The 1960s in America was a revolutionary decade. It was a time of frequent social and political unrest, culminating in a call for civil rights for the African American community. Icons like Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were both celebrated and lost in the same decade.
At the same time, the country was divided over the Vietnam War, and a new counterculture generation found their voice. Relive one of America’s most radical decades with our collection of the most historic moments that defined the 1960s.
The Greensboro Four Take a Seat
In February 1960, four freshman students from North Carolina State University stood up to segregation by sitting down. Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain and David Richmond held a sit-in at a “whites only” counter at a local Woolworth’s and wouldn’t leave in protest against segregation.
The following morning, more than 20 other black students from local schools joined the sit-in. This time, the local news reported the story as store managers tried removing the peaceful protestors. Their brave actions were among the most notable sit-ins during the civil rights movement.
The FDA Introduces the Birth Control Pill
On June 23, 1960, the birth control pill — generally simply known as “the pill” — was approved for oral use in women by the Food and Drug Administration. When taken correctly, it safely alters the menstrual cycle to eliminate ovulation and prevent pregnancy. Many believe the pill influenced the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Traditional behaviors surrounding sexuality and relationships were challenged with the introduction of this new form of contraception. Books like Helen Gurley Brown’s 1964 advice book Sex and the Single Girl also helped encourage the concepts of premarital sex, masturbation and alternative forms of sexuality for women.
Kennedy Escalates the Vietnam War
When President John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he committed to maintaining the Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. During his presidency, he faced three crises: the construction of the Berlin Wall, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the communist movement in Southeast Asia.
To counter the communist takeover in Vietnam, Kennedy vowed to assert America’s power. By 1963, 16,000 American military personnel were stationed in South Vietnam, a huge increase from Eisenhower’s 900 advisors. In total, 58,220 U.S. service members died throughout the conflict and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.
America’s Bay of Pigs Invasion
In January 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew General Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s American-backed president. Castro disapproved of American business interests in Cuba and dramatically changed the two nations’ relationship. For the next two years, U.S. officials attempted to remove Castro from power.
In April 1961, the CIA launched an invasion of Cuba with 1,400 American-trained Cubans who had fled their homes after Castro took command. But the invasion did not go as planned. The invaders were seriously outnumbered by Castro’s troops and surrendered after less than 24 hours of fighting. It was a major blow, and the Soviet Union took notice.
Marilyn Monroe Dies by Suicide
On the night of August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s housekeeper and psychiatrist discovered Monroe in bed, surrounded by empty pill bottles. The screen icon took her own life by overdosing on barbiturates. It was a tragic end for the Hollywood legend, whose life was made difficult by the public’s endless interest in her private life.
Monroe’s doctors attributed her death to the “frequent depressions and unpredictable mood changes” she experienced. Throughout her time in the spotlight, Monroe became one of the greatest pop culture icons of the 20th century. However, her megastardom also made her a prime candidate for public ridicule, which likely amplified the challenges to her mental health.
Johnny Carson Hosts The Tonight Show
When Carson debuted on The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962, he forever changed late-night talk shows. His take on creating an entertaining evening program is the format that continues to rule nighttime TV to this day. First comes the monologue, then some sketch comedy and all rounded out with interviews and performances.
In the beginning years of the show, Carson included politicians as guests as well as performers to keep viewers up to speed on the news. After the ’60s, Carson moved on from politics and focused strictly on entertainment to ensure he didn’t alienate his audience and kept his numbers up.
James Bond Debuts in Dr. No
In October 1962, Sean Connery cemented his status as a Hollywood legend in the first film in the James Bond franchise. The movie was a major financial success and launched a genre of copycat films about secret agents. To date, 26 Bond films have followed with various actors in the role.
Several aspects of the Bond franchise were introduced in Dr. No. The gun barrel visualization in the beginning and the highly stylized intro sequence both debuted in the 1962 drama. And, of course, the iconic “James Bond” theme music also became a hallmark of the film series.
President Kennedy Announces Cuban Blockade During the Missile Crisis
On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. In response, he ordered a military quarantine forbidding any ship from entering the island nation. American citizens lived in fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the world wondered if there could ever be a peaceful resolution.
For almost two weeks, the threat of nuclear warfare seemed imminent. At the peak of the crisis, the U.S. had some 3,500 nuclear weapons ready for launch, if necessary. A month later, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to deactivate their missiles.
Andy Warhol’s Pop Art Makes a Splash
In the months following Monroe’s suicide, artist Andy Warhol immortalized the star while simultaneously introducing the world to pop art. Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych was a series of 50 images of Monroe’s face screen printed and then painted with wild, pastel colors. His pieces, which attempted to capture the shock and help people process it with compassion, were the building blocks of pop art.
Warhol’s iconic soup cans and celebrity imagery brought popular styles and subjects into the exclusive galleries of high art. High and low art forms were now bridged together, giving a voice to often under-appreciated styles and personalities. It was Warhol’s world, and we were all living in it — for 15 minutes, at least.
