Jan. 14, 2022

The Summer of Love Begins

The Summer of Love Begins

January 14, 1967. A gathering of thousands in San Francisco kicks off the Summer of Love, and introduces “hippies” to the mainstream media.

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Cold Open

It’s January 14th, 1967, and a warm winter’s day in San Francisco.

Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Golden Gate Park to attend an event called “the Human Be-In.” Part music festival, part spiritual gathering, the “Be-In” was organized by the city’s artistic community as a celebration of values that are integral to 1960s counter-culture. Among them: human togetherness, religious pluralism, and the liberal consumption of illegal drugs.

A twenty-four-year-old woman, a college dropout from Texas, slowly makes her way through the crowd. She arrived in San Francisco four years earlier and quickly established herself in the vibrant local music scene. Janis Joplin is one of many future rock n’ roll legends in the crowd today. Others include Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Joplin approaches stages where she sees a bearded, bespectacled man dressed in flowing white robes leading a chant.

Allen Ginsberg is a famous poet and a member of the Beat Generation, a literary movement which sprang up in New York City in the 1950s. But by 1967, Ginsberg and many of his fellow “Beats” have grown their hair out and moved from Greenwich Village to San Francisco.

In the dive bars and tenements of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a movement is being born: one that rejects the “establishment” and instead embraces “flower power”. And it’s not just the Beats who have flocked to this counter-cultural mecca. Throughout the 1960s, young creative types from all over the country have been gravitating here to San Francisco.

To outsiders, these long-haired, bleary-eyed dropouts are little more than drug addicts and slackers. But to each other, they are the enlightened few. They call themselves “hippies”, and this year, 1967, will be the year that their free-wheeling, free-loving antics come together to form a coherent political philosophy.

This event in Golden Gate park - on January 14th, 1967 - will kick off what will come to be known as the Summer of Love, a phenomenon that will spread all around the world, inspiring countless young people to pursue ideals of anti-materialism, peace, and love.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 14th: The Beginning of the Summer of Love.

Act One: New Beginnings

It’s 1959, eight years before the Human “Be-In”.

In the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California, a gray-haired man in a gray suit sits behind the desk, scratching his head. Sidney Gottlieb is the head of the CIA’s top-secret mind-control program, Project MK-ULTRA.

Through the thick lenses of his spectacles, Gottlieb’s eyes scan through data harvested from recent experiments surrounding a new mind-altering substance known as lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. It's Gottlieb’s belief that this drug, invented by a Swiss laboratory in 1943, will provide the CIA with a powerful counter-espionage tool, enabling them to control the minds of suspects under questioning.

Earlier in the 1950s, Gottlieb arranged for the CIA to purchase the world’s entire supply of LSD. He then distributed the substance among hospitals, clinics, and laboratories across the US, funding research into its effects.

But in order to carry out this research, Gottlieb needed a steady stream of willing participants to take LSD and document their experiences. So, a call went out for volunteers at local colleges. Before long, hundreds of students began signing up, unaware that the CIA was sponsoring the experiments.

Among the volunteers is a 24-year-old grad student named Ken Kesey, who will go on to write a best-selling novel based on his time in the psychiatric hospital called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey is not the only well-known figure who participates in the program; others include Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Robert Hunter, future songwriter for the Grateful Dead.

In the end, Project MK-ULTRA will be shut down without achieving its intended purpose, but it will have unintended consequences. The project will help spark the psychedelic counter-culture of the 1960s, and make Sidney Gottlieb the accidental godfather of the hippie movement.


It’s 1964, five years after Ken Kesey first took part in the CIA’s LSD trials.

Inspired by his experiences, Kesey has taken it upon himself to raise awareness of this new, consciousness-altering drug. He has purchased an old school bus, painted it rainbow colors, and assembled a gang of like-minded artists and runaways to drive cross-country preaching the psychedelic gospel.

Kesey calls his motley crew “the Merry Pranksters”. They count among their number Neal Cassady, the Beat generation poet and inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, also with them is a woman named Carolyn Adams, or Mountain Girl – who will later marry Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

A journalist named Tom Wolfe will later write a book about Kesey’s journey called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe calls the trip a mission to “turn America on to [a] particular form of enlightenment.” But the voyage of the "Merry Pranksters” produces an altogether different outcome: it alerts the mainstream media to a new cultural phenomenon that is emerging; one spearheaded by a rag-tag group of itinerant eccentrics.

