(This is a bit of a long one, but it is an interesting topic and, hopefully, worth the read)
The good ‘ole days may not have been as good as we’d like to believe, or were they better? An intriguing question. As I often do, I like to use the words of others with my own to illustrate the commonality of our experiences.
Here’s a quote one of my most influential teachers,
“The past is delusion; the present, elusion; the future, illusion.” Dan Walsh
With the past, we often twist Shakespeare’s words about the evil men do. Instead of “The evil men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones.” We change it to, “Our fondness for the wonderful memories of the past live on, the evil is oft interred in the deepest recesses of our brain.”
In a reaction to a recent piece, https://joebroadmeadowblog.com/2020/06/13/a-eulogy-for-the-police/, Paul Edward Cary, who enjoys debating many of my positions (respectful of our differences and, on the rare occasion, our agreement) argued the United States has declined in moral character over the past 50 or 60 years.
It sparked an idea.
Was America a better place in the 60s and 70s? Are we a nation in decline? I decided to see what I could discover.
While measuring morality is subjective, there are other benchmarks we can use to test the hypothesis. I looked at various historical events and national attributes—health, infant mortality, education, civil rights, Supreme Court cases, and crime.
Time magazine did a project several years ago seeking opinions from a variety of law professors and legal experts on the most influential—for good or bad—Supreme Court cases.
Often the court serves as a catalyst for change in society, righting wrongs embedded within the fabric of American lives. Some would argue these decisions were not always for the better. But here are the most beneficial and the most troubling in the 1960s-70s contrasted with those the court decided in the 2010s.
In the 1960s, several cases sparked major changes and controversies. Fifty or sixty years sounds like a long time ago. But to those of us alive in those years, thinking back, it’s hard to accept such cases were necessary.
Loving v. Virginia (1967), which found restrictions on interracial marriage unconstitutional.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which protected freedom of the press in the realm of political reporting and libel.
Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which established the one-person, one-vote concept in legislative apportionment.
2015 saw the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 same-sex-marriage ruling.
Perhaps the cases necessary in the 60s and 70s set us on a better, more moral path. The law professors saw them as positive cases. Yet, that they were necessary paints a troubling picture of a segregated and less open society.
On the negative side, many professors were critical of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). The case removed campaign-spending limits on corporations and unions, and Bush v. Gore (2000), which resulted in George W. Bush’s winning the presidential election.
Of all the cases I looked at, this one from 1973 troubled me. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973).
“This decision held that inequities in school funding do not violate the Constitution. The court thus said that discrimination against the poor does not violate the Constitution and that education is not a fundamental right. It played a major role in creating the separate and unequal schools that exist today.” (From the Times article)
The controversial decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) appeared on the lists of both the best and worst decisions. Without once again venturing down this rabbit hole, I’ll leave it to you to decide if this contributed to our “moral decay.”
I know my lawyer friends will all pipe in with their own favorites. Still, the very need for the cases decided in the 60s and 70s casts a shadow on the perception of a more fair or moral American society.
As further proof of the importance of court-imposed mandates, one need look no further than our own backyard and the 1970s desegregation of the Boston School system.
The case—Morgan v. Hennigan, 379 F. Supp. 410 (D.C. Mass., June 21, 1974)—decided by U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Garrity, required Boston to bus students to various schools to achieve a racial balance.
That a court, in 1974, had to force a city the size of Boston—a city which prides itself on its contribution to the very founding of this nation—to comply with the findings of Brown V Board of Education, a twenty-year-old refutation of the concept of separate but equal school systems, is astounding. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/boston-bussing-case/
But before we take too much comfort in this decade being better than the past, there is this. In Cleveland, Mississippi, the school district finally stopped contesting a ruling from 1965 regarding the desegregation of its high schools.
The city agreed to desegregate the schools in 2017, having fought against it by various legal maneuverings for fifty-two years. http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/305/the-last-stand-of-massive-resistance-1970
1960s News Stories
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 3, 1963 (UPI) – Five firemen stood less than 50 feet away today sweeping methodically with a high-pressure hose and sending hundreds of racial demonstrators tumbling in the street.
The force downs a man as fast as a charging tackle on a football field and is no less damaging.
I was in a corner telephone booth dictating a story as a crowd of chanting, singing, gyrating Negroes surged time and again into the face of a police blockade. Spray hung across the intersection like fog.
When the first powerful blast hit the front line of anti-segregation marchers, they toppled and rolled in the streets, clinging to the curb and to each other.
As the hose swung away, they jeered the firemen, taunting with catcalls. But the ones who didn’t flee at first soon were routed by the full force of spray.
Then the firemen turned their attention to a small group of Negroes on the corner where I was standing.
“Let’s get those people out of there,” an officer shouted.
The firemen swung the hose quickly and the gush of water splattered the seven Negroes on the corner. They fled into a restaurant and the firemen followed, playing their hose in the restaurant for two or three minutes.
