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Revisiting 1969 in the East Bay

Diablo reflects on the pivotal year that shaped the East Bay and beyond.


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National Guardsmen faced off with protesters in Berkeley on May 22, 1969—two days after helicopters sprayed tear gas on the UC campus.

Photo by Lonnie Wilson/Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection/Oakland Museum of California/Gift of ANG Newspapers

Fifty years ago, the ’60s came to an explosive climax with the East Bay as one of its epicenters. Berkeley’s counterculture protests, a tragic event at a Rolling Stones concert, and the Black Panther Party all made national headlines. Elsewhere in the region, suburban development and the opening of Interstate 680 helped to drive public discourse—a theme that is highlighted in the Museum of the San Ramon Valley’s current exhibit, The Sixties at Fifty. Here, we look back at some of the factors that made 1969 so noteworthy.

 

Riots in Berkeley 

In the ’60s, Berkeley was a tinderbox for anti­establishment causes, with activists regularly demonstrating against the Vietnam War. More protests sparked in 1969, after UC Berkeley targeted People’s Park for student housing and athletic fields and erected fences around the area. On May 15, 1969 (a date known as Bloody Thursday), protesters clashed with the National Guard and local police over the occupation of People’s Park, killing one person and injuring more than 100. “It was a rallying cry,” says Michael Delacour, a cofounder of the community-built park. Tensions escalated throughout the month, and on May 30, some 30,000 people peacefully marched through Berkeley’s streets to protest the death and violence in their city.

 

Rise of the Black Panthers

Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, students at Oakland’s Merritt College, the Black Panther Party was a militant organization that sought to protect African American people from police brutality and provide social services to black communities. Its willingness to use violence—with many of its members brandishing firearms—led the FBI to declare the group an enemy of the state in 1969, the same year the party created its Free Breakfast for Children program. At its peak, the movement had more than 2,000 members in 48 states.

 

Rock fans celebrated at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969—before tragedy struck. Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Altamont Symbolized the End of an Era

Approximately 300,000 people attended a music festival, headlined by the Rolling Stones, at Altamont Speedway near Livermore on December 6, 1969. But the show took a tragic turn when a member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club killed 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter. To many, the incident represented the end of “flower power.”

 

Suburban Development

Progress came to the East Bay in the 1960s, with the construction of highways 680 and 580 and rapid residential development. To support all the families moving to the suburbs, schools were built, including San Ramon’s Neil Armstrong Elementary, which was established in 1969. “That summer, they were landing on the moon, and they were trying to name the new school,” says Beverly Lane, curator of The Sixties at Fifty. “The school district said, ‘We need heroes, so let’s name it after [astronaut] Neil Armstrong.’”

 

The Sixties at Fifty—which features relics from NASA as well as 50-year-old newspapers and maps of the suburban landscape—is on view through June 2. museumsrv.org.

 

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