15 Myths About the 1960s That Need To Be Dispelled

Between the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the broader use of recreational drugs, there’s no doubt that the 1960s had a lot going on. This unique and tumultuous time in U.S. history changed our world in many ways.

However, some of the things we believe about the decade aren’t entirely true. As with any other moment in history, stories and assumptions all too easily became facts.

The truth is more nuanced than you might realize. And the version of the 1960s you saw in movies, on TV, or even in your social studies book probably isn’t as accurate as you thought.

1: It’s Just a Phase

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Some look at the protests and social movements of the 1960s and think it was something the youth of the day took part in and then grew out of. They may believe it was just a rebellious phase that didn’t carry much meaning.

In fact, the protests and movements of the 1960s sparked massive societal change. Those movements forced the U.S. to grapple with major issues like racism, abuses of power, and the role of women in society.

2: Black Panthers Were an Intrinsically Violent Group

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The Black Panther Party played a major role in the 1960s, and unfortunately, it received a lot of bad press in certain circles. In truth, the party wasn’t what you might have been led to believe.

The group did a lot of good for society, including creating Free Breakfast for Children programs and launching health clinics in high-need areas. While they did clash with police and took advantage of open-carry laws in some states, they were peaceful overall.

3: Everyone Was a Hippie

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If you’ve attended a 1960s-themed party or had a “1960s Dress Day” while you were in school, you might think everyone who lived through the era had a hippie phase. In actuality, not everyone was flaunting peace signs while wearing tie-dye.

Hippies were counterculturists, and the culture they were fighting back against was alive and well. Many people, even young people, held conservative views throughout the 1960s and often fought hard against hippie ideals.

4: They Were All on Drugs

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There’s no doubt that many counterculturists experimented with different drugs during the 1960s. However, drugs were still far from the cultural norm.

Research suggests that less than 5% of the American public had tried drugs in the 1960s, and that number had only risen to 10% by the time 1970 hit. The general consensus was that recreational drug use was dangerous, and many avoided it.

5: Beatlemania Was One of a Kind

Liverpool, England.
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In 1964, Ed Sullivan booked a British pop band on his insanely popular show, leading to the rise of Beatlemania in the U.S. While many believe the legions of fanatic female fans the Beatles attracted was a new phenomenon, that’s not exactly true. Before The Beatles, there were other stars that young girls tended to flock to, including Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

However, The Beatles did attract more fans at once than any of their predecessors. Close to 40% of the U.S. population tuned in to their Ed Sullivan Show performance.

6: They All Burned Their Bras

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The second-wave feminist movement gained a lot of attention in the 1960s. Known as the female liberation movement, many people believe it was all about burning bras and being angry.

In truth, most of the movement was made up of middle-class women who were tired of not being heard. Housewives banned together with working women and voiced their experiences of harassment in the workplace and confinement in the home. Very little bra-burning was actually done.

7: We Stared Down the Soviets and They Blinked First

Cuban missle.
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The Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous moment in American history, but you might not know the whole story. Many Americans know that the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and then withdrew them after President Kennedy demanded it.

What fewer people realize is that there was a secret backdoor deal made at the same time. After the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba, the U.S. withdrew their nuclear weapons from Turkey, mere miles from the Soviet border.

8: Blame Birth Control

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The FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. Some believe that it marked the beginning of the end of traditional family values.

Birth control certainly changed things for females in the U.S., but it didn’t do much to erode traditions like marriage in the 1960s. At the time, birth control advertisements focused on family planning purposes.

If women chose to have more partners in the 1960s, it wasn’t solely because of birth control. Other movements, like the hippie movement and the women’s liberation movement, played a major role.

9: A Southern Problem

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Some people believe that the Civil Rights Movement existed because of continued segregation and racial tension in southern states. They assume northern states, especially in urban areas, were somewhat immune.

In truth, the North just had a way of masking racist practices, which made them harder to spot. Redlining, blockbusting, and housing segregation were common in more “forward-thinking” Northern cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.

10: Psychedelics Were Just For Fun

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There’s a prevailing myth that psychedelic use was all about pleasure. Many believe it was mostly young kids using drugs in a chaotic way.

While there’s no doubt that many young drug users were just looking for fun, there were also several more mature psychedelic users who thought these drugs could be useful for depression and other mental illnesses. People like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were Harvard professors who used and ran experiments with psychedelics in hopes of alleviating pain in patients with terminal diagnoses or mental disorders.

11: Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Beloved Figure at the Time

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
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Martin Luther King Jr. is a revered figure today, but during the 1960s, he wasn’t so well-loved, even by his supporters. Of course, there were segments of society that didn’t agree with his views on equality, but King also lost followers for other issues he took a side on.

For example, Martin Luther King was adamantly against the Vietnam War, and he publicly stated as much. Many of his supporters disagreed with him and President Lyndon B. Johnson even began refusing meetings with him.

12: Most Americans in Vietnam Were Seeing Combat

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When Americans think of the Vietnam War today, they might imagine that most of the veterans lived in horrific conditions and witnessed brutal combat. There’s no doubt that some veterans had that experience, but in actuality, only 30% of Americans in Vietnam ever saw combat.

Living conditions were decidedly bad from 1965 to 1967 when bases were being established. However, after that short period, bases were relatively comfortable places to be stationed. Many soldiers chose to return to combat zones, stating that they preferred those bases to stateside duty conditions.

13: The Largest Demonstration of the Decade

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You might assume the largest civil rights demonstration in the 1960s was the March on Washington. While that march was big and undoubtedly historic, it wasn’t the largest demonstration of the time.

The biggest demonstration of the 1960s was the 1964 New York City school boycott. Nearly half a million people boycotted New York public schools in response to the unfair conditions Black children had to endure.

14: The Original Rosa Parks

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You probably learned about Rosa Parks and her role in the Civil Rights movement, but have you heard of Claudette Colvin? Before Rosa Parks ever refused to give up her seat, launching the desegregation movement that fed the 1960s civil rights campaign, Claudette told a White woman no.

Claudette Colvin was only 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her story made local headlines, but the NAACP chose not to use her as the face of the movement. Instead, they used Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat a few months later.

15: Patriotic Duty

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The Vietnam War was highly controversial during the 1960s. But for every counterculturist who fought against it, there were several Americans who thought the war was justified at the time.

Many believe that these Americans signed up voluntarily to fight. However, it seems many men choose to sign up not out of patriotic duty but in an attempt to avoid combat.

By signing up, men could opt for a specialized position that never set foot overseas. Alternatively, some chose to sign up for the National Guard or Reserves. Very few units from either group were deployed to Vietnam.

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