The Sixties—1960-63 in a Small Town

by lindajoy on September 1, 2012

When I think back to when the sixties began, time telescopes so far back it’s hard to remember it. I was fifteen in 1960, living in a medium-sized Oklahoma town where conformity, strict Christian values and deep racial prejudice reigned. In my town, I had one friend who was a Catholic, whose skin was darker because she was Lebanese. Her family had more money and businesses than most, but she didn’t fit in—either with the white community or the black, but she was my friend because her parents and my grandmother played Bridge. She was fun, funny, smart, and went to Mass every Sunday. The Baptists would say awful things about the Catholics—they worshipped idols, they worshipped Mary, they worshipped the Pope—and most of all, they were DIFFERENT.

Then John F. Kennedy ran for president, which increased the hysteria. I’ll never forget my friend screaming with joy when Kennedy won, while the conservative Protestants stared at her in shock.

His speech was one of hope, and many of us felt this tug to be SOMETHING or SOMEONE in this new generation. His hair was in place and his voice firm as he spoke on an icy January day after taking the oath of office:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world…

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

In 1961, black people could not vote freely. Churches, schools, and swimming pools were segregated. In my town, a dusty red dirt road lead to the “colored” part of town; we were all taught to let them be with “their own kind.” In church we were taught about loving our neighbors as ourselves, but people hired black women to clean their houses, and come in the back door. In Oklahoma, we were more of the South than the Midwest, on the edge of both.

Just as portrayed in The Help, to feel differently in a small town is dangerous. People are divided into “good” and “bad,” are ostracized for being out of the norm, just as Celia was in The Help. The layers of social rank exist everywhere, but then it was not questioned openly. I used to wonder about these things, silently to myself. My grandmother who was raising me was disgustingly prejudiced, and a conservative Republican. But my thoughts didn’t mesh with her, or with the town.

Growing up in this small town in the late fifties during the Cold War, and facing the nuclear crisis during Kennedy’s administration, we learned to “duck and cover” as a way to “protect” ourselves from nuclear attack; around town there were Air Raid shelters. We grew up with the possibility of nuclear war over our heads, images of a great wind snuffing us out. Our parents and grandparents had lived through WWII, and some of my relatives had lived through WWI and would talk about these struggles, heroism, without batting an eye about the wrong things going on around us, without a trace of irony about being taught we were safe under a wooden desk in case of nuclear attack.

Girls then were trained that it was more important to wear white gloves, pumps, hose, a girdle, the correct length of skirt, marry the right (perfect) boy, and live in the perfect house with the white picket fence. Perhaps that was a way to whistle in the dark, I don’t know. These images were imprinted upon us, so that when “reality” hit, it was a shock.

The soft dreams of this shiny future, promises of a greater and better world through science, the fact that America had progressed so far and so well from the Depression and war time, made it all seem inevitable—this new world and the promises of adulthood.

Until November 22, 1963.

How could we know, but perhaps we sensed it, that the assassination of John F. Kennedy would mark the end of this idealism. He had heralded the energy and vision of a new generation—which was us. He held out for us a new world, a new promise of a better world (of course, we didn’t know yet about Viet Nam.) The day he was killed, the cold November wind blew the leaves from the trees at the University of Oklahoma campus. Someone was running, crying, people were gathered in little bunches, alarm on their faces. “What happened,” I asked.

“They shot the governor of Texas,” I was told. But when I got to my folk dancing class, the teacher had put the radio in the middle of the floor.

We all gathered around the radio waiting for news—we found out that the president had been shot. Then came the famous announcement by Walter Cronkite that we have seen on television so many times, grief caught in his throat. We sat in shock, some of us cried, some shook our heads. Everything stopped. That afternoon, all the girls in the dorm lined up on the living room floor to watch the small black and white T.V. No men were allowed in dorms, or beyond the front door, so we all were there in front of the T. V. for three days, including that Sunday when we watched Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald.

The dry leaves blew around the campus. Everything seemed grey and sepia-toned as we wandered in shock away from that dividing moment into the stunned unknown. Something had been set in motion, and it would take time to find out what it was.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Farrell September 1, 2012

Linda Joy, You write so vividly about the small town context of your 60s experiences and how those boundaries were opening a bit. The shining promise that ended in shock and tragic loss is so real in your writing, recalling those sad, sad days and the heartbreak we all shared. Then, suddenly, I remembered something I’d forgotten, a hopeful moment in 1960. And I thank you for that! One memory leads to another.


Lilith Rogers January 3, 2013

Linda Joy,

You’re from Enid, right? One of my brothers lives there now and I’ve visited a couple of times. Don’t think it’s changed much, unfortunately.

It’s sad for me to recall the racism of my own hometown–a suburb of Galveston, Texas–and of my relatives there.

And I remember the garter belts, the beehive hair dos, the duck and cover. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture. Lilith


Linda Joy Myers January 4, 2013

Hi Lilith, You guess right! Enid–yes, it’s actually very much more depressing now than in the fifties. half the town seems to have fallen in complete disarray. All I wanted to do when I lived there is escape, from my home actually as well as from the narrow minded world of that place, and also of that time. Soon enough I/we were all catapulted into the 60s–and it was a new world and new time. Thank you for your note. I hope you are submitting something to our contest!! The deadline is January 15th.


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