A new year was just beginning — an extraordinary year, in which so much would change.
Half a century ago, on Jan. 14, 1963, George Wallace took the podium to give his inaugural address as governor of Alabama. His words framed a fiery rejoinder to a civil rights movement gathering strength.
“I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” he thundered, “and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Fifty years later, the words still have the power to shock. In college classes like “The Sixties in History and Memory,” today’s students recoil.
But turn the pages of their text to a day just seven months later, and there’s another riveting oration. At the thronged Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a vision of a “day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”’
The students shiver at the words and cadence of this speech — and at the contradictions and convulsions of 1963.
“We constantly make the point,” notes Donald Spivey, who teaches “The Sixties” at the University of Miami, “that you’re hit with all of these things at once.”
Under the shadow of the Cold War’s threat of “mutually assured destruction,” 1963 was the year of dawning arms control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In June, the adversaries agreed to set up a “hotline” communications link between the Kremlin and the White House to insure against a catastrophic mistake.
For many women, it was a year of liberation. The 1963 best-seller “The Feminine Mystique” catalyzed the modern women’s movement. One author says the book literally saved lives.
Around 1963, the critical mass of the baby boom generation was reaching a critical moment. Its leading edge, teenagers by then, were starting to recognize what they wanted to do, to believe and, significantly, to buy. The music they listened to was beginning to challenge givens of the conformist 1950s. Bob Dylan, who sang in 1963 of all that was “blowin’ in the wind.” Motown. And soon the shaggy-haired, parent-unsettling Beatles, whose first album came out in Britain that year, leading a new wave of Pied Piper bands who’d produce much of the generation’s soundtrack.
At the center of it all was the Kennedy administration, glamorous and youthful, often likened to “Camelot” — the mythical world lasting, as a Broadway lyric lamented, just “one brief, shining moment.”
Then suddenly, in November, the greatest jolt of all in a year of tumult, one felt still today: Rifle shots in Dallas that brought that moment to a close.
“So much happened in the ’60s that every year is almost its own brand ... and ’63 has a rightful place,” said Jeremy Varon, a history professor at New York’s New School and co-editor of the journal “The Sixties.”
The decade’s themes resounded, he says. There was “the revolution in race relations,” the divisive Vietnam war, widespread experimentation with drugs, the sexual revolution, a societal turn toward youth.
“All of this was experienced as a crisis,” Varon said. But he added, the period was “also exuberantly fun.”
Ever since, “youth has defined popular taste,” and a favored demographic for marketers remains the age group 18-to-35.
“Coming of age in the ’60s still is sort of the great archetype of ... what youth is all about,” said Varon, and the decade’s early years helped define that. “Kennedy gave young people this charge to define American strength ... and virtue.”
And today’s students appreciate that — even while consigning Kennedy and King to a misty past. Having grown up during the shadowy war on terrorism, many show no sense of “what it’s like to live in a culture of optimism.”
“The biggest thing I find,” Varon added, “is that students are enraptured by the fact that once upon a time young people had a sense of purpose in life.”
Cultural historian Thomas Hine calls the young people of the 1960s “the luckiest generation.”
Their sense of purpose coincided with an economic upswing that had propelled the nation since the end of World War II, with the promise of progress seen in relentless “Mad men”-style advertising — everything “new and improved” — and with Kennedy’s New Frontier.
“The ‘New Frontier’ was really a very shrewd phrase. Westerns were the most popular thing on TV, and the frontier of space was the future,” said Hine, author of “Populuxe,” an examination of ‘50s and ‘60s ideas.
In a popular cartoon, the Jetsons were part of a community floating above Earth, and yet they relied on updated versions of every terrestrial pushbutton appliance and lived the life of a suburban nuclear family. Media and political messages of the time, Hine said, met in “the idea that the whole world could be managed.” Even amid global jitters and social strains at home, there was “the idea that we can take more control of our lives.”
In Spivey’s ‘60s classes at Miami, students grasp the sense of purpose in 1963’s pivotal chapter in the civil rights movement, with its hundreds of demonstrations that year alone.
With other lecturers — and with music, film and the personal recollections of participants — he tries to bring the ferment of the time alive for students. “We try and make them feel the era,” he said.
Ticking off milestones, the professor mentions Birmingham. That city was a bulwark of the resistance to progress toward civil rights begun with prior years’ lunch counter sit-ins and “freedom rides.” And it was there that King and others went to launch Project C, for “confrontation.”
With a series of marches, they wanted to provoke a reaction and draw public attention. Hundreds were arrested, including King, whose galvanizing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is course reading for students now.
“Injustice anywhere,” its best-known line says, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”
TV images and newspaper reports from Birmingham showed peaceful marchers, including children, being attacked by snapping police dogs and blasted by fire hoses.
“Then the water hit them,” an AP reporter on the scene wrote. “Cowering first with hands over their heads, then on their knees or clinging together with their arms around each other, they tried to hold their ground.” A man’s T-shirt was ripped off by the fire hose blast, and afterward a woman was bleeding from the nose and a young girl’s eyes were cut, the story said.
