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Ordinary people in extraordinary times: A fresh look at the 1960s

In his new book, professor Kevin Boyle explores the movements that shattered the status quo as well the struggles the U.S. still faces today
Kevin Boyle’s new book is “The Shattering: America in the 1960s.” Photo by John Rodas

Kevin Boyle likes to complicate history. 

Before he came to Northwestern, Boyle taught a popular ’60s history class at Ohio State University. “It was a big class, but they weren’t coming for me,” he said. “It was because students had all these cliches in their heads that this was the era of sex and drugs and rock and roll and hippies and all this stuff. And that’s what drew them in.”

To counter expectations, Boyle had his students read and explain the rules of the vintage board game Life to their peers. The exercise demonstrated how most people experienced the ’60s, and the quest for security that mirrored the game’s objective: move your car across the board, go to college or head straight to a job, get married, have kids, buy a house and retire comfortably.

Three key struggles

Boyle’s new book, “The Shattering: America in the 1960s” (W.W. Norton), illuminates seminal historical events that pierced the stability of the status quo, and set the stage for three key struggles the U.S. still grapples with today: the anti-war movement, the fight for racial equality and the sexual revolution.

The book’s opening story is built around a photo of one family who benefited from the rise in middle-class prosperity following WWII. It was taken on the Fourth of July of 1961 from West Eddy Street in Chicago, a typical street, in a typical neighborhood of the era. The photograph’s subjects are Ed Cahill and his wife Stella, second-generation immigrants from Ireland and Poland, standing in front of a row of bungalow homes all hung with American flags. Ed worked for a thermos manufacturer, with a major contract with the U.S. Navy. Neighbors, all white, pose for the photo on the Cahill’s front lawn, Ed with his children and other fathers and children pose in the front, and Stella with the other women and mothers, standing in the rear, just behind the hedges. 

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You can hook people with something that’s personal about the past, it’s vivid, and you can hang a lot of history on it.”

Kevin Boyle

To fill in the biographical details of the Cahills on Eddy Street, Boyle, a professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, conducted interviews with Ed and Stella’s grown daughter. The photo freezes a moment at the top of the decade, before the struggles over gender roles, racial inclusion and war protests would complicate the picture.

Boyles’ approach to writing is informed by his teaching — and he relies on stories to teach his students. “You can hook people with something that’s personal about the past, it’s vivid, and you can hang a lot of history on it,” he said. 

With “The Shattering,” Boyle explores stories behind other key moments of the ’60s, and brings to life the conversations, thoughts and feelings of those who lived through the events that shattered the status quo. Moments like the first day of school for Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Black students chosen to integrate Little Rock High School in Arkansas, who is walking rigidly, terrified of the angry mob surrounding her in the photo; and the violent Chicago police assault on anti-war protestors during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Fresh take shaped by teaching

Boyle says his treatment of the civil rights movement was shaped by an undergraduate course he currently teaches at Northwestern.

Just as Boyle upends misperceptions in the classroom, “The Shattering” complicates and illustrates readers’ understanding of the era and provides perspective on the present day.

“We are currently living with all three issues,” Boyle said. “The racial reckoning never ended. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the Roe decision, which is one of the culminating points of the book, and just this summer we had a huge upheaval over nation building (the military withdrawal from Afghanistan), which is a language that comes straight out of the Vietnam War.”

When asked why he chose “The Shattering” as the book’s title, Boyle said, it was his way of expressing the possibilities that opened up with the struggles in the ’60s, though not all came to fruition.

“The expanding middle and lower middle-class world of the 1950s was built on the profound desire for security by the folks who wanted to get into it. It was a security that was also created and reinforced by racial exclusion, and built and reinforced by the military industrial complex,” Boyle said. The Cahill family and many others like them, in a small, personal way, benefited from the military industrial complex. 

Recognizing sacrifices and gains made

According to Boyle, the opportunities for change opened by the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement contracted as the decade closed. A silent majority of whites who didn’t want that kind of sweeping racial change to go any further signified this with the election of Richard Nixon as President in 1969.

“An opening came with the end of the Vietnam War, but closed up again, and the military industrial complex never went anywhere. And ideas of nation building resurfaced time and again,” Boyle said.

“The 1960s the civil rights activists made profound changes in this country. Did they manage to get everything they wanted? No. But they made profound changes. It’s really important to acknowledge these efforts, such as the Voting Rights Act. Now here we are, all these years later, worrying about can we hold onto these changes, but they made those changes, and they made them with profound sacrifices. People died to make those changes. And I think we need to acknowledge that it happened. And that change can in fact, come through ordinary people.”

About ‘The Shattering’

Published by W.W. Norton, “The Shattering” was named a Los Angeles Times Most Anticipated Book of Fall 2021 and a Books of the Times pick by the New York Times.

Kevin Boyle, is the William Smith Mason Professor of History at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the National Book Winner and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.”