Quora Question: What Was It Like to Be Black in the 1960s?

A mural in Selma, Alabama, shows the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. Jim Young/Reuters

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Answer from Michael David Cobb Bowen, dad, data architect, writer and entrepreneur

This is a question too big to be answered in one post. Here I can only paint broad strokes.

I would say that the best way to look back at the '60s is to understand that black Americans were a lot less diverse back then, we lived a lot closer together and we were more constrained in our behavior and thinking. So in that way it was both cozy and cramped. Back then it was the black community.

Understand that "black" applied to my parents, born just after the Depression years, and that was a progressive stance beyond that of ordinary Negro. The "revolution" in black thinking started in the '60s after something of the constraints of the '50s. What I want to evoke is the understanding that the post-war '50s, when my parents were younger, was the revolutionary period in American and world history that made it clear that the future was going to be very different than the past. Space race, Sputnik, Cold War and all that. They were looking at a new world order, and the election of JFK made everything new and hopeful. People tend to think about the radicals of the mid- and late '60s as if that were all there was, but the loosening up of society and thoughts about the new modern world were already there. The easiest way to think about it is to remember the first Ford Mustang was in 1964.

Black adults and children listened to the same music. It was all soul music, and we talked about "soul" way more than anybody does today. Soul music, soul food, Christian soul.

But I'm going to romanticize just a little bit because I have spent a lot of time online representing the "Old School." And I'm going to say that what black America lost was the cohesion and concern by its more successful members to those less fortunate. So basically Negro America had a talent and brain drain to mainstream America that began in the '60s as Civil Rights laws became real, black consciousness stood up on its hind legs and started walking boldly and Americans all over chose to and/or were forced to take the threats of separatism seriously. You see it was a double edged sword.

For example if you were a doctor in the '60s and you were black, you belonged to the National Medical Association, not the American Medical Association. A lot of people never even heard of it. And now, of course, it's much less influential than it used to be. So the leadership and connection to that leadership in black communities became diluted. But the existence of those organizations, the legacy of segregation and the narrower focus of Negro ambition made black Americans in the middle class more formal, organized and disciplined. There's no other way to put it but that they were more civilized people. They were who I consider the Old School. And again, I spent a lot of time several years ago trying to represent the best of that amidst a much more dissolute society.

This is my aunt and my mother (on the right) pregnant with me at the LA Zoo. This is them later with my father and I. I was complaining about something loudly, obviously.

You can see how the fashions changed in a few short years. My mother used to sew her own dresses of course. This was normal in the '60s. The mid- and late '60s moved by very quickly. Again, people tend to overemphasize a few events without bringing forward a longer view. A lot of things were happening at the same time. So my parents, both college educated, brought their ideas and plans to the West Coast in the '60s and both were part of the Black Nationalist movement, but not in a militant, radical way. They were social workers and helped build black student organizations on campuses in Southern California, but they were also middle-class parents, not wild-eyed fanatics in the streets with nothing to lose.

Many people from the Old School often recall "we were poor but we didn't know that we were poor." Black Americans were accustomed to making the best of a bad situation. You might live in the inner city without luxury, but you presented yourself with dignity and respect. You didn't swear. You spoke proper English. You were frugal. I think this picture exemplifies that. Clearly not a swanky neighborhood, but we were clean and presentable.

That probably would have been 1968, the year America burned. My little brother looks to be about 2 years old there.

Beyond my own family, one could expect respectable debates held on serious topics of interest to the nation that you could get behind. Black journalists like Carl T Rowan and others like him were an order of magnitude more sharp and responsible than today's journos. Black newspapers meant something. Magazines like Liberator and Black Digest handled serious questions.

I'm going to leave it there. Here are some Negro Digest magazines from the library I will inherit. There's not an issue there raising questions that have not been answered satisfactorily to the Old School. It's the simple fact, then as now, that some people took serious matters more seriously than others.

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Quora Question: What Was It Like to Be Black in the 1960s? | Culture