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9 Quotes That Exemplify the 1960s

The fevered shout of the ’60s ushered in the second half of the 20th century with a bang, with astounding advancements in science and technology, societal and cultural norms, the arts, and more. On one hand, it was the era of peace and love. But on the other, it was an era of tremendous unrest and upheaval of the status quo, from the civil rights movement to new-wave feminism to a burgeoning counterculture movement.

The 1960s also saw some of history’s most notable figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, as well as musical greats such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon. These individuals were on the frontlines of a rapidly changing world, attempting to navigate the choppy waters of progress while the masses followed closely in tow. As is befitting for such a significant period, the speeches, songs, and rallying cries of the time proved to be particularly powerful and poignant.

Many of these quotes that summarize the 1960s still ring true today as we continue to face some of the same struggles our predecessors did during this distinct era. Minority groups are still fighting for equal rights, war still ravages much of the world, and the arts continue to thrash against the sterility of corporate culture.

These quotes not only serve as inspiration, but also act as navigational guides to remind us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
John F. Kennedy

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Then-President John F. Kennedy gave an address at Rice University on September 12, 1962, during which he outlined the United States’ goal to become an international leader in space exploration. The first moon landing occurred seven years later, during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Armstrong

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Neil Armstrong was the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and the first man to ever step foot on the moon. He uttered this now-iconic phrase as he climbed down the ladder of the lunar module to begin his ground exploration of the moon with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.
Richard Nixon

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In an address to the United States on November 3, 1969, then-President Richard Nixon spoke these words regarding the massively divisive Vietnam War. While many Americans revolted and protested against the violence overseas, proclaiming it to be senseless, others viewed it as necessary and even heroic. The war continues to be a controversial topic today, but it’s widely considered to be a devastating mistake.

We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.
John Lennon

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The Beatles were fast approaching the apex of their immensely successful musical career when Lennon shared this thought with reporter Maureen Cleave in a story for the London Evening Standard. Backlash against the comment was swift, resulting in mass record burnings, protests, and widespread “Ban the Beatles” campaigns that put a damper on a decade’s worth of Beatlemania.

There is no better teacher than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.
Malcolm X

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Malcolm X was one of the figureheads of the 1960s civil rights movement. His more radical and aggressive approach stood in contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.’s strictly pacifist style of protest. In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three gunmen in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom while preparing to deliver a speech at an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr.

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On the other end of the spectrum in the battle for civil rights was Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged peaceful protests and tolerance rooted in Christianity. These words were published in a collection of King’s sermons titled Strength to Love and quickly became one of his most well-known quotes, succinctly summarizing his nonviolent beliefs and optimism for the movement.

500,000 halos … outshined the mud and history. We washed and drank in … God’s tears of joy. And for once, and for everyone - the truth was not a mystery.
Jimi Hendrix

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Musician Jimi Hendrix penned these unfinished lyrics as a contemplation on the 1969 Woodstock music festival. (The scrap of paper on which he wrote them is estimated to be worth many thousands of dollars today.) The unpublished words summarized Hendrix’s experience at the festival, which proved to be one of his most notable performances before his untimely death at 27.

I’m a nonviolent soldier. That’s to be distinguished a little from being a pacifist. It’s not just withdrawing and growing your own vegetables and not paying taxes. It means doing more than being nice to birds and small animals.
Joan Baez

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Joan Baez was at the forefront of the 1960s folk revival, writing songs that combined classic storytelling tradition with calls to action reflective of the changing times. She outlined the specifics of her “nonviolent soldier” stance in a 1967 New Yorker interview, summarizing the need for assertiveness and commitment in the fight for peace — a mindset that’s now seen as a trademark of the entire decade.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
Rachel Carson

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Rachel Carson was a biologist, writer, and conservationist who is credited with advancing the global environmental movement of the 1960s. This quote was published in her 1965 book The Sense of Wonder, which encouraged parents to pass on admiration and respect for the earth to their children.


Featured image credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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