The True History of the 1960s: Murder, Divorce, and Rock & Roll

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When many Americans think of the 1960s, cute hippie girls and great rock music come to mind. What gets left out is the breakdown of American society: Between 1960 and 1970, the violent crime rate more than doubled and divorces skyrocketed. Here are just a few reasons that the 1960s deserve to be remembered as one of the darkest decades in American history.

When the ’60s started, Americans were still enjoying the post-WWII boom. The 1950s had seen an explosion of productivity and American family life was strong. In fact, the divorce rate fell substantially between 1950 and 1960. Homicide rates were similarly low—over 15 percent lower than today.

But during the 1960s, all of that changed. It was in the ’60s that the murder rate and the divorce rate jumped by over 50 percent. Overall, violent crime increased by a whopping 124 percent. Moreover, the nation limped into the 1970s in the midst of an economic crisis caused by rising inflation and a stagnating economy. It was rather a mess.

What happened? Though it may seem like a mystery to modern Americans, conservatives in the 1960s predicted many of these results when fundamental changes were made in American life.

The picture becomes clearer when we zoom in on the data. While deaths by homicide grew over the course of the 1960s, the biggest increase in the homicide rate started in 1964. In fact, between 1964 and 1974, the murder rate doubled! This indicates that we should look for our answer between 1960 and 1964.

A number of important court cases reshaped American life in those years. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that school prayer was unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale in 1962, and again in Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. Apparently, American public schools had been violating the Constitution for nearly 200 years without anyone knowing it!

Conservatives reacted to the rulings with disbelief. They reminded us of George Washington’s claim that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” And sure enough, the moral fabric of America quickly started fraying in the newly secular era.

Many of the changes started in the home: Divorce rates increased by 50 percent between 1960 and 1970. Interestingly, this change cannot be attributed to the rise of no-fault divorce laws, as the first of such laws was only enacted in 1969 in California. Rather, it seems to have been the result of a moral decline in the culture as a whole.

Simply put, when America turned against traditional morality in the 1960s, they ended up with poorer public morality. And as homes crumbled, the streets also plunged into madness.

This aspect of the degradation of America started in 1963 with Gideon v. Wainwright. In that case, the Warren Court freed a man convicted of larceny because the man could not afford legal counsel at his trial.

According to the Warren Court, the fact that the Sixth Amendment protects the right to counsel meant that if someone could not afford an attorney, the state had an obligation to provide him one. In other words, the state was to both prosecute and defend criminals—a clear conflict of interest and a serious drain on taxpayers.

In effect, the Court’s ruling made it harder to convict criminals. As Dr. Clarence Carson argues, when you lower the cost of committing crime, you should expect the quantity of crime to rise. And rise it did.

But the Court was not content to stop there. In 1964, it held that suspects have a right to an attorney before a trial; in fact, before even being interrogated by police. Just two years later, it created new rules for police to follow before they question arrestees. Those rules are now known as “Miranda rights.”

It’s important to note that the Supreme Court didn’t consult the text of the Constitution or any other law as it drew up new rules for every police officer in the country to follow. Instead, it created the new law out of thin air. This practice is known as “legislating from the bench,” and it substitutes the judgment of nine unelected justices for the will of the American people as legislated by Congress.

Throughout the 1960s, the Warren Court overturned lower court decisions and allowed guilty criminals to go free because their Miranda rights had been violated. The Chief of Police of Los Angeles, W. H. Parker, observed, “I fail to see how the guilty criminal freed constitutes a personal loss to the police officer who has merely attempted to bring a criminal to justice.” However, the Court disagreed.

Miranda rights are now deeply embedded in American culture. It’s hard to imagine life without them. We’ve all heard, “You have the right to remain silent.…” Yet though it is important to preserve the rights of the accused, it is at least equally important to protect the rights of the victim.

Whether the Court’s rulings were justified or not, they had an undeniable tendency to reduce the costs of committing crime for the criminal while raising the costs of convicting those criminals for the state. When combined with the Warren Court’s assault on America’s moral foundations, they made for a poisonous cocktail.

During the 1960s, changes in American legal life left the average resident of an American city with a higher chance of being shot and killed than was an American soldier in active duty in the European theater of World War II. Meanwhile, the moral and familial fiber of the nation deteriorated. By the time the ’60s finally came to an end, America had been thoroughly weakened. So much for peace, love, and rock & roll.

Image credit: “Woodstock-kids” by Ric Manning on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0. Image cropped.