Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Brazile: How the '60s shaped my life

By Donna Brazile
updated 3:35 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
  • Events in "The Sixties" changed the world and the way Donna Brazile saw it
  • MLK, RFK killed in 1968. Brazile was only 9 but joined the civil rights movement
  • Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, all came into their own in the '60s
  • To discuss who we are and where we can go, we need to understand the '60s

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I'm looking forward to Thursday night's installment of CNN's "The Sixties" with some trepidation. True, it's another excellent installment in the series. Capturing the highlights and essence of a decade, especially one as turbulent and historically significant as the '60s, is not easy.

Given the controversial nature of many of the events -- at the time and even today -- and given how much influence some of those movements and events still exert, the task of putting together even a multipart series is daunting.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Thursday's episode will cover the 1968 assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, and of Bobby Kennedy, on June 5. Other episodes will cover the beginnings of the gay rights movement -- the Stonewall riots -- and the emergence of the women's rights movement.

Those events changed my life, immediately. Those movements changed the way I saw the world, eventually.

I was born on December 15, 1959 -- the cusp of the '60s. As the baby boomers came of age, or at least entered their teens, I went from infancy, to being a toddler, to childhood. I have no direct memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK's assassination, the Beatles coming to America, or the buildup of the Vietnam War.

"I Have A Dream" was my dream -- it still is, of course -- but I learned the words in reruns.

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll defined the 1960s. But the decade was also a time of pivotal change — politically, socially and technologically. Check out 60 of the most iconic moments of the decade, and then experience "The Sixties" on CNN. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll defined the 1960s. But the decade was also a time of pivotal change — politically, socially and technologically. Check out 60 of the most iconic moments of the decade, and then experience "The Sixties" on CNN.
60 iconic moments from the 1960s
Photos: 60 iconic moments from the 1960s Photos: 60 iconic moments from the 1960s
The Sixties: 1968 Trailer
8 events that changed the world in 1968

But I was old enough to be affected directly by the events in this episode. As I wrote in "Cooking With Grease," I grew up on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot. I'd been active in neighborhood politics even before, but that night, at 9 years old, I joined the civil rights movement. I had no choice. None of us did.

When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated two months later, we prayed. I remember praying. I remember my anger, my fear, my determination. I remember talking to everyone I trusted, everyone I thought wise. The times indeed were changing, but nobody knew what they were changing into.

Our challenge was channeling anger into action, transforming despair into determination, using defeat to become more disciplined. I learned early it's a lifetime challenge.

While the civil rights movement was woven into my childhood, it took a bit longer for me to become aware of what was then called the women's liberation movement.

Of course, the fight for equality goes back into the 19th century, even to Founders like Abigail Adams.

But it was in 1968 that "women's lib" became an official part of the societal shift, the tide of change toward economic, social and legal equality. (The name "women's liberation" came from a nationally circulated newsletter that came out of Chicago.)

It was a time of consciousness-raising, and women refused to be left out.

In 1968, 100 women protested the Miss America beauty pageant. In 1972, Gloria Steinem published the first issue of Ms. Magazine, but the seeds had been sown earlier. Women like Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Barbara Jordan -- they showed a young girl just entering her teens that being a woman wasn't a political handicap, but an asset. Or it could be.

The gay rights movement also started in the late '60s, but it had the farthest to go. Like the push for women's equality, it actually started earlier. It just found its voice, following the footsteps of the civil rights and women's rights movements.

The impetus was the Stonewall riots. When police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, it sent shock waves through the gay and lesbian community.

Police lost control of the situation, people rioted, and more protests occurred the next night, and again on other nights. Village residents began organizing, trying to establish places where gays and lesbians could be open without harassment or arrest.

Organizing nationwide was slow. Gaining acceptance by other activist groups was slow. Getting respect and equal treatment before the law was slow. It still is.

But where we are today began then. And if we want to have an honest discussion about where we are, and where we can and should go, we need to understand the '60s a lot better than we do.

I hope you'll tune in.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
See images of 60 iconic moments of the 1960s. And experience "The Sixties" on CNN Thursday nights at 9 ET/PT.
If you lived in the '60s, would you be hanging at the soda shop? Or protesting injustice? Take this quiz about what you like today to find out who you'd be in the '60s.
updated 4:07 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
In the 1960s, there were three TV channels and not much to watch. Now that most people have hundreds of channels, has anything changed?
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Step back in time to when the world was on the brink, and the Soviets became the enemy of choice in US movies and TV.
updated 3:44 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Here's a dirty little secret about the civil rights movement...
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
From Jimi Hendrix to Merle Haggard, music shaped the way the world reacted to the events of the 1960s.
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The Vietnam War, especially U.S. involvement, escalated in the 1960s. Here are five things you might not know about the conflict.
The 1960s were a time of mop tops, tie-dyes, and a host of other fashion-worthy trends. We'd like to see what your family photos looked like.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
New civil rights museums, like the one in Atlanta, are all trying to reveal their stake in history while drawing a young, tech-savvy audience.
updated 6:53 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The 60's were full of new shows with memorable theme songs. Can you guess these famous TV shows just from their music?
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Gidget, Emma Peel from "The Avengers," Samantha from "Bewitched": The women in '60s TV kicked ass and spurred changes, Sally Kohn writes.
How much do you really know about this pivotal decade? Take the quiz (no Internet searches!) and find out.
updated 8:05 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Episode 1 excerpt: It's hard to tell who had more belly laughs on "The Carol Burnett Show": the cast or audiences.
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Episode 1 excerpt: CBS loved Tom and Dick Smothers' folk satire until they said some topical humor went too far.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was fatally gunned down in Dallas. Here are five interesting facts about JFK's assassination.
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Jacqueline Kennedy's personal letters to an Irish priest about her marriage, faith and the 1963 death of her husband will no longer be sold at auction.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Five surprising facts you need to know about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
updated 1:06 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
A preview of the new CNN Original Series, "The Sixties" which debuts Thursday night, May 29 at 9 ET/PT.