The 1960s was a decade of social, political and cultural change. The changes of the 1960s have been described as revolutionary sweeping away traditional attitudes to race, sex, politics and religion. During the 1960s, America saw long-awaited civil rights legislation which brought to an end segregation and legal discrimination. It was also a decade of upheaval with the country divided over the Vietnam War.
In music, the Beatles created a worldwide sensation with both their music, irreverence and willingness to challenge cultural norms. The decade was also considered to be a period of sexual liberalisation, with a second generation of feminists striving for greater opportunities beyond family.
The 1960s was also a period of spiritual discovery with young people increasingly looking beyond the established religions to consider new practises of meditation and Eastern mysticism.
Prominent political figures of the 1960s
Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Non-violent civil rights leader. King inspired the American civil rights movement to achieve greater equality and end segregation. Helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington, where he gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. His assassination in 1968 was a great blow to the civil rights movement.
John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) US President. Elected in 1960, Kennedy made steps towards supporting civil rights changes and was open to a more liberal direction of America. He played a key role in diffusing the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war. His assassination in 1963 was a shocking event around the world.
Lyndon Johnson (1908 – 1973) – US President 1963-69. Johnson took over from the assassinated JFK. He expanded America’s role in Vietnam. Domestically he introduced civil rights legislation and also new legislation to support a new welfare state.
Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918 – 1970) Second President of Egypt. Nasser called for pan-Arab unity and promoted independence from colonial powers. He was the most prominent leader in Arab nations. In Egypt, he was a modernising figure supporting social justice and industrial modernisation.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894 – 1971) Successor to Stalin, Khrushchev ended many of the worst excesses of Stalin’s oppressive policies. He led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964 during the tense years of the Cold War. He led the Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – a stand-off between the US and Soviet Union, which nearly resulted in a nuclear war, but ultimately backed down.
Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984) Prime Minister of the Republic of India for three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977. She continued India’s policy of non-aligned movement (neither US or Soviet Union)
Chairman Mao (1893 – 1976) Mao was the powerful leader of the Chinese Communist Party. In the early 1960s, he presided over a deadly famine and then in 1966 he initiated a ‘Cultural Revolution’ that led to unprecedented censorship. China was relatively isolated from the changes of the 1960s.
Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) De Gaulle was the dominant figure in French politics. He helped to create the Fifth Republic in 1958. His conservatism led to student revolts of 1968, in which students protested against capitalism, poor conditions of universities and American imperialism.
Willy Brandt (1913-1992) Mayor of Berlin 1957 to 1966 and Chancellor of Germany 1969-74, he made a famous gesture of reconciliation to victims of Nazi Germany in Warsaw. He sought rapprochement with the East and a united Europe.
Che Guevara (1928 – 1967) A Latin American Marxist revolutionary. Guevara was a key figure in the Cuban revolution. Guevara also wanted to ferment other revolutions in Africa and Latin America and criticised many aspects of the Soviet Union for betraying Marxist principles. He became an icon of the left.
Fidel Castro (1926-) Cuban revolutionary leader. Castro led the Communist revolution of 1959, where he successfully ousted the US-backed Fulgencio Batista. He defeated the attempt US-led coup at the Bay of Pigs becoming a thorn in the side of the US.
Civil Rights activists
Muhammad Ali (1942 – ) American Boxer and civil rights campaigner. Ali became undisputed Heavy Weight Champion of the world. In 1966, he refused to be inducted in the army due to opposition to the Vietnam War; it caused him to be banned from the sport and his world title striped. He later came back, reclaiming his title.
Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) Latin-American labour leader and civil rights activist who, in 1962 co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Chavez organised union representation and sought to create better working conditions for migrant farm workers. In 1965 he led the influential Delano grape strike.
Betty Friedan (1921–2006) American social activist and leading feminist figure of the 1960s. She wrote the best-selling book “The Feminine Mystique.” (1963) Friedan campaigned for an extension of female rights and an end to sexual discrimination.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) – Sanger was a leading pioneer in offering contraception and health care services to women. She played an important role in the development of the contraceptive pill which went on the market in 1960. Sanger had a long-term influence on the new sexual liberalisation fo the 1960s.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) American conservationist. Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist. Her work, Silent Spring (1962) highlighted the dangers of unregulated pesticide use. It played an important role in creating the modern ecological movement.
Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) American Black nationalist leader. Malcolm X was, for a time, a leader of the Nation of Islam which advocated a radical response to racism and a separate nation for blacks and whites.
John Lennon (1940 – 1980) Born in Liverpool, England, Lennon was a key member of the Beatles, writing many songs and being a key personality of the band. He epitomised the new era of possibilities, with the working-class lad from Liverpool taking the world by storm.
Paul McCartney (1942 – ) Musician from Liverpool. McCartney wrote many of the Beatles hit singles with John Lennon. McCartney
George Harrison (1943 – 2001) English musician from Liverpool. One of four key members of the Beetles. Harrison took the most interest in spirituality and became a life-long follower of the Hare Krishna’s.
Joan Baez (1941 – ) Joan Baez was a singer-songwriter who held a deep conviction in the value of non-violence and pacifism. She was jailed twice for protesting the Vietnam War. She travelled around the world to support human rights campaigns. Her music inspired a generation of anti-war and anti-racism campaigners.
Bob Dylan (1941 – ) American singer-songwriter. Dylan was a pioneering musician who re-wrote what pop music could be. His music sold millions of records. He composed two songs “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are a-Changin” (1964) which became anthems of the Anti-war movement. He became a symbol of the counter-culture movement.
Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) An American musician, singer, and songwriter, who was a hugely influential electric guitarist. His early death was linked to excess drug use.
Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969) Kerouac was an American novelist and poet, whose stream of consciousness prose tackled current issues of drugs, spirituality, religion and the hopes and fears of the new generation. He is considered an influential figure in the Beat Generation and to a lesser extent the counterculture movement.
Peter Sellers (1925-1980) British comedian and actor. In the 1960s, Sellers acted in a variety of best-selling film and tv productions. In 1964, he starred in the iconic and dark comedy about nuclear annihilation “Dr Strangelove” – rated one of the greatest films of all time.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Spanish, modern cubist painter. By the 1960s, he was less prolific but he was easily the most famous artist of the century.
Julie Andrews (1935- ) British actress, dancer and singer. Andrews is most famous for her roles in Mary Poppins (1965) and The Sound of Music (1966), which were some of the most successful films of the 1960s.
Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) British/Dutch actress and humanitarian. Hepburn was the star of Hollywood in 1950s and 1960s with hit films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) In the mid-60s, she retired as an actress and served as an ambassador for UNICEF.
Brigitte Bardot (1934 – ) French actress. An icon of fashion and beauty. She worked as a singer, model and helped make the bikini a popular item of clothing. In later years, she retired from entertainment and became committed to animal rights activism.
Gary Synder (1930 – ) Poet, author and writer who was a member of the Beat Generation in San Francisco. Synder promoted a counter-culture approach to life. In particular, he advocated a deep ecology – living in harmony with nature as opposed to the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Also interested in Zen and Buddhism.
Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) US Pilot and astronaut. In 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to successful land and walk on the moon. It was the most memorable moment of the 1960s and was indicative of a new era of possibilities.
James Watson (1928 – ) American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist, with Francis Crick discovered DNA. Was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929 – 1994) – wife of JF. Kennedy. Under her direction, she helped to modernise the White House and was a popular counterpart to JFK’s presidency.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918- 2008) Indian spiritual Teacher, who founded the popular Transcendental meditation movement, which for a short time included the Beetles.
People of the Twentieth Century (1901–2000) Famous people of the turbulent century. Including Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Thatcher.
Inter-war era (1918 to 1939) A period of peace in between the two world wars. Characterised by economic boom and bust, and the growth of polarising ideologies. Includes; Hitler, Churchill, Gandhi, Roosevelt and Mussolini.
People of the Cold War (1948 to 1990) Famous people who participated in the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the US/NATO allies.