Betty Friedan Writes The Feminine Mystique
In February 1963, Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique was released, sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism. The book started out as a magazine article requiring Friedan to poll her former Smith alum about their lives as housewives. Many of them reported they were unhappy, which prompted her to launch a larger research project that led to the book.
Friedan continued to speak with housewives while researching the way women were portrayed in the media and in advertisements. Her finished book challenged the idea of the “1950’s housewife and mother role” and struck a national chord. In 1964, her book was the bestselling nonfiction book of the year.
Beach Party Breaks the Box Office
Movie goers flocked to the cinema to catch the release of Beach Party on August 7, 1963. The film generated a surprising $2.3 million at the box office and launched an entire beach party film genre. Sunny, musical SoCal movies dominated teen culture for the next several years.
The plot lines were thin across most films: A group of teenagers clad in bathing suits face a challenge and solve it through slapstick gags, musical numbers and partying. Of course, it wasn’t the plotlines people really cared about. The films offered a temporary escape from political unrest while viewers focused on the idealistic, sunny California coastline.
Martin Luther King Jr. Has a Dream
On August 28, 1963, roughly 250,000 activists participated in The March on Washington, a public movement to advocate for civil and economic rights for African Americans. The march was historic for many reasons, particularly that it resulted in Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech.
While standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King called for civil rights and an end to racism in the United States. He solidified his status as a political force when he shared his dreams of freedom and equality in a land divided by racial tensions. King’s speech and the march were both instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
President John F. Kennedy Assassinated
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. His wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, was riding by his side while Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, rode in front. Connally also sustained injuries but recovered in the hospital.
The official record states the president was shot by former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone in the murder. Kennedy’s assassination is still considered a subject of hot debate and has spawned several conspiracy theories. Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that up to 80% of Americans suspect there was a plot or cover-up.
The Beatles Appear on The Ed Sullivan Show
On February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. A record 73 million viewers tuned in to watch the four mop-topped Brits perform “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Beatlemania had officially taken over the country.
Throughout the decade, The Beatles released 16 albums in the United States. Between 1964 and 1970, the group had the top-selling U.S. single one out of every six weeks. The group single-handedly spearheaded the “British Invasion” of the music industry, making British bands a dominant force in rock and roll music.
Cassius Clay Defeats Sonny Liston
Before February 25, 1964, Sonny Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion of the world. Then came the underdog, Cassius Clay. Their historic fight in Miami Beach was a major victory for Clay and an unbelievable upset for Liston. So unbelievable, in fact, that an investigation was launched to make sure Liston didn’t lose on purpose.
By their second fight, Clay had changed his name to Muhammed Ali and denounced the names handed down to him by former slave-owning families. Liston, meanwhile, was arrested and charged with several driving violations and for carrying a concealed weapon. Neither athlete was seen as a poster child for the sport, but they drew massive crowds again the following year for their rematch.
Malcolm X Assassinated
Malcolm X was a powerful figurehead during the civil rights movement. On February 19, 1965, he was assassinated during a speech in Manhattan by members of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm, a former member of the NOI, had repeatedly claimed they were trying to have him killed.
His legacy as an advocate for African American rights during the 1950s and 1960s remains controversial. As a former member of the NOI, Malcolm was a vocal leader of the black supremacist movement. However, after embracing Sunni Islam, Malcolm disavowed the NOI and racism and instead advocated for racial integration.
“Bloody Sunday” Shocks the World
On March 7, 1965, roughly 600 civil rights activists started to march. They were heading from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to speak with Governor George Wallace about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. When they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers were waiting on the other side.
After a brief exchange of words, troopers forced the activists to the ground using nightsticks and tear gas. The images of the aftermath appeared on news outlets across the nation and inspired an outpouring of support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. President Johnson issued an immediate statement denouncing the brutality and promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress.
The Watts Riots Rock Los Angeles
For almost a week in August 1965, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles was in a state of unrest. A scuffle with local police escalated into a fight, with neighbors reporting that police had injured a pregnant woman. That amplified the racial and social tensions people already felt toward the police, and riots ensued.
Approximately 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard were recruited to help calm the disturbance, but it wasn’t easy. Arson and looting of stores throughout the neighborhood was nonstop, and 34 people died during the riots, with more than $40 million in property damage. It was another sign of the growing racial tensions across the country.
Lyndon B. Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. This landmark piece of legislation outlawed racial discrimination in voting. Johnson’s signing of the act during the height of the civil rights movement was seen as a move to help unite a divided America.
The president invited Martin Luther King Jr. to stand by his side for the ceremonial signing. King was a powerful leader in the fight for civil rights, and securing the right to vote for African Americans was a key part of his fight. After the act became law, there was an immediate decrease in racial discrimination in voting around the country.
Star Trek Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before
Science fiction lovers tuned in on September 8, 1966, for the premiere episode of Star Trek. The show took place across the Milky Way galaxy, roughly during the 2260s. Led by Captain Kirk, the ship’s crew explored the deep reaches of space to find new worlds and life forms.
