1963. This proved to be one of the two critical years of the decade. (The other was 1968.) What started with a racist call to arms ended with a presidential assassination that left the country radically transformed. Virtually all aspects of what it meant to be an American were about to be altered.
“Segregation now ...segregation tomorrow...
— George Wallace
Yet another in a long line of race-baiting southern politicians, the newly elected Alabama governor went to the well of white supremacy in his January inaugural. Most of his speech was written by the white supremacist Asa Carter, who eventually decided he was an American Indian. Wallace lost the ‘58 race to an even worse racist, if that can be believed. “Well, boys,” he said as he prepared to address his followers that year, “no other son-of-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.”
By June, after authorizing the repressive violence in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, this half-pint redneck, whose eventual mother-in-law said stood “only tittie high,” was standing in an Alabama schoolhouse door to prevent integration. The image of this strutting American Mussolini, the governor of a sovereign state, blocking the doorway of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to prevent the admission of two black students pushed toleration for bigotry to its very tolerant limit. Although he later claimed his racism was more politics than ideology, he sure championed it body and soul.
The previous month, a national television audience had stared in disbelief at the Birmingham police turning police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful black demonstrators marching for the citizenship rights everyone else took for granted. Most white Americans and a few lucky blacks had never seen such vicious racism before Bull Connor gave the country a history lesson it would never forget.
The good white folks in Birmingham, “the most segregated city in America,” refused to back down. In a dramatic test of wills, King finally goaded Bull Connor into turning bark-peeling fire hoses and clothes-ripping German shepherds on the protesters. Eugene T. “Bull” Connor, who couldn’t have been a better caricature of southern law enforcement had he come straight out of central casting, believed he was upholding law and tradition. That right was on his side. And he reveled in his duties. He gave the Klan fifteen minutes to beat up Freedom Riders and joked that he wanted to see local civil rights leader, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, carried away in a hearse. If his boys got out of hand, well, the protesters were disrupting the tranquility of local society.
In the face of this — his greatness emerging with each passing day — Dr. King assumed direct leadership of the month-long confrontation. Jailed, put in solitary confinement for demonstrating without a permit, he answered with sublime eloquence a plea published in the Birmingham News by moderate white ministers who were finally moved to endorse his goals while urging him to go slow. His response to them became one of the great documents in our history.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you read this, imagine George Wallace using his own body to block the education of black children and Bull Connor bragging about the violence he had visited upon the demonstrators, all of whom were American citizens.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional rights ...These are the profoundly moving words of America’s greatest moral leader. King’s impact on the generation of blacks and whites coming of age was considerable even though some black leaders took strong exception to his tactics. Rev. J. H. Jackson, for example, the powerful head of the National (Black) Baptist Convention, ran King out of the organization and denounced both him and SCLC for their confrontational style. But that struggle was walled off from the rest of the country by the very segregation King was fighting. Nationally, though, it took more than King’s torrents of sublime eloquence to move the country off dead center.
Perhaps it is easy to say ‘Wait’. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society ... when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’ ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Like everyone else, the Kennedy brothers watched the officially sanctioned mayhem on television. JFK claimed he was physically sickened by what he saw. Such vile acts were unworthy of a great nation, especially when compared to the heroism of the victims.
The Civil Rights Movement had been pushing hard for legislative action. At 8:00 PM on June 11, the day Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, Kennedy made a dramatic speech to the nation about the racial dilemma. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said. “It is —
As old as the scriptures and as clear as the American
— John F. Kennedy
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities….” With these words, JFK became the first president in history to state publicly and unequivocally that blacks should be fully equal to whites. While it is true that JFK was dragged kicking and screaming to this position, once there, he took a singular stand. The historic speech has long been overlooked. That a man so devoid of personal morals as JFK could come out with it makes it even more remarkable. A week later he sent corrective legislation to Congress that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I Have a Dream”
— MLK, Jr.