Facing howls of outrage, local officials eventually agreed to a list of reforms, which King declared “the most significant victory for justice we’ve ever seen in the South.”
Public pressure also moved the White House, which had taken a cautious stance on civil rights.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” Kennedy said in a June 1963 speech, formally supporting a sweeping Civil Rights Act. “Are we to say to the world — and much more importantly to each other — that this is the land of the free, except for the Negroes...?”
Resistance was far from over, of course. On the very night of Kennedy’s speech, Medgar Evers, NAACP field director in Mississippi, was gunned down in his driveway by a klansman.
And Birmingham itself would witness in September an especially heartless attack, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four children preparing for Sunday school. When Spivey’s students are shown Spike Lee’s film, “Four Little Girls,” tears flow again, decades later.
Between these Birmingham chapters came what may be the signature moment of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
“By special train, plane, buses by the thousand, private automobiles and even in some cases on foot, the marchers poured into the capital,” an AP story reported. An estimated 250,000 people, mostly black but many white, met at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King pronounce, “I have a dream...”
Civil rights advances of 1963 spilled into a broader sense of possibilities.
Many people had long hoped for relief from the specter of atomic war — what Kennedy called the “darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth” as he announced the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in July.
“Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness,” he said. “For the first time, an agreement has been reached on bringing the forces of nuclear destruction under control.”
For years, people had staged “ban the bomb” street demonstrations — but almost unnoticed in 1963, they were joined by a few early protesters against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, where Kennedy had been sending American military “advisers.”
In the continuum of popular culture, no single year is definitive. Still, by 1963, record buyers, radio stations, even jukebox operators were embracing a broadening range of entertainment. There was the “Motown sound” of black pop songs — singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson has spoken of “the barriers that we broke down with music” — and audiences would soon embrace the “British invasion.”
“The ’60s revolution in music and style began somewhere, maybe here,” say the liner notes for a just-released Beatles collection, “First Recordings: 50th Anniversary Edition,” which received a nomination for this year’s Grammy awards.
The music never really went away (the Rolling Stones’ recent tour was playfully called “Fifty and Counting”). Spivey’s ’60s class ends with a sing-along, and Varon at the New School marvels at how many of his students know the old lyrics.
A quieter revolution made 1963 “a lever,” in the words of historian Stephanie Coontz, who also teaches ‘60s courses. In February of that year, writer Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique.”
At the time, magazines and TV constantly reinforced a view of the American woman and her assigned place: She would marry, raise children, and not work outside the home, which she would maintain with products and appliances designed to make her middle-class life efficient and ideal.
The trouble, Friedan recognized, was that for many this was not ideal, but suffocating, said Coontz, author of the 2011 book “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”
When she reviews the sexism of those days with her students today — “head and master” laws in many states making wives legally subject to husbands, help-wanted ads seeking “pretty looking, cheerful gal” for office work, and the like — “jaws literally drop,” she said.
For middle-class women who read Friedan’s book, it was a revelation. They’d been told “they should not want anything more out of life — and were ‘sick’ when they did. These people Friedan literally rescued,” Coontz said in an interview. “People I interviewed said ... they were considering suicide.”
The book told them they were not alone and change might come.
Transformative change is a central theme of ’60s courses; some even offer ’60s-style civic outreach projects as substitutes for traditional research papers. Students learn how Kennedy pushed variations of this message in 1963.
In June in Berlin, where a communist-built wall showed the Cold War divide most sharply, he envisioned the ultimate triumph of freedom. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” he said, “and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”
That same month, promoting peace was his theme in a commencement address. “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet,” he told the graduates. “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Five months later, he traveled to Texas, for political fence-mending ahead of the 1964 election. He was waving at the cheering crowds that lined his sunny Dallas motorcade route when the rifle shots came at 12:30 p.m. Central time.
Newsreel footage shows cheers turning to shrieks, as TV announcers break into soap operas with bulletins. Soon there would be nonstop coverage, which, though common now, was like nothing seen before on television. Broadcasts brought the nation together in a shared experience of bewilderment and grief.
Just as today’s generation remembers the moment of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the memory of Nov. 22, 1963, remains crystalline and, inevitably, becomes a teaching tool.
“All of a sudden, we heard all of these rumors. Then somebody had a transistor radio,” recalls Spivey, then a high school student, describing how he brings the moment to life in class today. “And I remember standing by the lockers, just listening. ... Students crying, in this predominantly black school in Chicago, kids saying, ‘What’s going to happen to us now?”’
Hundreds of miles east, Hine was heading into high school debate team practice, where at first everyone thought a student was joking when he blurted the inconceivable news. He wasn’t kidding, though, and the feeling absorbed then has resonated ever since.
“Up until that point,” Hine said, “there was this widespread belief in big business, big government, big thinking to lead us into a better future. The assassination didn’t completely undo this, but it showed that some things are far more fragile than we ever imagined them to be.”
A new year was just beginning — an extraordinary year, in which so much would change.
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