How Did We Ever Survive the 1960’s?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress


volume 16, number 31, August 3, 2017

“The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” -Psalm 126:3

How Did We Ever Survive the 1960’s?

In March, 1961 the Bay of Pigs fiasco resulted in numerous Army Reserve soldiers from Birmingham being killed in the foiled attempt to drive Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. In May, just a few months later, a bus full of freedom riders who were seeking to overturn the Jim Crow laws in the south were taken from their bus just outside Anniston, Alabama and beaten. Their bus was set on fire. Another bus made it to Birmingham and the freedom riders were beaten by young white men. Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, my home town, knew what was happening but refused to send the Birmingham police to protect the victims. In September, 1962 riots broke out at the University of Mississippi as students and others violently resisted the entrance of James Meredith to the University as the first black student. Two U.S. Marshalls were killed in the rioting. A month later we narrowly escaped World War III with the Cuban missile crisis. Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi in June, 1963. Just a few months earlier “Bull” Connor turned fire hoses and attack dogs on black children at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested. In September of that year four black children were killed as a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In November John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Three civil rights workers were murdered and buried in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi in June, 1964. The Free Speech Movement was igniting the Anti-War Movement in the mid 1960’s at the University of California at Berkeley, driving a great wedge between those later known as the Greatest Generation and their children. In February, 1965 Malcolm X was gunned down by Black Muslims in New York City. In March demonstrators on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama were turned back at the Edmund Pettus bridge by Alabama State Troopers who on horseback, were hurling tear gas at the demonstrators. Meanwhile people were turning onto LSD and free love. In January, 1968 the Tet Offensive brought to the American mind the reality that the Vietnam War was getting way out of hand with President Lyndon Johnson’s troop escalation. In April of that year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June it was Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, after winning the California Democratic primary. On August 28, 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of anti-war demonstrators, led by Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS), were met by 27,000 police and state and federal officers in what has been called the “The Battle of Michigan Avenue”. Police beat and gassed hundreds of demonstrators. In August, 1969 a convergence of free love, rock and roll music, anti-war demonstrations, and the drug culture occurred at Woodstock in upstate New York. A few days later the horrific Charles Manson murders occurred in southern California. At the same time, only the third category five hurricane in U.S. history at the time (Hurricane Camille), hit the Mississippi coast with 200 mile per hour winds, killing 143 people. And in May, 1970 National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University, killing four. Meanwhile, all throughout the decade of the 1960’s fifty-three thousand U.S. soldiers were killed in the Viet Nam War. 

But God! A mighty movement of God began in 1966 on the West Coast with a very reluctant catalyst. Chuck Smith was the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Los Angeles and had been irritated with the hippies and anti-Viet Nam War protesters he saw all around Los Angeles and San Francisco. His wife urged him to reach out to them with the gospel of grace. The result was hundreds, if not thousands, of conversions of hippies, what came to be known as the “Jesus Movement.” Chuck Smith was regularly baptizing hundreds of converts in the Pacific Ocean. This mighty movement of God spread across the United States like wildfire. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reported the greatest number of baptisms (professions of faith) in their history in 1972, 445,725.[1] I recently spoke with Dr. Frank Barker, Pastor Emeritus of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, asking him about conversion growth from 1966 to 1973. He said that Briarwood did not track professions of faith at the time, but I do know for certain that Briarwood’s growth was staggering during that time and there were hundreds of conversions. From 1966 to 1972 Briarwood, which was established in 1960, grew from 500 to 1400 members during this time. They grew 34% in 1966, 28% in 1967, 23% in 1968, 12% in 1970, and 12% in 1972.[2]

Dick Vigneulle (pronounced VIN-yell) was the Executive Vice President of City Federal Bank in Birmingham and in line to become the bank’s president when Shades Mountain Independent Church in Birmingham began as a storefront in 1969, at the height of this mighty movement of God. Dick helped the new, small struggling congregation out by singing and preaching in the early days as he continued his work at City Federal Bank. At the urging of the small congregation, Dick Vigneulle finally answered the call, resigned his bank position, and became the pastor of the church. I remember attending Shades Mountain Independent Church on a Sunday night in 1974 and the sanctuary was filled to the brim. The church quickly grew, almost exclusively through professions of faith, to over 2000 members by 1974. 

In 1968, Dr. John Haggai, a Southern Baptist preacher, invited to Gadsden, Alabama by Jim Baird, then the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Gadsden, preached a series of evangelistic meetings where hundreds of young people came to Christ. Many of these students I later met at the University of Alabama and they were strong Christian leaders on the campus of the University from 1969 through 1975. Many of these men have long been faithful ministers of the gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America and in other denominations. 

So, how did we survive the 1960’s? The only feasible answer is a mighty movement of God which swept our nation. So many who were rioting in the streets in the 1960’s became strong Christian leaders of families, businesses, schools, and churches. 

There is always hope in Jesus, my friend. Seek the Lord while He may be found. Perhaps we will also be able to rejoice with the Psalmist and say, “Indeed the Lord has done great things for us. We are glad.”  


1. <> Freefall Continues in SBC Membership, Baptism Stats, June 8, 2016.

2. Briarwood: The First Twenty-Five Years, Alison English, page 157.

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