The Change in Societal Norms During the 1960s and the Push for a Fairer Society

The 1960s saw the disentangling of societal norms and many Americans fought for a more equitable society. The protests of the Civil Rights Movement, the reforms of the Great Society, and the radicalism of the New Left movement were indicative of this push to have a more fair society. While some of these pushes may have had their shortcomings, the result was an increased amount of justice and fairness in society.

The protests of the civil rights movement used civil disobedience to promote a just society. Civil disobedience is a non-violent tactic where those protesting refuse to obey the government’s demands that were used throughout the Civil Rights Movement.[1] Martin Luther King Jr. promoted civil disobedience and in his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail, he states “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”[2] An example of civil disobedience is the Greensboro Sit-Ins in 1960, where Black students who were refused service at a lunch counter decided to stay in protest. This erupted into multiple sit-ins across the country. Students were breaking the law on purpose as a protest. These sit-ins resulted in the company removing its segregation policy.[3]

The end of segregation was not the only thing members of the Civil Rights Movement protested for. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling based on the equal protection clause, policies such as literacy tests and poll taxes made it almost impossible for Black citizens to vote. Many Black Americans were not given equal access to education or employment opportunities,[4] so requiring literacy tests and charging a poll tax disproportionately targeted them.

The overall impact of the Civil Rights protests was positive because it resulted in legislation that attempted to solve their grievances. In 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which declared that there would be equality of voter registration and equal access to public accommodations, employment, and school. Then, in 1965, he signed the Voting Rights Act which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. There was also the 24th Amendment, which ended the poll tax. The overall theme was to diminish discrimination, and these initiatives had an impact.

When Lyndon Johnson became president he was a New Dealer who had similar beliefs as Franklin Roosevelt and promoted an initiative he referred to as “The Great Society.” The Great Society was a reform movement that, overall, had a positive impact on America. Its main goal was to end poverty. Of the 200 bills introduced between 1964 and 1966, 181 were passed into law. There are two main ways the Great Society tackled poverty. The first was via the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This legislation provided job training to underprivileged youths, assisted low-income students with working their way through college, and established the Office of Economic Opportunity. The overarching idea Johnson’s administration had was that those in poverty would be about to work their way out of it.[5]

The second way the Great Society tackled poverty was by creating Medicare and Medicaid by amending the Social Security Act.[6] These initiatives provided medical insurance to individuals over 65 and provided hospital coverage to those in poverty. This initiative was especially beneficial since Johnson strove to win the war he was waging against poverty. In the article What Was Really Great About the Great Society, Joseph Califano notes that Medicare and Medicaid were influential because individuals were “freed from the burden of providing medical and nursing home care for their elderly parents, suddenly were able to buy homes and (often with assistance from Great Society higher education programs) send their children to college.”[7] The Great Society, despite not accomplishing all of its goals, was very influential for American society. It cut the poverty rate in half,[8] and this allowed people to have a greater level of upward mobility. The Great Society also helped those in need through initiatives such as Food Stamps and Head Start.

However, while the Great Society improved many aspects of society, it certainly failed to live up to its expectations. Its failures were more evident as Americans grew increasingly weary of government. When Ronald Reagan proclaimed that the federal government had declared war on poverty and poverty won many agreed. However, this view ignores the decrease in the poverty rate and the initiatives it put in place that are still used today. These initiatives did lower the poverty rate.[9] Because of Johnson’s perseverance, more Americans were able to thrive.

The radicalism of the New Left, set forth by the Vietnam War, also had a significant impact on how individuals perceived society and helped change cultural norms. The overall goal was to change society and this was mainly promoted by young adults.[10] The most prominent New Left organization was Students for a Democratic Society. In 1962, they composed the Port Huron Statement and argued “without new vision, the failure to achieve our potentialities will spell the inability of our society to endure in a world of obvious, crying needs and rapid change.”[11]

The New Left and the counterculture repudiated the social norms prior generations had promoted.[12] At the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 there was an outburst of free speech protests. During this time, Berkeley enforced a rule that there were no “off-campus” issues (especially political activities) allowed on-campus. This was in the wake of McCarthyism’s anti-communist sentiments that were still prevalent. Some students — who had been in the South the previous summer to work with SNCC — had decided to distribute some Civil Rights literature right off-campus. This displeased the university, and they told the students to stop. This caused the students to riot. Many students claimed that Civil Rights issues were a topic that should be discussed at university. They were spurred by the anti-Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement. Many students were arrested at this political event. Eventually, Berkeley came to support the Free Speech Movement.[13] This free speech movement was influenced by the messaging of the New Left.

The New Left also had an impact on several social issues. One of the most prominent was the women’s liberation movement. Betty Friedan, a prominent feminist, challenged the idea that women should be domestic workers. She wanted women to have more opportunities which led her to form the National Organization for Women. In their 1966 statement of purpose, it states “the time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.”[14] Because of their efforts, women peacefully protested, and more started to pursue opportunities outside the home.

There was a push for a more equitable society and alteration of societal norms during the 1960s. The protestors for the Civil Rights Movement saw improvements for Black people through initiatives such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the 24th amendment. The reforms of the Great Society decreased poverty through initiatives such as Economic Opportunity Act as well as Medicare and Medicaid. The radicalism of the New Left saw the emergence of free speech protests and had an influence on many social issues, including gender roles. Overall, these movements had a significant impact on American society in the 1960s.


Aichinger, Karen. Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 2009.

Califano, Joseph. “What Was Really Great About the Great Society.” Washington Monthly, October 1, 1999.

Feuerherd , Peter. “How Great Was the Great Society? .” JSTOR Daily , 2017.

LBJ Library. “Medicare and Medicaid Act.” LBJ Presidential Library- LBJ Library, n.d.

National Organization for Women “Statement of Purpose”. Washington, DC. 1966.

Steven M. Gillon. “The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945”. FlatWorld. 2018.

King, Martin Luther. 1963. Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr. Online

Kennedy, Stetson. Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A. : The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing

the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities As Second-Class Citizens. Tuscaloosa, Ala: University Alabama Press, 2011.

Students for a Democratic Society (U.S.). “The Port Huron Statement” (NY). 1962.

[1] Steven Gillon, The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945 (Boston, MA: FlatWorld, 2018), 6.5. [2] Martin Luther King Letter from the Birmingham Jail (AL, 1963). [3] Gillon, 7.2 [4] Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the USA: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities As Second-Class Citizens (Tuscaloosa, Ala: University Alabama Press, 2011), 151 & 155. [5] [6] LBJ Library, Medicare and Medicaid Act, 1. [7] Joseph Califano, What Was Really Great About the Great Society, (Washington Monthly, 1999). [8] Lecture 10/4, Slide 15. [9] Feuerherd, How Great was the Great Society?, 2017. [10] Gillon, 8.14 [11] Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement, (NY, 1962), 17. [12] Gillon, 8.14. [13] Aichinger, Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 2009. [14] National Organization for Women, Statement of Purpose, (Washington, DC: 1966).