“They’re turning the hose on us,” I shouted to another newsman.
Elvin Stanton, of radio station WSGN, jumped into the phone booth with me. We braced for the blast of water which hit the glass wall with a roar.
The water was brown, then a boiling white froth which roared through the cracks in the booth, sloshed under the booth and soaked our feet. Then they turned the hose on an upper ventilating slot and our shoulders were soaked.
I kept yelling that we were reporters, but the torrent kept pounding on the glass booth. Somehow, the glass held until they turned the hose around.
We walked out. As we strode soggily by the firemen, one turned and asked: “Did you get wet?”
SELMA, Ala., March 7, 1965 (UPI) – State troopers and mounted deputies bombarded 600 Negroes with tear gas Sunday when they knelt to pray on a bridge, then attacked them with clubs. Troopers and posse men, under orders from Gov. George C. Wallace to stop the Negro “walk for freedom” to Montgomery, chased the marchers nearly a mile through town, clubbing them as they ran.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law on May 6. The purpose of the law was to close loopholes from the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and dealt primarily with voter disenfranchisement. The act created penalties for anyone who tried to obstruct voter registration and extended the life of the Civil Rights Commission which had been set to expire. It also established federal inspection of local voter registration polls in an effort to counter-act discriminatory laws in the South that worked to disenfranchise voters on a racial basis.
And then we had Vietnam, or more correctly Viet Nam.
While our involvement in Viet Nam began long before the 60s, most Americans wouldn’t have a clue where the country was until 1965.
Here’s one interesting tidbit of history.
June 8, 1956: The first official American fatality in Viet Nam is Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr. He was murdered by another American airman as he was talking with local children. His wife lobbied for years, finally succeeding in 1999, to have his name added to the Viet Nam Wall Memorial.
Think about that for a second. The first official American casualty in Viet Nam was murdered by a fellow American. It gets no stranger than that. Perhaps had we taken that as an omen, we might have decided the avoid the whole thing.
But we didn’t. And when I said it could get no stranger, I was wrong. Fitzgibbon’s son joined the Marine Corps…and was killed in Viet Nam.
Here’s a brief historical timeline of the 60s and 70s and the routes of involvement.
1960 The United States announces 3,500 American soldiers will be sent to Vietnam.
July 1964. Gulf of Tonkin incident. U.S. warships come under fire by North Vietnamese gunboats in two related incidents. There is little doubt the first incident happened. The NV Gunboats were responding to an earlier bombing attack on two North Vietnamese held islands by U.S. and South Vietnamese Naval forces.
The second incident, which Lyndon Johnson would use to escalate American involvement, is in doubt. Johnson secretly confided to his advisors, “for all I know, the goddamn Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
On March 6, 1965, two battalions of U.S. Marines waded ashore near Danang,
March 16, 1968 The My Lai massacre—known as Son My in Viet Nam—where American soldiers killed nearly all the people—old men, women, and children, including infants—in the village of My Lai. The months-long military campaign known as the Tet Offensive (January 30–September 23) topped Vietnam news.
Amid the carnage of Viet Nam, on July 20, 1969, Americans put a man on the moon.
1973 The Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by the Nixon administration, reached agreement after five years. Nixon secretly orchestrated a delay in the talks during the 1968 Presidential Campaign through back-channel communications with the North Vietnamese government promising better terms. He then took 5 years, at the cost of almost twenty thousand more dead Americans, to settle the war.
1973 All U.S. Combat troops leave Viet Nam. 500 American POWs return from North Viet Nam.
Military advisors remain until 1975
The U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Communists on April 30, ending three decades of war in Vietnam. Hours later, the first Communist tanks rumbled into the capital.
During Viet Nam, anti-war protesters and racial strife tore apart the country.
May 4, 1970, National Guard troops fire on war protesters, killing four, at Kent State University. Allison Beth Krause, 19, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, and William Knox Schroeder, 19.
Several National Guardsmen were charged in the killings, but they dismissed the cases.
Attica prison riot
Native Americans forced from Alcatraz after citing an 1868 Treaty allowing them to live on the island
Supreme Court rules against the death penalty
The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972, brought an end to the Apollo program.
AIM seizes Wounded Knee, SD
The American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the hamlet for 90 days before surrendering. It was a protest of violations to American Indian treaties over the past centuries.
The 60s and 70s were the decades of hard rock ‘n roll.
Crime and Punishment: Police, Violent Crime, & Prisons
The debate over racial bias in Law Enforcement is the latest controversy to roil the nation. In 2014, the Obama administration passed a law— the Death in Custody Reporting Act—requiring Law Enforcement agencies to track all in-custody deaths and report them to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department has never created the database or received any information from the nation’s law enforcement agencies. We cannot identify a problem if we operate in the dark.
But we can compare the nature of a policing, and the relative dangers associated with being a cop, by tracking the numbers of officers killed in the line of duty. These numbers take into consideration all manners of death, not just violent encounters.
