Leonard Steinhorn ’77, professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., is an on-air commentator for three episodes of the CNN weekly series The Sixties, which is airing this summer. The episodes include The Times, They are A-Changin’ on July 24, 1968 on July 31, and Sex, Drugs, and Rock N’ Roll on August 7.
Steinhorn first taught a course on the Sixties as an adjunct professor at the university in the early 1980s, hosting guest lecturers who included civil rights leader James Farmer and Sixties activist Abbie Hoffman. He subsequently worked for about 15 years as a political speechwriter and consultant before joining the American University faculty in 1995. Steinhorn holds a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and has twice been named American University Faculty Member of the Year. He is the author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. Recently, he spoke to us about his role on the CNN series and about the legacy of the Sixties and the Baby Boomer generation.
How did you get involved in the CNN project?
A few years back, after the publication of my book, I created a course on baby boomers, which was one of the first of its kind. But last year, I narrowed it down to the Sixties, essentially reviving my course from three decades earlier. C-SPAN had been in touch about coming to one of my classes—they do a Lectures in History series. They broadcast my class on 1968 and it got a lot of buzz. As a result of that show, One Day University (a nationwide adult education program featuring distinguished faculty from top colleges across the country) contacted me and asked me to do my 1968 lecture for their New York event last February. They took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and the producers of The Sixties saw it and invited me to be part of their documentary. So, in March, we spent three hours in front of the camera in Washington and, in May, followed it up with two more hours in Los Angeles.
What was your role as consultant and commentator?
As a longtime student of the Sixties and the Baby Boomer generation, I was able to offer historical perspectives and provide some context and explanation for the incidents and events portrayed in the documentary. What the documentary does is punctuate footage from the era with commentary and remembrances from historians and those who lived the events of the decade, and it's these comments and memories that act as the glue that holds the various segments together.
What were some of the specific events on which you commented?
I am featured in three episodes: one on 1968, another on counterculture, and a third on the social movements of the era. We talked about Vietnam, the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, Lyndon B. Johnson, the student movement, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Richard Nixon, hippies, Mad magazine, Cesar Chavez, black power, the rise of feminism, gay rights, the Free Speech Movement, and other topics. As with every documentary, a lot of what I said will be left on the cutting room floor, but these are serious producers who thoroughly immersed themselves in the era, so whatever isn’t included in the final cut helped shape and refine the documentary.
What are some of the factors that caused the Sixties to be a time of so much upheaval and social change?
Many tributaries flowed into the river of the Sixties. With a rapidly growing economy, the country needed more managers, and that meant opening up colleges and universities to more and more young people. So, colleges that had once reflected social privilege began to reflect another phenomenon—generational identity. The campus became the locus of an emerging youth culture and a sensibility dedicated to social change. It was also the time of the civil rights movement, when young and old risked their lives for equality and justice. And for those not on the front lines in places like Birmingham, Ala., the struggle was taking place in their living rooms: The emergence of mass media enabled Americans to witness the brutality of Sheriff Bull Connor and the evils of segregation on TV. We wanted to believe ours was a good and virtuous country, but, particularly to young people, it seemed increasingly to be the land of hypocrisy. And then, of course, came Vietnam, a war unjustified and unjustifiable to so many, a war that brought the contradictions of American life into every home—either through TV or the draft. So, you had this vast number of young people politicized, and their unfolding worldview was being chronicled by the troubadours of the era—the folk, soul, and rock musicians whose songs and beats spoke to a sense of freedom. What emerged was a generation connected on campus or through culture that believed in the promise of America but saw that promise violated both at home and abroad. It was a generation that refused to conform and accept the status quo. That was the storyline of the Sixties.
What has happened since? What are the legacies of the Sixties?
The legacies are everywhere. Young people today, the children, and now grandchildren of baby boomers are unquestionably the least bigoted, least prejudiced, most inclusive generation we’ve ever seen in America. Look at the rising acceptance of gay marriage. Look at all the relationships that cross racial and ethnic lines. What women and minorities are able to do today would have been unimaginable five decades ago. Yes, we still have a ways to go, but the progress we’ve made could never have happened without the Sixties. Some in the media push the false and easy narrative that the Sixties generation as a whole sold out when they grew up. But what these critics miss is the way this generation internalized the Sixties sensibility, and in the decades since, they’ve transformed institutions from within. This is a generation that changed the norms of society, that turned diversity into a moral good and made discrimination of any kind immoral. To suggest the Sixties generation didn’t succeed because they didn’t change America by 1970 is to misunderstand history. No fundamental change takes place overnight or even in one or two generations. It takes time to shift attitudes, values, and institutions, but the very fact that the Sixties reshaped our norms means that society, culture, and, eventually, politics will follow. There will always be people with widely differing views in America, and that’s how it should be in a democracy. But the greatest accomplishment that came out of the Sixties is that we rejected a lot of the old assumptions and norms, and thankfully there’s no turning back.