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Hippies and the Counterculture: Origins, Beliefs and Legacy

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  • 0:07 Defining the Counterculture
  • 0:48 From Beats to Hippies
  • 1:58 Lifestyle Within the…
  • 4:21 Politics of the Counterculture
  • 5:34 Downfall of the Counterculture
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The 1960s were a period of tension and turbulence for much of the U.S. The counterculture attempted to promote an alternative lifestyle that encouraged peace, love and freedom. Learn more about its origins, beliefs and legacy.

Defining the Counterculture

The counterculture that developed during the 1960s was an alternative lifestyle chosen by individuals who would eventually become known as hippies, freaks or long hairs. Members of the counterculture held convictions similar to that of the New Left movement in that they wanted to overhaul domestic policy within the United States. Hippies were generally dissatisfied with the consensus culture that had developed after the Second World War and wanted to distance themselves from American society (hence the term counterculture). As a result, members of the counterculture attempted to establish their own towns, economy, political institutions and societal values. Let's take a closer look at the counterculture of the 1960s.

From Beats to Hippies

So, how did the counterculture begin? Unlike the New Left, the origins of the counterculture had deeper roots in American society. The movement that was recognized in the 1960s as the counterculture was known a decade earlier as the Beat Generation or Beats.

Dissatisfied with American society, the Beats alienated themselves into a small underground movement. These individuals rejected American standards, introduced new concepts of societal norms, shunned materialism and spawned a new drug culture. Prominent leaders included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr. The Beats generally maintained a low-profile and attempted to stay away from the burgeoning political issues of the decade.

Yet, as mentioned above, the Beat Generation would ultimately transform into the counterculture. The Beats struggled to maintain their inconspicuousness, especially when more and more members of the Beat Generation began to tackle political issues. By 1960, the transformation was complete. In the place of the Beat Generation arose a counterculture that held the same ideals but promoted vibrant colored clothing, long hair, folk music and the participation in politics - all while being known as hippies.

Lifestyle Within the Counterculture

Long hair, vibrant colors and peace signs are typically the most associated characteristics of the hippies and counterculture. However, the lifestyle was dramatically more interesting. Hippies tended to set up living quarters or communes within bigger cities. These areas were known as hippie villages or districts. Locations such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York City and Old Town in Chicago became prime locations for hippie living. All of these locations witnessed the erection of gardens, head shops, restaurants and music venues that provided cheap and alternative ways of living.

Hippies encouraged the experimental use of psychedelic drugs, such as peyote and LSD (acid) to alter the mind. Individuals, such as Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, promoted acid tests, which allowed individuals to consume acid in a peaceful environment surrounded by friends, music and good vibes. Leary campaigned for experimental drug use through his 'turn on, tune in and drop out' advertisements.

One of the largest events for promoting drug use, music and alternative ways of thinking occurred in 1967 at the Human Be-In at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In addition to drugs, the hippies also enjoyed music, especially the folksy, psychedelic riffs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Hippies enjoyed music so much that they assisted in the planning, organization and promoting of the infamous Woodstock music festival in 1969.

Politics of the Counterculture

The very basic political positions of those involved in the counterculture should be obvious. Hippies supported the free use of prolific drugs, sexual experimentation, gender and racial equality and a freedom from the United States federal government. However, the most important political issue of the period was the war in Vietnam. The counterculture rejected the war on two fronts. First, the hippies supported the idea of peace and harmony throughout mankind. Second, since many hippies were young adults, the males rejected the idea of registering for the draft and being sent to war.

The most outspoken arm within the counterculture against war, inequality and the United States government was an organization of individuals known as the Yippies. The designation 'Yippie' was the title given to an individual within the Youth International Party created by the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. The Yippies participated in sit-ins, protests and political events. This group was typically viewed as the political arm of the counterculture. These individuals orchestrated mass gathering events, such as an anti-war march on Washington in 1967, where they attempted to levitate the Pentagon, as well as the Festival of Life in Chicago in 1968, where they protested against the Democratic National Convention.

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