There’s a photograph, taken in 1967 at the March on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. In the picture, which narrowly missed winning the Pulitzer Prize, a teen is seen poking daisies into the barrels of guns held by members of the US National Guard. The young boy in the picture is George Edgerly Harris III, who sadly died of AIDS in 1982, but this moment, captured by photographer, Bernie Boston, symbolizes the flower power movement. Flower power is a phrase likely coined by Alan Ginsberg in 1965, and it referred the hippie notion of “make love not war,” and the idea that love and nonviolence, such as the growing of flowers, was a better way to heal the world than continued focus on capitalism and wars.
Flower power also became a term used to express the hippie culture itself, and hippies were often called flower children. The power of the group left an indelible impression on American society. Large groups of teens and young adults who donned flowers in their hair, painted them on their vans, and lived together in semi-communes, often outdoors in the parks of major cities, did have a certain amount of power as a group. In the best sense, this power seeped into mainstream public views advancing civil rights. Conversely, the counterculture movement that can be called flower power had many unintended consequences: unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, the large scale importation of drugs and development of the drug cartels, and the sexual revolution which would to a degree create the rapid spread of HIV infection in the early 1980s.
Luridly painted flowers on vans, record covers, and the like were also symbolic of the hippies’ advocacy of hallucinogens in the hopes of creating greater self-awareness, a practice not uncommon in other cultures, especially in the past. When hallucinogens were used, visual hallucinations frequently occurred, and things with intense color appeared even more intense. If you look at a film like The Yellow Submarine first released in 1968, there are many visual moments that would definitely have had more impact on people taking drugs like acid and LSD.
The film also has numerous images of flowers growing, sprouting and suddenly covering bare landscapes that suggest the spread of the flower power movement, though the term flower power isn’t used in the film. However, the end song of the movie is intricately tied to this movement: “All You Need Is Love.” The idea of the growth of love, the natural progress of love, and the power of love ties in well with actions taken by the hippies like the planting of flowers in bare lots in Berkeley in 1969 during a two-week occupation by the US National Guard.
The idea of using flowers to express a movement gets at the heart of hippie identity. Stress was on acts of civil disobedience that were nonviolent. What could be more nonviolent than distributing flowers to National Guard members, or planting flowers in empty lots? The simplicity of the flower, its ties to the earth and natural origin, and its beauty were all things this counterculture movement wanted to remain close to. In the end, there’s a beauty and grace to the flower power movement, even though it ultimately did end badly for more than a few people. Like many movements which may have many good intentions, certain aspects, like an emphasis on drug use, contributed to its destruction. Like any flower, the flower power movement grew for a time in the mid to late 1960s, and then withered by the early 1970s.