why the sixties wore jeans

(Philadelphia) In preparation for his visit to Tufts on March 17 (which you should attend if you are in the area), I have been re-reading Doug McAdam’s book Freedom Summer. It is one of my favorite works of social science, combining sensitive and moving narrative history with a persuasive quantitative method to generate numerous important insights.

One of McAdam’s significant themes is the role of the roughly 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers in creating the New Left and the Counterculture of the late 1960s. In 1964, the volunteers were deliberately recruited from high-status universities and well-connected, rich or comfortable families. (The goal was to bring media attention and federal assistance when such elite students were arrested and beaten.) They arrived in Mississipi in chinos and short hair, often motivated by mainstream religious doctrines, and believing in the essential soundness of national institutions. They left radicalized, not only in their political opinions and diagnoses, but also in their career commitments and their ways of life. They literally left Mississipi in blue jeans, ready to form communes on their home campuses, where they were received as heroes and leaders.

Take the blue jeans: McAdam explains that seasoned SNCC staff wore denim in Mississippi to fit in with the agricultural workers whom they were trying to register. There was nothing cool about jeans in mainstream youth culture in 1964. But the SNCC staff seemed enormously cool to the 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers, who imitated their clothes and idioms. Pretty soon they were back at Harvard and Berkeley, wearing denim and saying “dig it.”

And the communes: McAdam writes that the original plan was to place the volunteers in African Americans’ homes. That worked in some cases, but because of the violence or threats that host families suffered, it became necessary to house some volunteers together in group homes. Under conditions of exhilaration, terror, anger, and constant internal struggles among volunteers and staff, these homes became hotbeds of conversation and exploration. From cans of shared food money, to midnight meetings, to sexual experimentation, the Counterculture was born.

McAdam received attention recently for his study of Teach for America, which found disappointing effects on the participants. Comparing TFA and Freedom Summer only goes so far: nothing can (or should) rival the impact of joining a mass political movement that is the major national news story of the season and that–following the murder of three participants–changes American politics. I am struck, however, by the differences between being young in 1964 and 2008. No recent event compares to the intensity of experience, the deep generational fault-lines and generational identities, or the comprehensiveness of the changes that young people led in the mid-1960s. Many Millennials’ parents weren’t even born in 1964, yet I think the hangover lingers even today.