And today's students appreciate that — even while consigning Kennedy and King to a misty past. Having grown up during the shadowy war on terrorism, many show no sense of "what it's like to live in a culture of optimism."
"The biggest thing I find," Varon added, "is that students are enraptured by the fact that once upon a time young people had a sense of purpose in life."
Cultural historian Thomas Hine calls the young people of the 1960s "the luckiest generation."
Their sense of purpose coincided with an economic upswing that had propelled the nation since the end of World War II, with the promise of progress seen in relentless "Mad men"-style advertising — everything "new and improved" — and with Kennedy's New Frontier.
"The 'New Frontier' was really a very shrewd phrase. Westerns were the most popular thing on TV, and the frontier of space was the future," said Hine, author of "Populuxe," an examination of '50s and '60s ideas.
In a popular cartoon, the Jetsons were part of a community floating above Earth, and yet they relied on updated versions of every terrestrial pushbutton appliance and lived the life of a suburban nuclear family. Media and political messages of the time, Hine said, met in "the idea that the whole world could be managed." Even amid global jitters and social strains at home, there was "the idea that we can take more control of our lives."
In Spivey's '60s classes at Miami, students grasp the sense of purpose in 1963's pivotal chapter in the civil rights movement, with its hundreds of demonstrations that year alone.
With other lecturers — and with music, film and the personal recollections of participants — he tries to bring the ferment of the time alive for students. "We try and make them feel the era," he said.
Ticking off milestones, the professor mentions Birmingham. That city was a bulwark of the resistance to progress toward civil rights begun with prior years' lunch counter sit-ins and "freedom rides." And it was there that King and others went to launch Project C, for "confrontation."
With a series of marches, they wanted to provoke a reaction and draw public attention. Hundreds were arrested, including King, whose galvanizing "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is course reading for students now.
"Injustice anywhere," its best-known line says, "is a threat to justice everywhere."
TV images and newspaper reports from Birmingham showed peaceful marchers, including children, being attacked by snapping police dogs and blasted by fire hoses.
"Then the water hit them," an AP reporter on the scene wrote. "Cowering first with hands over their heads, then on their knees or clinging together with their arms around each other, they tried to hold their ground." A man's T-shirt was ripped off by the fire hose blast, and afterward a woman was bleeding from the nose and a young girl's eyes were cut, the story said.
Facing howls of outrage, local officials eventually agreed to a list of reforms, which King declared "the most significant victory for justice we've ever seen in the South."
Public pressure also moved the White House, which had taken a cautious stance on civil rights.
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," Kennedy said in a June 1963 speech, formally supporting a sweeping Civil Rights Act. "Are we to say to the world — and much more importantly to each other — that this is the land of the free, except for the Negroes...?"
Resistance was far from over, of course. On the very night of Kennedy's speech, Medgar Evers, NAACP field director in Mississippi, was gunned down in his driveway by a klansman.
And Birmingham itself would witness in September an especially heartless attack, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four children preparing for Sunday school. When Spivey's students are shown Spike Lee's film, "Four Little Girls," tears flow again, decades later.
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