Lawson and Charles Payne, Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968 (2nd edition, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) **Be sure to purchase second edition**
  • Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)
  • Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
  • David Farber and Jeff Roche, eds., The Conservative Sixties (New York: Peter Lang, 2003)
  • Michael J. Kramer, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Additional readings, viewings on course website


WEEK 1           
Th 9/24What Were The Sixties?
  • Rick Perlstein, “Who Owns the Sixties? The Opening of a Scholarly Gap,” in Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca, ed. Alexander Star (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), 234-246
  • Alice Echols, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,”: Notes Twoard a Remapping of the Sixties,” in Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks (New York: Columbia University Press), 61-74.
  • Jeremy Varon, “Between Revolution 9 and Thesis 11: Or, Will we Learn (Again) to Start Worrying and Change the World?,” in The New Left Revisited, eds. John McMillian and Paul Buhle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 214-240.
Th 10/01Age of Great Dreams 1

·      Post short summaries.

·      David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the Sixties (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 1-137.

·      Alexander Bloom and Winifred Breines, “‘Past as Prologue’: The 1950s as an Introduction to the 1960s,” in “Takin’ It To The Streets”: A Sixties Reader, eds. Alexander Bloom and Winifred Breines (3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1-11.

·      Optional Viewing: Berkeley in the Sixties

Th 10/08Age of Great Dreams 2

·      Post short summaries.

·      David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams, 138-268.

·      Optional Viewing: Berkeley in the Sixties

Tu 10/13Essay 1: Forward Foreword!

·      David Farber has asked you to write a foreword to the new edition of The Age of Great Dreams. How would you introduce the book to a general reader? What do *you* think is most important to understand about the book and why? What do you take to be Farber’s overarching argument about the 1960s and why? What are its sub-arguments? What evidence does it use to construct its interpretation? What else do you think is important to write about the book for its new edition? Develop a well-reasoned, gracefully written 1000-word essay (see the comments below about writing for this course). Your essay should have an enticing introduction and a thesis statement with paragraphs that flow logically and begin with strong topic sentences. Be sure to support your claims with specific evidence. End with a snappy conclusion.

Th 10/15Civil Rights

·      Post short summaries.

·      Steven F. Lawson and Charles Payne, Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968 (2nd edition, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006)

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 12-47

·      Optional Viewing: Eyes on the Prize

Th 10/22New Left, Part 1

·      Post short summaries.

·      Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 1-155.

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 48-151

Th 10/29New Left, Part 2

·      Post short summaries.

·      Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity, 159-207, 247-345.

·      Alice Echols, “Nothing Distant About It: Women’s Liberation and Sixties Radicalism,” in The Sixties: From Memory to History, ed. David Farber (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 149-174.

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 392-463, 490-504

Th 11/05Vietnam and the Peace Movement

·      Post short summaries.

·      Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 1-85, 117-144, 206-297.

·      Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity, 208-246.

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 152-224, 329-391

·      Optional Viewing: Apocalypse Now Redux

Th 11/12Conservatives

·      Post short summaries.

·      David Farber and Jeff Roche, eds., The Conservative Sixties (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), pages TK.

·      Beth Bailey, “Sexual Revolution(s),” in The Sixties: From Memory to History, ed. David Farber (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 235-262.

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 286-328

Tu 11/17Essay 2: Comparing For Sharing

·      Write a comparative analytic essay that uses three of the secondary readings/viewings from our past weeks together to develop your own argument about a topic or theme in the course thus far. For instance, you might develop an essay about the relationship between radicalism and liberalism or the emergence of women’s liberation or the debates about top-down and grassroots activism in the 1960s (or another topic that interests you). Your task is to use evidence from our readings skillfully to develop your own original interpretation of the topic you choose. Develop a well-reasoned, gracefully written 1500-2000 word essay (see the comments below about writing for this course). Your essay should have an enticing introduction and a thesis statement with paragraphs that flow logically and begin with strong topic sentences. Be sure to support your claims with specific evidence. End with a snappy conclusion.

Th 11/19Counterculture 1

·      Post short summaries.

·      Michael J. Kramer, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), ix-129.

·      Tom Frank, Excerpt from Introduction, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997),

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 225-285

Week 10
Th 12/03Counterculture 2

·      Post short summaries.

·      Kramer, The Republic of Rock, 131-223.

