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15 Quotes That Define the 1960s

No decade in recent memory has fundamentally changed the United States as much as the 1960s. The nation entered this transformative period with the economic glow of the postwar boom and the Leave It to Beaver-esque lifestyle of the “American Dream” in full swing. Over the next 10 years, however, nearly every aspect of U.S. culture would begin to change.

The British Invasion and the rise of American folk and soul brought in a new era of popular music; second wave feminism battled the status quo of gender inequality; environmentalism took root by demanding decisive action to protect the planet; and civil rights activists continued fighting long-lasting injustices baked into the country’s very founding.

Meanwhile, a radical counterculture was brewing in hippie hubs such as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village in New York. Free love movements and drug culture permeated through the nation while many citizens became disaffected with the government’s unending war in Vietnam. Artists and filmmakers, especially the directors that powered the “New Hollywood” movement, worked to capture the zeitgeist on canvas and celluloid. The ‘60s even pushed the very bounds of exploration as the Space Race between the U.S. and Soviet Union culminated in humans walking on the moon.

Here are 15 iconic quotes that capture the spirit of this tumultuous and metamorphic decade in American history, spoken by some of the most famous figures of the era, from Neil Armstrong to Marilyn Monroe.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
President John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address

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And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make
“The End” off the 1969 album “Abbey Road,” the last song recorded by all four Beatles

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That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, as he took his first steps on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission

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I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King Jr., delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963

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The feminists had destroyed the old image of woman, but they could not erase the hostility, the prejudice, the discrimination that still remained.
Betty Friedan, influential feminist leader and author of 1963’s “The Feminine Mystique”

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Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Muhammad Ali, world-renowned boxer, told reporters his fight strategy before his bout with Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964

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Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Marilyn Monroe, singing a sultry tribute to President John F. Kennedy on May 19, 1962

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In nature nothing exists alone.
Rachel Carson, the conservationist who’s influential book “Silent Spring” ignited the environmental movement

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Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.
Timothy Leary, psychologist and author known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs

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You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.
Malcolm X, said during his “Prospects for Freedom in 1965” speech in New York City on January 7, 1965, just over a month before his assassination

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There's something happening here / But what it is ain't exactly clear / There's a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware
Buffalo Springfield’s song “For What It’s Worth,” a reaction to the 1966 Sunset Strip curfew riots in Los Angeles

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In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.
Andy Warhol, influential leader of the pop art movement

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The only way to support a revolution is to make your own.
Abbie Hoffman, political activist and member of the Chicago Seven, a group of activists charged with conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention

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We blew it.
Peter Fonda, portraying the protagonist Wyatt in the 1969 film “Easy Rider." The line was seen as an acknowledgement of the failed hopes of the era

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Come mothers and fathers, / Throughout the land, / And don’t criticize, / What you can’t understand.
Bob Dylan’s famous 1964 song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” written as an anthem to reflect the changing times of the 1960s

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Photo credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

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About the Author
Darren Orf
Darren lives in Portland, Oregon, has two cats, and writes about science, technology, nature, and history.
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