The journey also provides the “Merry Pranksters” with something of a uniform.

One afternoon, Beat poet Neal Cassady is high on amphetamines and driving the bus backward through a stretch of Arizona, when surprisingly, the vehicle swerves off the road and crashes into a ditch. As the Pranksters stumble from the crumpled, smoking wreckage, Ken Kesey quickly hands out tabs of LSD. While tripping, the Pranksters pour paint into a nearby stream and dip t-shirts into the swirling colors. This psychedelic adaptation of tie-dye soon becomes a fashion staple of the hippie movement. 

The road trip comes to an end at the place Kesey and the Merry Pranksters started: San Francisco. In 1965, Kesey hosts the first of a series of LSD-fuelled parties, which he calls Acid Tests. The purpose of these parties is to continue to promote the lifestyle that Kesey and his acolytes have elevated to the status of a new religion built around psychedelic drugs.

The events are advertised with posters bearing the question: “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” To do so means staying up all night taking LSD with Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and other pioneers of 1960s counter-culture, listening to live music from San Francisco bands, such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, who perform their first show at an Acid Test in December 1965.

At the time, many of these artists and musicians are penniless bohemians. They take up residence in the cheapest housing available in San Francisco; a neighborhood built around the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury. As such, Haight-Ashbury is home to Janis Joplin, the members of the Grateful Dead, and a young guitarist from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix.

A distinct hippy enclave is forming. But despite the efforts of Kesey and his ilk, the emerging counter-culture is still somewhat fragmented. While the hippies of Haight-Ashbury represent a major component of the counter-culture, they are not the only component. Elsewhere, on the college campus of Berkeley, student activists are noisily protesting the Vietnam War, denouncing the political establishment. Many of these activists deride passive, peace-loving hippies, who in turn disagree with the hot-tempered behavior of the student activists. 

But in the end, these two groups will find a common cause, and the counter-culture will unite under a single banner. In the end, the spark that unites them won’t be an Acid Test or a rock concert, but an action taken by the United States Government.

Act Two: A Gathering of the Tribes

It’s October 6th, 1966, four months before the Human “Be-In”.

The California State Assembly has just voted to make LSD illegal. Following the ruling, over a thousand people have gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco as part of a peaceful demonstration. Of course, among those present are Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead. 

The demonstration has been named the Love Pageant Rally. In the words of one of its organizers, a poet named Allan Cohen, the demonstrators are “not guilty of using illegal substances,” but simply “celebrating transcendental consciousness, the beauty of the universe, [and] the beauty of being.”

Of course, given the State Assembly’s ruling, that's not legally accurate. But Cohen’s words capture the sense among Haight-Ashbury hippies that their use of psychedelic drugs is not an illicit act, but a spiritual one.

Cohen looks around at the thousands of protestors – bedecked in prayer beads and tie-dye – and is struck by the sheer scale of support for the movement. Cohen thinks that if they could hold an even larger rally, it would prove to the world that the Haight-Ashbury counter-culture is not a passing fad, but a genuine force. 

Already, Cohen and his associate, local artist Michael Bowen, have attempted to provide the new counter-culture with structure, a difficult task. In September 1966, they publish the first edition of the San Francisco Oracle, an underground newspaper that advances the ideas and principles at the core of the movement. By publishing the paper, they hope to unite the movement’s two main disparate groups: the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, and the anti-war student activists of Berkeley.

But following the Love Pageant Rally, Cohen and Bowen realize the best way to unite the two groups is to hold another mass gathering, one to celebrate the values held by both parties and organize the counter-culture into one cohesive unit. 

They plan to call the event: “The Human Be-In”, and they schedule it for January 14th, 1967. The name of the event is not just a play on words, but an evolution of the “sit-ins” of the Civil Rights Movement, in which protestors inhabit a location and refuse to leave until their demands are met. But the “Be-In” has no explicit demands. The change they see comes from within. 

