Skip to main content

Top Ten Tragic Events During the '60s

Bill is a freelance writer who has written for a variety of platforms.

The top ten most tragic and terrible events of the '60s

The top ten most tragic and terrible events of the '60s

What Are Some Bad Things That Happened in the '60s?

I have written often of the '60s—that strange, exciting, turbulent decade in our history in which I came of age. When the decade began, I was a naïve twelve-year-old without a care in the world. When the decade ended, naivety was in my rear-view mirror, and my eyes were permanently pried open by the realities of the modern world.

It began on an incredible note of promise—a young, vibrant president urging citizens to contribute to the world, to make a difference, to summon up the courage inside each of us and help humanity reach its potential. It ended in a dazed state of bewilderment, cringing each day as new horrors were delivered to our doorstep.

There was no hiding from the Sixties. It simply was not possible to pull the covers over our heads and find protection. Every single concept of normalcy was stomped on and tossed aside, and for those of us who lived through it, we will forever be branded by the events of those ten years. For better or for worse, it was what it was—a rollercoaster ride that ran the entire spectrum of emotions.

Let us now turn our attention to ten events during the Sixties that served as a sobering reminder that for every light that shines, there is a darkness and that no matter how far mankind has come since our cave-dwelling days, we are still capable of returning to that darkness. The events that follow are in chronological order for the simple reason that when discussing tragedy, it seems callous to give a ranking order. How does one distinguish the most tragic?

I also left out the construction of the Berlin Wall, the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. A purely subjective decision on the part of this writer as the word “tragic” did not seem to apply to those events.

Let us now turn our attention to the dark side of the ’60s.

The start of a decade of turmoil

The start of a decade of turmoil

1. June 11, 1963 – The Self-Immolation of Thích Quảng Đức

Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam, disgusted by the continual persecution of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated government of that country, took to the streets of Saigon and established a new standard of horror.

Calmly sitting down in a busy street, he doused himself with fuel and burned himself to death. This writer will never forget the photograph of the fully-engulfed monk and the look of serenity on this face as he died. It was then that my previous concept of sacrifice was quickly adjusted and my awareness of religious persecution was born. It is one thing to read about atrocities in a textbook; it is quite another to see the result of that persecution in living color.

2. November 22, 1963 – The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Is there anyone who does not know what happened on that day in Dallas, Texas? I can tell you what happened to me that day. Mr. Jahner, my sophomore English teacher, came into our classroom and announced that the president had just been assassinated and my first thought was that it wasn’t possible. It could not happen in the United States! Those kinds of things happened elsewhere in the world but not here! Someone has made a mistake!

It was no mistake and in that act of hatred, the hopes and dreams of an entire nation seemed to disappear. It was as if we had taken a ferocious body punch and the air just exploded out of our lungs. There was no knockout but there was definitely a mandatory eight-count as our legs wobbled and our heads tried to clear.

3. June 21, 1964 – Murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner (Freedom Summer Murders)

Philadelphia, Mississippi, was the site of an act so vile as to leave most Americans stunned. Racism, which had silently infested the fabric of our country for centuries, finally was given a face and a voice as three anti-racism activists were lynched outside that sleepy Southern town.

We all knew, of course, that racism existed in the United States. We had only to walk down our own streets, north or south, east or west, to hear racial statements being made. It was by no means limited to the South in 1964, but it was relegated to the closet of American consciousness until those lynchings were made public. As a nation, we could no longer pretend that it did not exist or hope that it would not be “a problem.” With the advent of television, the nightly news would no longer allow us to hide from the truth.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

4. August 11–15, 1965 – Watts Riots

Four days of rioting the likes of which we hadn’t seen in quite some time occurred in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Blacks took to the streets in protest of racism and poor living conditions, and when the rioting had ended, 34 were dead. What more could happen?

It turned out to only be the beginning of turmoil in the streets of the United States. By this time, our collective virginity as a nation was lost, never to be regained. All thoughts of returning to the old days were gone as what was once considered the unthinkable was happening with a regularity that left many battle-scarred without ever leaving their living rooms.

5. July 12–17, 1967 – 1967 Newark Riots

Racial riots again captured our attention, this time in Newark, New Jersey. When the fires had been extinguished and the pain and suffering had been tallied, 26 had lost their lives. However, this was just the undercard of the main event that would happen six days later.


6. July 23, 1967 – 1967 Detroit Riot

Detroit, in many ways, was the perfect setting for the riots that occurred this day, leaving 40 dead and thousands injured. With a heavy Black population and a disproportionate income base that clearly reflected economic inequality, it was only a matter of time before this ugliness happened.

The summer of 1967 felt like the entire nation was burning out of control. Countless demonstrations were held, many of them violent, and the conflagration that was Detroit was mirrored in dozens of other cities not only in the United States but around the world. On practically any night of that long, hot summer, our senses were pushed to overload by racial violence and scenes of horror from Vietnam.

7. March 16, 1968 – The Mỹ Lai Massacre

In a little village called Mỹ Lai in South Vietnam, we discovered the true horror of warfare. Between 350–500 villagers, men, women, and children, were massacred and mutilated by United States soldiers led by Second Lieutenant William Calley.

As the days and weeks marched on and the facts became known, it became painfully clear that principles we once held to be the bedrock of our society were no longer, replaced by the realization that war is not always the good guys versus the bad guys, that oftentimes the distinction between good and evil is so blurred as to be non-existent.

8. April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The King is dead! Martin Luther King, Jr., a voice of reason amidst a cacophony of hatred, was assassinated. For many of us, and this is in itself sad to say, the murder of Dr. King was not a shock. It was almost expected because our lives had reached a point where the unspeakable was the norm.

Yes, the man who had a dream had died. All that remained to be seen was whether the dream itself would die as well, or would there be another voice of reason that would rise up and carry the banner of equality and peaceful protest.

Robert Kennedy spoke in tribute of King, calling on Americans to find common ground, lay down weapons, and refrain from striking out in grief and anger.

The riots and deadly protests continued.

9. June 5, 1968 – Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

My passion for politics died in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy seemed to be the final straw. Where once there had been one last chance to get it right, there now remained a very bleak outlook on the future, and hope was seemingly lost.

The shining knights had all been slain and in their place stood hatred and mistrust guided by the desire to strike down anyone who dared to speak of peace and humanness. I wept that night, as did millions of others around the world. Looking back, I’m not sure if I wept for Kennedy’s death or if I wept for the complete loss of hope that his death signified.

10. August 8–9, 1969 – Manson Family Murders

Perhaps the worst of the worst happened on a hot summer night in August in Southern California. It did not happen because of racial inequality, nor did it happen because of our ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia. In the quiet of that night, and the night to follow, a seemingly peaceful neighborhood was visited by pure evil in the person of Charles Manson and his followers.

When the bloodshed had ended, when the final letters of madness had been carved into human flesh, we were all left with a complete emptiness of spirit. I know of no other way to describe it. Human nature had sunk to depths we could not comprehend.

This rebel became a teacher; still trying to make a difference

This rebel became a teacher; still trying to make a difference

I can remember each of the aforementioned acts as if they happened yesterday, rather remarkable considering that four decades have passed. The Sixties held such promise only to see each and every promise crushed. It was a fun decade, and it was frightening. It was a hopeful decade, and it was despairing.

Looking back, I realize that I loved those ten years. Looking back, I realize that I hated those ten years.

In the final analysis, it was simply life and all that it entails. We are, after all, only human, and as such, we all have the capacity for incredible good, and yet, time and time again, we fall short of our higher calling.

So it was during the Sixties; human beings being human!

2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Related Articles