50 Years Ago: A Year of Cataclysmic Change

by John Lawrence

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy provoked a cavalcade of memories. But serious change was just beginning in November of 1963, and over the next twelve months, Americans will commemorate anniversaries of events that unalterably changed U.S. politics, society and culture and thereby defined the remainder of the 20th century.

 Even in a decade of change like the ‘60s, a startling number of key historical events occurred in 1964.  Noting each would require nearly round-the clock commemorations throughout 2014. 

The Kennedy assassination remade American politics. Lyndon Johnson exploited the post-assassination unity to expand federal leadership in social, economic and legal policies.  On January 8, 1964, LBJ declared a “War on Poverty,” followed by his “Great Society” battle plan.   By August, Johnson signed bills into law including the Economic Opportunity Act.

1964 also saw a major acceleration of Kennedy’s stalled civil rights legislation.  The poll tax, which had disenfranchised generations of blacks, was banned by ratification of the 24th amendment in January.  Soon, Johnson demanded a sweeping anti-discrimination statute. After a three month Senate filibuster, the Civil Rights Act became law in June. Yet racial hatred was far from ended; also in June, three civil rights workers – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney – went missing in Mississippi.  Their bodies were found in an earthen dam in August. 

Growing militancy marked the civil rights struggle. In early March, the charismatic Cassius Clay improbably defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing’s Heavyweight Champion.  Within two weeks, Clay announced his conversion to Islam.  Later in the year, violence exploded in numerous cities fueling anxious discussions about urban policy, black nationalism, and black militancy.  To many, it seemed that the civil rights debate had taken an ominous turn, even as the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Republicans awarded their presidential nomination to Sen. Barry Goldwater, a leading conservative whose reputation for extreme views was enhanced by the infamous “Daisy” commercial depicting a nuclear explosion. Johnson landslide victory masked the Democrats’ loss of the once Solid South (a result of the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ had had predicted), growing marginalization of the GOP’s traditional Northeastern moderates, and the significant rise of cultural and political conservatism in the South and Sun Belt.

Not all events were as weighty. Only three days into 1964, Jack Paar played “She Loves You” on his TV show, and by early February, the Beatles had the #1 song in America, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  Their arrival in New York on February 7 and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show produced an optimistic bonding for the nation’s youth that contrasted with the profound shock of the Kennedy assassination 10 weeks earlier.  Soon, a cultural revolution overthrew the 1950s order, marked by the British invasion that altered the music, clothing, and hair styles.   

Technology and medicine were advancing at a rapid pace.  In April, 1964, IBM launched the System/360, foreshadowing a market for personal computers rather than simply large business models. NASA developed space hardware that would fulfill JFK’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970. In January, the Surgeon General linked smoking and serious illness, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to require warning labels on cigarette packages.  

In international affairs, Nelson Mandela received a sentence of life imprisonment in South Africa in June; few could have anticipated his re-emergence decades later as President of a reborn South Africa, guiding a transition to black majority rule free of the cataclysm many anticipated.

Late in July, North Vietnamese gunships patrolling the South China Sea reportedly fired on the U.S.S. Maddox.  On August 7th, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Gulf on Tonkin Resolution that launched a decade of warfare abroad and social disruption at home.  Uncertainties in U.S. foreign policy were further heightened when Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in Moscow by hard liners.  And few could have foreseen the international implications when, on September 10, the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed. 

The year following JFK’s death saw a host of dislocating developments that reshaped our politics, our security, our music, and even the way we looked.  We can only speculate what Kennedy might have made of the embrace of the drug and hippie counterculture, the rise of the New Left and the a conservative revival that seemed highly improbably in the wake of the Goldwater defeat, or even personalized computer technology – all of which trace their origins to events occurring within a year of November 22, 1963.

Happy New Year 2014!   And thanks for reading DOMEocracy.