I have been ignoring the bombshell that changed everything in the late Sixties … drugs. Almost no one involved with the movement avoided them entirely and for many people they became a regular part of life. Drugs had a profound affect on a movement that in 1966 was just beginning to find its legs after its launch during 1964’s Freedom Summer.
Sometime in the Winter of 1965, lecturing full-time against the war, taking part in teach-ins and rallies, holding off the State Department and the IRS, I saw Timothy Leary interviewed on television. The former Harvard Professor and his colleague Stew Alpert had been giving LSD (it was still legal) to refined college kids in carefully guided trips since 1961. Leary published The Psychedelic Experience in 1964.
I watched with friends at my apartment in New York. After the interview I told them I thought Leary looked “out of it.” I poured myself another martini, lit an unfiltered Camel cigarette, and told my friends that if this LSD and marijuana ever got around, it would end the movement and all hope for progressive change in the United States. Someone laughed, pulled out a joint and offered it around. I had my first puffs of marijuana. Like most first time users, it had little or no affect.
Marijuana and acid swept through the youth culture with astounding speed. Ken Kesey and a wild group of followers called the Merry Pranksters toured America in 1964 in a psychedelic painted bus called Furthur, spreading the acid culture. They even traveled through Mississippi during Freedom Summer, although no one I knew in the movement was aware of them. When they returned to California the Pranksters hosted “acid tests” at La Honda and later in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1965 and ’66. They filled huge rooms with sensory overload, flashing lights, neon signs, beating drums, and amplified snatches of conversation and handed out high quality, free acid. Gerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead developed a new form of rock and roll with a wide range of sounds, dubbed “acid rock.”
Hundreds of people took LSD for the first time at the acid tests. A Los Angeles acid test held on February 12th, 1966 made the March cover of Life Magazine. Despite the title, the article was more curious than condemning.
A cover of Time Magazine a few weeks later asked, “Is God Dead?”
Marijuana was illegal and LSD became illegal in 1966. Police drug busts became more common. As youthful marijuana offenders met movement organizers in the same American jails, they shared experiences and the two cultures began to merge.
As the decade spun into its last few years, both drug use and violence escalated. The 1965 Watts uprising had changed everything. Demonstrators were more militant. In June of ’66 Stokely Carmichael announced, “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years. What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.’” A few months later, H. Rap Brown, then chairman of SNCC, said, “We built the country up and we’ll burn it down in protest. I say violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”
Watts changed police behavior as well. Cops now responded to resistance with violence and mass arrests. In Omaha, Nebraska, on July 4, 1966, on a blistering hot afternoon, African-Americans refused a police order to disperse. The cops attacked but people resisted. Protesters demolished police cars and raided the North 24th Street business corridor, throwing firebombs and demolishing storefronts. The uprising lasted three days and cost the city millions of dollars. In what became a regular pattern, it took the National Guard to restore order. Less than a month later, on August 1, 1966, violence broke out again.
On July 18th, Cleveland exploded in an uprising that lasted five days until National Guard troops put it down on the 23rd.
Into this violent mix fell two mass murderers. On July 14th Richard Speck killed 8 Chicago nurses. In August Charles Whitman shot 12 people from the top of a tower on the University of Texas campus.
Then came the summer of 1967, known in the commercial media as “The Summer of Love,” when uprisings broke out in 159 American cities, leaving 88 people dead and 4,000 wounded. The uprisings in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan were by far the most devastating. Large swaths of the African-American communities in both cities went up in flames.