·      Jeremi Suri, ” The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975,” American Historical Review 114 (February 2009): 45-68.

·      Browse Bloom/Breines, 464-532

Th 12/09Essay #3: Do Your Own Thing

Develop and write a multimedia essay on a topic of your choice relevant to our course. You may return to one or more of our readings for closer inspection or conduct your own additional reading or original research. Your goal is to wield your materials effectively, including any images, video, sound, or design elements to mount an evidence-based argument with a clear and compelling point toyou’re your multimedia essay should be a well-reasoned, gracefully written 1500-2000 word essay (the word count can vary depending on how you choose to use multimedia components, for instance you might even record or film parts of your essay if you think that form of communication suits your delivery of an evidence-based argument best). In written or multimedia format, or some “combination of the two” (who knows which sixties band had a song by that name?), your essay should have an enticing introduction and a thesis statement with paragraphs that flow logically and begin with strong topic sentences. Multimedia elements should flow into and out of text in strategic ways (if your essay relies on an interplay between different forms). Be sure to support your claims with specific evidence. End with a snappy conclusion.



Attendance: Students are expected to attend all meetings. If a student misses more than two meetings, the instructor reserves the right to issue a failing grade.


Short summaries

(1) should attempt to summarize each required reading in one sentence. This is no easy task and a good way to crystallize your thoughts about the reading. Think of it as your thesis statement if you were writing an essay or review. You might ask yourself: with whom the author is arguing? What evidence does the author use and why? What method does the author adopt for interpreting this evidence? And what is the author’s major conclusion (the “take away,” as is sometimes now said)?

(2) should pose a question of your own about the reading. What did you not understand or want to know more about?

(3) can offer any other associations: a list of terms, a multimedia link, a miscellaneous observation, a passage you wish to examine; etc.


Students must complete all assignments to pass the course. These are designed to be fun, but they are also demanding—and perhaps for some, frustrating. Please be aware that historical analysis is not a science in the strict sense of the term. There is no purely objective, machine-like way to develop interpretation within the traditions of historical meaning-making. This means there is not some perfectly standardized way to evaluate your work. There is, however, a craft to this mode of thinking, writing, and reasoning. It is in the improvement of this craft that these assignments and evaluations can help you. Your task is to develop effective and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by historical awareness and thinking. These will often work by applying your judgment and assessment to explain how things connect or contrast to each other and what the larger stakes of those linkages and differences are, which is to say, why they matter or how they matter to our understanding of the past.

Rather than test the breadth of your absorption of course materials, the assignments test your ability to wield knowledge of materials in the course (lectures, readings, viewings) in order to mount effective and compelling evidence-based arguments. If this mode of evaluation is not to your tastes, I recommend that you do not take the course. Your assignments must be well written in order to communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by our description and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). Evaluations are based on the following rubric:

  • the presence of an articulated and compelling argument (a thesis statement, see number 4 below for more)
  • the presence of evidence and your ability to wield different types of evidence
  • the compelling and precise connection of evidence to argument by comparing and contrasting details and their significance to the argument of the essay
  • an effective opening introduction that uses (a) a “hook” to (b) frame a precise and compelling question in order to (c) articulate a thesis statement that addresses the question and characterizes how and why it matters to our understanding of the historical topic at hand
  • logical flow and grace of prose: the presence of an introduction that ends with a thesis statement (see number 4), clear topic sentences for each paragraph of the essay, the presence of effective transitions from one part of the essay to the next, and a compelling conclusion that restates the thesis in new language and closes with a memorable sense of why the thesis matters to our historical understanding
  • an effective use of multimedia elements (embedded images, video, or audio; relevant links; explorations of design such as size and look of type or relationship of text to other media forms) to deepen and advance an evidence based argument online
  • where applicable, proper citations in footnote or endnote form (your choice) as per Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (

If you have any questions about evaluation in the course geared at helping you access and develop the craft of historical analysis, please speak with the instructor. Assignments that students submit after the due date without explicit plans for an extension arranged with the instructor and teaching assistant prior to the deadline are subject to reductions in grade.

Academic Integrity: All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity. See for more details.

Special Needs: Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website:


Essay 1: 15%

Essay 2: 20%

Essay 3: 25%

Participation: 40% (contributions to discussions; one-sentence summaries; comments)

The instructor will issue a midterm report on your grade for the course in addition to comments on your essays and assignments.

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