While it was certainly a tad campy at times, the show achieved some major milestones during the three seasons it was on the air. In a 1968 episode, for example, Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, kissed Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. It was the first interracial kiss on American television.
Timothy Leary Turns On, Tunes In and Drops Out
In 1966, Timothy Leary proclaimed his famous line, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” at the hippie-fueled Human Be-In gathering in San Francisco. The Harvard University clinical psychologist was an outspoken advocate for the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes.
While at Harvard, Leary conducted experiments using psilocybin and LSD, which were common hallucinogenic drugs of choice throughout the free-spirited hippie movement. On his spoken word album, Leary detailed the LSD experience, as well as the meaning of inner life, nature and achieving peace from within.
The First Super Bowl Kicks Off
Football took the main stage as a major spectacle on January 15, 1967. The first AFL-NFL World Championship game — a.k.a. the Super Bowl — took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game generated a lot of publicity ahead of time, as tensions between the AFL and NFL were quite heated.
The Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs felt the pressure from their respective leagues to dominate. Because AFL games always aired on NBC and NFL games always aired on CBS, Super Bowl I was the only championship game to air on two television networks. Between the two channels, 75 million people tuned in to watch the Packers defeat the Chiefs 35-10.
Aretha Franklin Demands “Respect”
Originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965, “Respect” was originally a plea from a desperate man, but Franklin’s rendition, released on April 29, 1967, made the song the anthemic classic it is today. Franklin turned the song into a declaration — no, a demand — from a powerful woman.
The song became an anthem for the feminist movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the song by adding it to the National Recording Registry. The legacy continues to this day, and the song is largely considered to be the best R&B song of all time.
Twiggy Arrives at Kennedy Airport
Lesley Lawson (nee Hornby) — a.k.a. Twiggy — became a British modeling sensation in 1966 thanks to her unique appearance. Her pixie haircut, big eyes and androgynous style took the modeling world by storm. But it wasn’t until she touched down at Kennedy airport in NYC in 1967 that she gained widespread global attention.
In an event covered by the press, Twiggy’s American arrival led to several profiles and photo shoots in Vogue, Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker. She had taken the world by storm. Daily Mail correspondent Su Dalgleish described her appeal perfectly: “With that underdeveloped, boyish figure, she is an idol to the 14- and 15-year-old kids. She makes a virtue of all the terrible things of gawky, miserable adolescence.”
John Phillips Writes “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”
In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a social revolution bloomed in the summer of 1967. Dubbed “The Summer of Love,” hoards of young people who opposed the Vietnam War, consumerism and government at large gathered to exchange ideas, take psychedelics and create art with one another.
These “hippies” inspired John Phillips to write “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” for his friend Scott McKenzie. The song was a chart-topper and exemplified the blossoming subculture. Suddenly, major cities across the globe had their own little Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods where young people gathered in droves.
Thurgood Marshall Becomes a Supreme Court Justice
With the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson knew the right man to nominate. On June 13, 1967, the president nominated Thurgood Marshall to be the 96th justice to serve on the court and the first African American to hold the position.
President Johnson said that nominating Marshall was, “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.” Marshall was a strong advocate for liberal policies and a strong supporter of protecting individual rights.
Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated
Martin Luther King Jr., the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prominent leader of the civil rights movement, was fatally shot on April 4, 1968. It came as a shock to the country as he routinely preached the use of nonviolence to effect change during his time as a clergyman and civil rights leader.
James Earl Ray was arrested two months later and charged with King’s murder. Ray pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. King’s family members, meanwhile, asserted that his murder was the result of a conspiracy between the U.S. government and the mafia.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention Heats Up
1968 was a year of political and civil unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. There were riots and violence in more than 100 U.S. cities. But the political show must go on. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the real battle was going on outside between protesters and the police.
On August 28, a night raid by police resulted in roughly 500 protestors suffering from minor injuries. Throughout the entire convention week, more than 100 additional civilians were treated for undisclosed injuries. Meanwhile, the convention featured several representatives denouncing the use of “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.”
Armstrong and Aldrin Walk on the Moon
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. He and Buzz Aldrin spent hours on the moon’s surface while Michael Collins managed the Columbia ship above. NASA’s Apollo 11 was the thrilling mission that ended the decade-long Space Race between the Soviets and the Americans.
Armstrong and Aldrin collected almost 50 pounds of lunar materials to bring back to for testing. On August 13, the three astronauts rode in parades in their honor in New York and Chicago. They later visited 22 foreign countries as heroes, immortalized in magazines and on postage stamps.
Jimi Hendrix Plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock
The Woodstock music and arts festival was held August 15-18, 1969. Over 400,000 people poured into upstate New York to listen to music’s biggest acts, including Jefferson Airplane, The Who and Janis Joplin, among many others. As the Vietnam War divided the country, the festival sent a message of peace from the musicians and the counterculture movement at large.
On the final morning, Hendrix took to the stage to close out the show, after going without sleep for days. His reverb-heavy, electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was intended to exemplify the bombings and chaos from the Vietnam War. The New York Post’s Al Aronowitz wrote: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties.”