1960s: Tradition and Tumult

The 1960s are commonly remembered as a decade of political protest and social upheaval, the counterculture’s questioning of mainstream American values, hard-won civil rights battles, and rising demands for equal opportunity for women. College campuses experienced unrest as students questioned the war in Vietnam and the relevance of the canonical, traditional, liberal arts education. Internationally, Cold War tensions continued, with the erection of the Berlin Wall, showdowns including the Bay of Pigs, and difficult diplomatic summits between Kennedy and Kruschev.

Against this backdrop, the RBF seems to have maintained a remarkably staid, “establishment” profile in a decade of tumult. In some ways, the 1960s can be viewed as the heyday of the brothers’ style of leadership at the Fund. With a sizable inheritance from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s estate, the RBF increased its endowment and made between $6 and $8 million in grants each year. Many of these were designated for New York City’s flagship institutions, the nation’s elite universities, and high-profile national organizations. Nelson’s influence as Governor of New York and JDR 3rd’s effective fundraising helped enact projects such as Lincoln Center. Winthrop was now established in Arkansas (and its Governor from 1966-1970), and significant RBF funds went to the arts, racial equality measures, and higher education in his adopted state.

Yet a closer look reveals that the RBF was not entirely out of step with the changing times. It funded an initiative encouraging college-educated women to rebuild academic careers after leaving the workforce to raise families. It supported the emerging venue of educational television. It gave to the National Urban League, United Negro College Fund, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People throughout the decade, and built its own program in Race and Urban Problems. By the late 1960s, the Fund had hired a cadre of younger program officers who would launch thematic programs addressing the era’s major issues, from equal rights and opportunities to the environment to public education, in the coming decades.