Officer Killed in the line of duty
One officer killed is too many, but the trend has been declining. In the 1960s and 70s, during the height of racial tensions and anti-war protests, they targeted police officers with snipers and bombs. Yet, over time these incidents have grown less and less frequent. The media hype of today amplifies and distorts the level of violence beyond reality.
Killed by Law Enforcement
1970-1979 No accurate statistics exist
2015-2019 5400 and the average per year is consistent (1000). Still, unarmed Black men are more likely to be killed by the police than white men based on a preliminary analysis of the limited data. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/)
1970-1979 191,690 (9.06 per 100,000 population)
2010-2019 155,034 (4.8 per 100,000 of population. 2019 numbers projected based on average # of homicides of the previous nine years as final numbers from FBI not yet available. Again, there are racial disparities in murder rates, but the overall numbers even among various races are lower.)
Violent crime per 100,000 populations. Rates climbed in the mid-1960s, peaking in 1990-91. They have consistently declined since then.
Prisons (Number of prisoners)
Health and Education
MVA Fatalities Rates per 100,000 population
2018 11.18 (last year data available)
Infant Mortality Rates
The U.S. is far behind other developed nations in infant mortality. Comparable country average (nations with similar levels of development such as Canada, United Kingdom, France, Japan) is 3.4 per 1000 live births
US Infant Mortality Rates per 100,000 population
The U.S. is 7th in the world in literacy rates. The ability of most Americans to read sits at about 99%, although there are racial disparities. Educationally, Americans sit in the middle of the world curve in terms of analytical abilities in math, science, and reading.
In the 1970s, the U.S. led the world in education. Clearly, we have failed in the promise of public education.
Defense spending as a % of GDP
Education vs. Military Budget
1970 Military $79.1 billion Education $1.0 billion
2020 Military $989 billion ($160 billion increase over 2 years) Education $64 billion (10% decrease over 2019)
#1 in Music Billboard Chart
1960 Theme from A Summer Place (Percy Faith)
1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
2010 Tik Tok (Kesha)
1960 Swiss Family Robinson
1970 Love Story
1960 Andy Griffith Show
1970 Marcus Welby, MD
2010 Breaking Bad
In the culture category, while I may be prejudiced here, but the 60s and 70s win this one, hands down.
Can we say the U.S. has suffered a decline, moral or otherwise, over the past 50 or 60 years?
Yet I can make an argument we have become more socially open and accepting. We embrace a more democratic form of social interaction, minimizing the once formidable lines of separation between races, ethnicities, and religions.
Despite the constant bombardment of “breaking news,” we have become less violent people. By all measures, we have seen a reduction in homicides and other crimes of violence.
The burgeoning prison population and the de-emphasis on education are troubling. The overwhelming number of people are in prison for non-violent crimes. Imprisonment has little to do with crime reduction. It turns people into career criminals doing life on the installment plan.
What drove the reduction in violent crime? Many theories abound.
Some claim the high rates of incarceration take violent offenders off the street. This seems logical, except with a fifty percent recidivism rate, it is only a partial explanation.
Increased community policing efforts is another suggestion.
Reduced opportunity to commit crimes due to the prevalence of home surveillance cameras, cellphone cameras, and other technology such as DNA evidence is a factor. The “graying of America” is another possibility with the average age rising above the mean for those most likely to commit crimes.
Two wild theories relate to reduced violence within society. One, proposed by Rick Nevin, a Virginia economist, claims a correlation between eliminating lead from gasoline and a reduction in violent crime. In a peer-reviewed study, he makes an interesting case. He even wrote a book on the subject, Lucifer Curves. (https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Curves-Legacy-Lead-Poisoning-ebook/dp/B01I3LTR4W)
An even more controversial theory, by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics, and John Donohue of Yale University, argued that the 1973 Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade legalizing abortions was a significant contributor to reduced incidents of violent crime.
Research shows unwanted children had higher incidents of psychiatric problems and propensity to violence. Eighteen years after the decision, when those pregnancies legally aborted would have reached the age of 18, the start of the range of age of most violent offenders, the incidents of violent crime decreased. Controversial, to say the least. Critics of the theory tend to oppose abortion, so a full analysis is lacking.
These matters are all complex and intimately related. I doubt one explanation can account for the data. Yet, an honest look at comparing and contrasting the America of the mid-20th century and the one we live in today would show a vast overall improvement.
We have not suffered a “moral” decline. We have entered an age where we are overwhelmed with information absent any legitimate controls over the validity or veracity.
Fake news is a real phenomenon, but it is not characterized by just the things we disagree with. If there has been any decline, it is in our undervaluing the benefits of education.
The world becomes a more stable, safer, and fair place when we fundamentally understand our differences. There is no single path to a better America. Yet there is one certain path to our demise and decline, ignorance.
Until we set our minds to creating the best educational system and opportunity for success in the world, we will continue to look to the false memories of the good ‘ole days.
Our success lies in seizing the day, not clinging to the past.