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.
Downfall of the Counterculture
The counterculture faded by the late 1960s for a number of reasons. First, a rivalry was established between hippies and the radical left-wing group known as the Diggers. The Diggers held a general disdain for the hippies simply due to differences in philosophy regarding economics and society. Simply put, like the hippies, the Diggers envisioned an alternative society. The difference was that the Diggers believed in providing free products (food, healthcare and music). This ideology led to regular clashes with the hippies over what an ideal society should look like. The rivalry extended as far as the Diggers attempting to promote the 'death of the hippie' by 1967.
Second, the idea of free drug use and sexual experimentation caught up to the hippies. Those within the counterculture began abusing drugs and eventually turned to more illicit narcotics, such as heroin and cocaine, by the 1970s. Additionally, sexual promiscuity led to an increase in rape and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Finally, a general distaste for the counterculture blossomed by the end of the 1960s. The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, California, provided proof. The Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels, a group of renegade motorcyclists, as security for the event that saw over 300,000 in attendance. Unfortunately, members of the Hells Angels were anything but pleasant to those associated with the counterculture. By the end of the night, the Hells Angels and hippies clashed in a violent brawl that claimed the life of an African American man. It became evident that the idea of peace and love had run its course.
The counterculture, and the hippies associated with the movement, was a transition from the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Hippies supported peace, drugs and love and shunned war, inequality, materialism and the United States federal government. They created towns and villages in places such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City. Hippies promoted drugs, such as acid and peyote, rock-n-roll and the sexual revolution, which encouraged free love. The political arm of the counterculture was known as the Youth International Party or Yippies. The Yippies encouraged political dissent, including events such as levitating the Pentagon and the Festival of Life. Unfortunately, the mass counterculture movement fizzled by the late 1960s due to the onset of an intraparty rivalry, drug and sexual abuse and a general societal disdain toward the movement.
After you view this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the counterculture's beliefs and goals and explain why it was formed
- Summarize the counterculture's origins in the Beat Generation
- Describe the hippies' appearance and lifestyle
- Understand the political beliefs of the counterculture and the role of the Yippies in the movement
- Explain the reasons the counterculture movement died out