The Summer of Love Experience: Politics

This is the fourth in a six-part series on The Summer of Love, inspired by The Summer of Love Experience exhibit at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.


On the bright side, the Giants won 7 in a row

On May 13, 1960 the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities came to San Francisco to hold a hearing on communist infiltration of higher education. They had previously subpoenaed more than 100 teachers and leaked their names to the press. Hundreds of protesters came to San Francisco City Hall to disrupt the hearings. Police opened their fire hoses inside the rotunda, washing protesters down the stairs, arresting 64 of them. Dramatic images splashed across front pages and TV screens. The next day 3,500 protesters showed up at City Hall and the hearings were suspended. San Francisco’s protest movement was born.

In the 1953 film The Wild One, a woman asks Marlon Brando’s character, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” He answers, “Whaddaya got?” The generation who came of age in the summer of love were no rebels without a cause. Their causes were fundamental, many of them still with us today, and they were not afraid to articulate them. The war in Vietnam was immoral. So was the treatment of black men by the American criminal justice system, the criminalization of sex between consenting adults, and the denial of the right of a woman to control her own body. Defending simple, inalienable rights of all members of the human race was the cause of the generation. As Gil Scott-Heron put it in the sarcastic lyrics to his song B-Movie, “Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights: it’s all wrong. God damn it, first one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.” 

By 1967, the words Thomas Jefferson wrote almost 200 years earlier about all men being created equal rang hollow in the ears of the generation coming of age. It was painfully obvious, then as now, that black lives do not matter in America as much as white lives. Then as now, demographic and social changes were altering what it means to be American. Then, as now, Americans used their rights to free speech, free press, and peacable assembly to petition their government for redress of grievances.

The war in Vietnam contributed to the leftward political leaning of the generation who came of age in The Summer of Love. The left has usually been more sympathetic to pacifists than the right. Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violent means to attack America’s racist institutions was one of the seminal decisions of the 20th Century. On the heels of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, a movement based on the injustice of drafting young men and sending them to war without considering them adult enough to vote culminated in adoption of the 26th and most recent amendment to the US Constitution, lowering the legal voting age to 18.

Although the political problems from 50 years ago can seem depressing familiar to Americans today, undeniable progress has been made. Your average hippie might have found it overoptimistic to think within five decades America would elect a bi-racial president named Barack Hussein Obama or that a majority of voters would cast their ballots for a female president. Even the most dedicated protestors of 50 years ago might be shocked to wake up in an America where same-sex marriage and legal access to abortion are laws of the land, and more than half of the states have legalized marijuana, some even for recreational use.


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