What three protest movements drove significant change in the 1960s?

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the Sixties, women burned their bras, activists marched against the Vietnam War, and civil rights protesters risked their lives integrating lunch counters. The feminist movement, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement helped to transform American society in many ways.

Many young people today do not realize that equal treatment for women is a recent development.  We did not even get the right to vote until 1920!  Men were nearly always preferred over women for employment.  And even when women were employed, they did not receive equal treatment. For example, employers routinely refused to provide them with health insurance. Even now, women make less than men for the same or similar work.  Feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan led the way in a protest movement, to gain equal rights for females, with their writing, their marches, and their lobbying.  They were not successful in gaining an equal rights amendment to the Constitution, but sex was included as a protected class in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the inroads they made and that continue to be made have been meaningful enough to make women nearly equal to males in many fields, to make nearly as much money, and to be more respected voices in business and politics.

The anti-war movement began largely on college campuses, as students began to take note of how many young American men were dying halfway around the world for what looked like a very bad cause.  At this point in American history, these young men did not even have the right to vote for the leaders who sent them to war, something that was addressed in direct response to this in a constitutional amendment.  Because there were deferments for college in the early years, it was mostly poor young men and young men of color who were being drafted to go fight this war, dying in jungles because of someone's theory about Communism. The movement destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) and Nixon ran on a promise to end the war but did not extricate the United States for five years. The power of protest was heady, though, an important exercise of our First Amendment rights that did eventually lead us out of the war and that continues to this day to have an impact as we assess whether or not we want to enter into "another Vietnam."

The civil rights movement did not begin in the Sixties, but rather, in the Fifties, I think, with the momentum of Brown v. Board of Education, the murder of Emmet Till, and the example set by Rosa Parks' bravery on the bus.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a primary force in the movement, with his ideas on civil disobedience  and his powerful rhetoric, and I would say that the movement did reach its fullest momentum in the Sixties.  By 1964, LBJ, who was probably one of the best presidents we have ever had domestically, had strong-armed Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These were transformational statutes, giving people the wherewithal to sue for discrimination and to ensure the right to vote.  We are by no means a perfect society insofar as civil rights are concerned, but the Sixties protests were of great importance to the cause. 

It was an unusual era, with these downtrodden groups getting up and complaining loudly and publicly, organizing themselves to have as large an impact as they could. We have them to thank for a great deal for women, for all the wars we did not fight, and for the civil rights we do have.