"If you can remember the 60’s you probably weren’t there."
Many people, most notably the late comic genius Robin Williams, claim the title phrase of this Crime Files edition. In reality, the first utterance probably came from Comedian Charlie Fleischer in a 1982 rendition of the drug culture of the psychedelic 1960’s.
This time I offer a different, forgotten prospective of the 60’s. Indisputably, those who lived through the 1960’s witnessed a major cultural change and some of the most challenging times in American history. Paradoxically, this story will be as different as it is the same.
If there was a flashpoint moment for start of the 60’s, it probably came in the mid 50’s when the US Supreme Court issued a landmark case over the rights of blacks in America. Thus began a national rift over civil rights as well as the birth of drug abuse and organized gangs.
Directly or indirectly, the tumultuous 60’s witnessed the assassination of the President of the United States. His successor, President Johnson, was left to deal with the most rapidly changing society in US history including a rampant drug culture that threatened the very lives of a generation.
With societal dysfunction established in the 60’s, street gangs and racial supremacy groups began a foothold in the 70’s. Decades later they’d remain a thorn in the side of American justice.
Much of the meltdown can be attributed to our nation’s involvement in an unpopular war. To complicate matters, the selective service system, also known as the draft, was pulling many unwilling American’s into the fight. To avoid service some American’s fled to Canada. Others served unwilling. The wealthy found ways to avoid service all together.
Media coverage of battlefield casualties became common place sending the citizenry into the streets. Anti-war protests became routine in many major cities across the fruited plain. Sometimes, demonstrations turned violent. Police were often caught in the middle. Recruitment and retention for the profession suffered.
What were the elements that led to this seemingly perfect storm? To answer the question the Crime Files goes back more than a century to the forgotten era of the 1860’s.
In 1857 the US Supreme Court issued an abomination of a ruling that held “a negro whose ancestors were imported into the U.S. and sold as slaves could not be an American citizen and had no standing in federal court.” Additionally, the court decreed the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Most modern scholars consider the 7-2 ruling, ultimately known as Dred Scott, to be the worst decision ever made by the US Supreme Court and at least an indirect catalyst for the Civil War.
New York City witnessed the most violent upheaval in July 1863, when draft protests led to riots in streets. Things went from bad to worse when armed troublemakers introduced race into the fray. The orgy of violence culminated with 119 American’s dead and legions more injured. To this day the event remains the worst civil strife in American history.
The drug epidemic began when cocaine was introduced to avoid battlefield fatigue. Even as late as 1900, the coca based narcotic was a key ingredient of a cola maker who advertised their syrupy beverage as “The Ideal Brain Tonic.”
To combat anxiety, marijuana became prevalent among combat troops.
With a high rate of battlefield injuries and primitive, unsterile medical techniques, many wounded soldiers found themselves in a dark irony where they were more likely to die at the hands of a doctor than their enemy. To ease suffering, morphine became a commonly used pain killer. Its addictive qualities were widely known however humanitarian concerns kept many men liberally dosed with morphine and other available analgesics. The result was a number of battle weary soldiers/addicts introduced the drug into the civilian population. Within a decade opiate addiction was so prevalent it was labeled "Soldier's Disease" by a number of doctors.
General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox brought peace but our nation was fractured and forever changed. Racial supremacy groups, the most notorious being the Ku Klux Klan, began to spring up not only in the South but in Union states who were experiencing a northern migration of newly freed slaves.
History now regards President Lincoln as one of the best to occupy the White House. However, at the time, many saw him very differently. History portrays Lincoln as a champion of civil rights for blacks, yet when he suspended Habeas Corpus and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many labeled him a traitor, tyrant and an idiot.
President Lincoln truly believed all men were created equal but his ultimate goal wasn’t so much freeing slaves but keeping the Union intact. Some historians argue Lincoln most likely would have allowed the South to remain slave states as he believed the ideology was contained and a generation from dying out. More pressing was what would become of new territories and states just entering the Union. Allowing these new acquisitions to become slave states would send the United States in the wrong direction.
As America grew with immigrants, so did ethnically segregated street gangs. By the end of the 19th century some gangs along the eastern seaboard numbered in the tens of thousands. Some very young members would later become notorious Public Enemies such as Al Capone and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel.
By 1920, street gangs were, for the most part, on the ropes and driven mostly underground. The drug epidemic had run its course as the Civil War generation began to die out. Then came Volstead. More commonly known as Prohibition, the constitutional amendment outlawed liquor (except for medicinal purposes) across America and ultimately brought about what’s now known as the American Mafia.