Review of

The Crooked Places Made Straight:

The Struggle for Social Change in the 1960s

by David Chalmers

Springing from an economically-secure conservative culture, the seemingly-sudden radical social movements of the 1960s shocked university presidents, black southerners, and political conservatives alike. In marches and sit-ins, and later bombs and destruction, radicals questioned almost all of the classical social beliefs, and for the first time in a century great world-changing reform seemed possible.

One of the most fundamental questions Chalmers asks is where did it all come from? The foundations, Chalmers argues, were all in place at the end of the fifties: a large, restless post-war generation of children headed off to college in record numbers, the structure of an activist government following the war and New Deal, and the rapidly developing new medium of television that could instantly place local images throughout the nation and rewarded those that "shout[ed] loudest."

The most important factor, however, was the creation of what Chalmers refers to as "the consciousness" of America. And it was the Civil Rights Movement, the first and most important of the reforms, and its leader Martin Luther King, that made this possible. Chalmers describes King's traditional Christian values of nonviolent resistance as forcing whites to face the "moral issue" of segregation and discrimination. Catalyzed by King and other local leaders, the movement gained a national focus through television and the creation institutions such as the SCLC, SNCC, and CORE. These groups were important not just in the Civil Rights Movement but in the formation of "communities and brotherhoods" for an increasingly-alienated youth culture. According to Chalmers, the groups were so successful at reaching the American consciousness because they "appealed to established institutions to live up to their values, not change them."

While the Civil Rights made key gains locally and nationally, other organizations, most notably on college campuses, adopted the movement's goals and non-violent methods to achieve other forms of change. Alienated by the mass-consumption culture, college students formed a largely opposition ideology based on antiauthoritarianism, egalitarianism, and individualism. The Civil Rights movement spawned similar reforms in other areas, such as women's rights, gay rights, and the crusade against poverty. Just as had occurred in the abolition movements of 1830s and 40s, a women's rights movement sprang from the ideological beliefs and institutional arrangements present. Mario Savio, former SDS leader, said that "the rising of Black People… marked the historic end of the viability of social oppression in America."

Chalmers also deals with the waning of the sixties' reform traditions, and the death of the new radical Left. Chalmers argues that the failure of many of the ideals was due to the vaguely defined organizational goals and structures of many of the lead groups. For example, the SDS, which first became successful through sit-ins and other non-violent modes of protest, never established firm goals or structure, and hence turned to acts of violence at the start of the Vietnam war. This violence failed miserably to start the radical's "revolution" and instead succeeding in divorcing mainstream America from the causes of what Chalmers calls "the new new left." By 1970, the divide was so secure that most Americans believed that the Kent State shooting victims got what they deserved. Hence, with a few notable exceptions, the sixties ideas of the Great Society and radical political change fell victim to the reactionary conservative response that would increasingly come to guide America in the 1980s. In his most succinct assessment of the decade, Chalmers states that "the sixties began well, but it was no heroic age."

Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: December 15, 1997