The event is built as “a gathering of the tribes.” And in addition to posters on every corner around Haight-Ashbury, Cohen and Bowen run advertisements in the Berkeley Barb, a radical college newspaper, and put up flyers on campus. Attendees are encouraged to bring “flowers, beads, costumes, cymbals, and flags”. They also announce a line-up of several counter-culture figureheads including Allen Ginsberg, yoga guru Richard Alpert, and the renowned psychologist and LSD advocate, Timothy Leary.

The organizers hope the “Be-In” will be “a worldwide media event”, but they have no idea of the scale and impact their gathering will ultimately have. On January 14th, 1967, almost 30,000 people from all around the country descend on the Polo Fields section of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. With the support from Berkeley’s political activists, and the psychedelic hippies of Haight-Ashbury – and many more from all corners – the “Be-In” emphatically succeeds in uniting every branch of the counter-cultural movement.

With just one makeshift stage, and no official set list or schedule, the gathering runs smoothly. Following performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Allen Ginsberg, LSD advocate Timothy Leary takes the stage where he offers the famous instruction that becomes the mantra for the psychedelic 1960s: “turn on, tune in, drop out”. 

The Human “Be-In” is covered widely in the national media, alerting many people to the scale and strength of this new counter-culture. In the months that follow, as many as 75,000 young people pour into Haight-Ashbury, inspired by the message of peace and togetherness.

As a result, members of the Haight-Ashbury artistic and hippie community form “the Council for the Summer of Love”, an organization designed to alleviate some of the problems resulting from the influx of people. The council coordinates with youth groups and churches to organize housing, food, and supplies. A radical left-wing theater company called “The Diggers” opens “free stores” and “free medical clinics” to support the invading masses.

But, despite their best efforts, the influx of people puts a strain on the community. There is simply too much crime; too much disease; too many hard drugs. Soon, the sun will set on the Summer of Love. To commemorate the occasion, the hippies will not organize another “Be-In”. Instead, they will say goodbye with a funeral.

Act Three: The Summer of Love

It’s October 6th, 1967.

Hundreds of people are gathered on Haight street in San Francisco for an event called Death of Hippie, a mock funeral organized by the radical theater group, "The Diggers".

Many hippies in Haight-Ashbury feel the movement has been appropriated by mainstream culture. They were annoyed when Scott McKenzie's song "San Francisco” was released in May with its catchy refrain “if you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” These hippies want to end the commercialization of the hippie lifestyle. So they've organized this mock funeral to signal the end of the Summer of Love.

Prior to the event, one of the leaders told a reporter that “the festivities as usual will be unplanned and freewheeling, but will culminate… with a funeral procession complete with a symbolic casket to be borne through the Haight-Ashbury.”

So today, the hippies line the pavement while their leaders carry an open coffin down Haight street. There’s no body inside; but rather relics of the hippie lifestyle: beads, beards, wilted flowers, half-smoked joints. Leaders stop at the corner of Haight and Ashbury for a “kneel-in”. One local hippie crafts an epitaph for the occasion. It reads, “once upon a time a man put on beads and became a hippie. Today, the hippie takes off the beads and becomes… a free man.”

When asked why they decided to hold a mock funeral, one hippie tells the press, “the media-police, and the tourists came to the zoo to see the captive animals, and we growled fiercely behind the bars we accepted… now we are no longer hippies and never were.”

Despite their poetic musings, the hippies have demands and they are making clear to the press. They want the media to go away. They want big businesses to stop commercializing their lifestyle. And they want free-loving people who came to San Francisco to return home, and carry their message of love and hope with them.

Though the Summer of Love dies out in only a matter of months, the counter-culture it birthed lives on. Two years later, those ideals will find a new expression at the music festival Woodstock when 400,000 young people gather for three days of peace and music. And it is these same ideals that will give rise to strong anti-war and pro-environmental movements and shape American culture for decades to come.

One hippie will later explain the lasting significance of the Summer of Love by comparing it to more modern events. He said: “the Arab Spring is related to the Summer of Love; Occupy Wall Street is related to the Summer of Love… Everyone wants hope. We opened the door, and everybody went through it… everything changed after that.” That door to hope was first opened at the Human “Be-In” in San Francisco on January 14th, 1967.


Next on History Daily. January 17th, 1920, Prohibition officially goes into effect, banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol after the passage of the Volstead Act.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.