Poet Allen Ginsberg:
The whole thing was a beautiful scene.
The happening was billed as a Human Be-In, subtitled: “A gathering of the tribes”. It was an event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967. It was a prelude to San Francisco’s “Summer of Love“, which made the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood a symbol of American counterculture and introduced the word “psychedelic” to the rest of the country.
In October 1966, LSD became illegal in California. The editors of the psychedelic newspaper The Oracle created the idea of a Be-In with Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary after both men had been fired from Harvard for their unauthorized psychedelic research. “Be-In” was a pun on the words “human being” and spoofing the political “sit-ins”. By the end of the year, NBC co-opted the term for the hip television comedy show Laugh-In.
The Human Be-In focused on the ideals of the 1960s counterculture movement: personal empowerment, cultural decentralization, communal living, ecological awareness, higher consciousness via psychedelic drugs, and radical liberal political consciousness. The Hippie Movement developed out of discontent in the student communities around San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, and in San Francisco’s “Beat” scene of poets and jazz hipsters, a rejection of “middle-class morality”. Ginsberg personified the transition between the Beat and Hippie generations.
The Human Be-In took its name from a chance remark by Beat artist Michael Bowen made at the Love Pageant Rally on 6/6/1966. The playful name combined a humanist outlook plus the sit-ins against segregation, starting with the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Nashville.
There were radicals who thought that hippie energy was a distraction from “serious” political work, yet the hippies felt that love was indispensable to a better world in 1967, and they faced a violent, reactionary establishment. The newly elected Governor of California Ronald Reagan was outspokenly hostile to both hippies and protesters. Millions of young men were subject to the military draft. Timothy Leary faced a 30-year jail sentence.
In this era, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was the center of the universe for cultural rebels who rejected many of the norms of society. The big deal about the Human Be-In was the huge number of people who identified with the hippies. At least 35,000 gathered in Golden Gate Park, five times more than had shown up for the biggest counterculture celebrations up until that point. A few months later, on Easter Sunday, be-ins in New York and Los Angeles would draw crowds of a similar size.
Yet, the coming Summer of Love attracted so much sensationalist news coverage that by the end of 1967 the hippies became fodder for sitcoms. In June, hippies made the cover story of Time magazine. By October, a “Death of Hippie” ceremony was organized by counterculture leaders in Haight-Ashbury. Ginsberg called the Human Be-In: “…the last purely idealistic hippie event”. For a brief period, “peace and love” was an un-ironic label for a belief system set-apart from mainstream American values.
The subtitle was “A Gathering of the Tribes” meant that the event would feature mystics who were into Eastern and Native American spirituality; young political radicals focused on the Vietnam War; old-school Marxists; anti-communist pacifists; rock musicians and Hell’s Angels. In 1966, some members of the infamous motorcycle gang had attacked antiwar protesters, but just for the moment, the local Angels had mellowed after taking LSD with Ginsberg and merry prankster Ken Kesey.
At a planning meeting, the Oracle group asked the hippies what their demands were going to be. The hippies laughed and one answered: “Man, there are no demands, it’s a Be-In!”. Antiwar activist Jerry Rubin was invited to speak at the event. A local psychedelic chemist arranged to donate thousands of tabs of LSD to give away to attendees.
Ginsberg saw the Be-In as a spiritual celebration. He promised:
…a gathering together of younger people aware of the planetary fate that we are all sitting in the middle of, imbued with new consciousness, and desiring of a new kind of society involving prayer, music, and spiritual life together rather than competition, acquisition, and war.
Ginsberg began the Human Be-In with Hindu chants and he later danced ecstatically to The Grateful Dead‘s rendition of Dancing In The Street. Newspapers printed photographs of the barefoot young women in saris or miniskirts, and long-haired men in Edwardian jackets, love beads and velvet cloaks.
Rubin’s speech, which focused on the imprisonment of protesters, was so strident that the Dead’s Jerry Garcia subsequently avoided movement politics.
On that day, Leary gave the world the slogan: “Tune in, turn on, drop out“. Ginsberg later complained that the words “drop out” were confusing to young people and disingenuous for hippy celebrities. Leary’s phrase became what we now call a “meme”.
As well as listening to the speeches, the crowd enjoyed music from the San Francisco bands: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
In April, when Martin Luther King Jr. came out against the Vietnam War, an enraged President Lyndon B. Johnson directed J. Edgar Hoover‘s FBI to sabotage further events like the Human Be-In.
Soon after the Human Be-In, any gathering seemed to be an “-In” of some kind: A month later was radio personality Bob Fass‘s Human Fly-In, a get together at JFK airport where Fass and his friends could meet and party with his listeners and their friends, while aircraft took off and landed in the background.
In April 1967, the radical street theatre group The Diggers held a “Sweep-In” to clean garbage from New York’s Lower Eastside. In March 1968, there was the first anti-capitalist “Yip-In” at Grand Central Station staged by the Yippies (The Youth International, an American radically youth-oriented and counterculture revolutionary group).
On Easter Sunday 1968, more than 4,000 people showed up to hear live music, get high, and put good vibes into the world at a “Love-In” in Malibu.
Plus, John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s Amsterdam “Bed-In” in March 1969, where, for a week the famous couple invited the world’s press into their hotel room every day between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m to promote world peace. Then they flew to Montreal, where, during their seven-day stay, they invited Leary, Ginsberg, Tommy Smothers, Dick Gregory, cartoonist Al Capp, to sing Give Peace A Chance.
In 2017, at her anti-bullying speech, Melania Knavs‘ was introduced with The Age Of Aquarius, a song from the Broadway musical Hair, which was inspired by the 1967 Human Be-In. The lyrics include: “…sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods and derision“. Was that intentionally deeply ironic on someone’s part?