(This essay was originally published as “Summer of Love wasn’t for all” in the Newport Daily News on August 26, 2017.)
The dissonant and divisive Sixties were a time when just about every code of behavior in American society was brought into question. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of one of the signature events of that turbulent period: the Summer of Love in San Francisco, California.
There is no consensus on when this period of political, social, and cultural turmoil began. For African-Americans it may have begun in the actual year of 1960, when four young black men sat in their jackets and ties at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. For young, middle-class, white rebels, it may have begun in 1962 when the Students for Democratic Society had its first national convention and approved its Port Huron Statement. For Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” it may have begun in April, 1965, with the first sizeable protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC. For the young and innocent, as I was, perhaps it began in November, 1963, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In the summer of 1967, an estimated 100,000 mostly young people made their way to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco to celebrate the themes of the counterculture and “hippieism:” wild dress, bohemian behavior, music, drugs, communal love, peace, and harmony. A Free Clinic was established for free medical treatment, and a Free Store distributed basic necessities without cost. The scene witnessed heavy use of illegal drugs, especially LSD and marijuana.
Hippies in Golden State Park, San Francisco, 1967
Bob Weir, the guitarist for the Grateful Dead stated:
“Haight-Ashbury was a ghetto of bohemians who wanted to do anything. … Yes, there was LSD. But Haight Ashbury was not about drugs. It was about exploration, finding new ways of expression, being aware of one’s existence.”
Spurring the Movement with their gyrating guitar riffs, searing voices, and words of revolution and promise were such groups as The Who, the Animals, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin.
The signature song of the summer was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.” Written by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, it hit the top-40 charts in June 1967, reached number 4 on the pop charts in the US and number 1 in the United Kingdom and much of Europe.
If you’re going to San Francisco Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco You’re gonna meet some gentle people there
For those who come to San Francisco Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco Gentle people with flowers in their hair
All across the nation Such a strange vibration People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion People in motion
Of course, it was not the Summer of Love everywhere in America. In other cities like Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—15 minutes from my home town—there was rioting, looting, burning, and destruction. Over the entire year there were some 150 cases of civil unrest across the country.
In Detroit, five days of rioting in July left 43 dead, 7200 arrested, and about 2000 buildings destroyed. Fed by underlying anger from unfair treatment by the mostly white police force and from aging and overcrowded housing, the rioting began when the police raided an unlicensed bar in the black community.
Todd Gitlin, noted sociologist and writer, recently stated: If you were in the ghettoes of Newark, Detroit or scores of other cities that summer, you were not wearing flowers in your hair. Forget about utopia: You were staking out, in action, fury and bitterness, whether well- or ill-considered, a claim to citizenship in an America that seemed a million miles from justice and heading the wrong way.
The late summer of 1967 here in New England was an exciting time for sports fans as “The Impossible Dream Team” was headed to its first American League pennant in many years. Led by triple-crown winner and MVP Carl Yastrzemski, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the pennant, only to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
In looking back on the period now, I am struck by the extreme contrast in experience I had compared to my peers in San Francisco. In the summer of 1967, I was a sophomore cadet at West Point, undergoing rigorous field training, dancing to Light My Fire (Doors), and wondering whether I would see combat in Vietnam, my commitment to my country growing every deeper and unambiguous.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (www.zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.