Contrast Wallace's wretched misanthropy with Martin Luther King’s transcendent visions. We saw both for what they represented. King's peroration reached to the heart of what it meant to be an American.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
where they will be not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content
of their character. I have a dream today.”
Like JFK, the man was personally flawed. But his message was clear and unflawed. His speech before 230,000 people at the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provided the spiritual wellspring for our generation.
When the architects of the republic wrote the magnificent words of the* * *
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a
promissory note to which every American was to fall heir ... the promise
that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed
the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Kennedy continued the pledge he made in his inaugural to maintain an active posture against aggression. Since the late forties Berlin had been the locus of East-West tension, heightened all the more by the infamous wall. The Kennedy mystique that spread across the Atlantic with his visit to France, where in June 1961 he’d quipped, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” grew still sharper in Berlin as he declared himself in sympathy with those living in the shadow of communism.
With his powerful civil rights legislation, his campaign against poverty, and his skillful brinksmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was beginning to emerge as more than a media star. How good a president he would have become cannot be supposed. He was so immoral it undoubtedly would have caught up with him. His affair with Judith Campbell Exner, who also “dated” Mafia figure Sam Giancana, his nude frolics in the White House swimming pool with secretaries “Fiddle and Faddle,” his use of the Secret Service as pimps and lookouts, his bragging that if he didn’t “get it” everyday he got a headache, these sorts of things revealed a man lacking a moral center. It also manifested itself in hits against foreign leaders and illegal covert operations not equaled again until the Reagan Era.
Scandal over at least one of his multitudinous sexual improprieties (with an East German spy named Ellen Rometsch) was about to break on Capitol Hill. At the very least, it would have disastrously damaged his reputation. More likely it would have led to his impeachment. When warned by J. Edgar Hoover that his recklessness was endangering his presidency, that the public would not forgive him if it found out, Kennedy replied off-handedly (and prophetically), “By the time the public finds out I won’t be president.”
Standing above this secret, loosely held by a press corps that chased after JFK like orphaned puppies, lay the glaring fact that his administration, his family life, soon to be called Camelot, was a façade. The Kennedy mystique was one long photo opportunity created for public consumption. JFK was the first president who sold himself like a Hollywood actor with a manufactured persona.
The charade went undetected while he lived, which is not to say he didn’t have problems. Some Americans believed JFK was a communist sympathizer for his loss of nerve at the Bay of Pigs. His stand on civil rights had crippled his re-election chances. Thus, the trip to Dallas to shore up flagging political support. As far as boomer memories of him are concerned, Kennedy’s presidency began with his assassination in Dallas at 12:33 PM on Friday, November 22, 1963.
An estimated 180 million viewers witnessed the indelible three-day nightmare: Walter Cronkite’s tearful announcement, the tragic funeral and John-John’s callow salute — capped by television’s first live murder. The police officer cuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald as he exited the basement of the Dallas courthouse saw a local Mafia figure coming at him, pointing his snub-nosed pistol. All he could do was swear in surprise.
“Jack, you sonofabitch.”
— Jim Leavelle
Jack Ruby, the man who killed the man who killed Kennedy (“You killed my president, you rat!”), was a nightclub owner whose place Oswald had visited on more than one occasion. Oswald had connections to the CIA and FBI, something these agencies concealed for thirty years. He'd defected to the Soviet Union and been re-admitted to this country without a hitch.
The Single Bullet Theory that became essential to proving Oswald the lone gunman strained credulity. Its extravagance lent credibility to pervasive rumors of conspiracies involving the right wing, Castro, the Mafia, even the CIA and FBI. Yet for all its flaws, the Warren Commission’s conclusion was essentially correct. Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone and for reasons unknown, killed John F. Kennedy. Today a majority of Americans still disbelieve the conclusion.
It would take his death, the elevation to power of an
arm-twisting master legislator, and anger in the streets to drive Kennedy’s
legislative initiatives into law. Even so, Kennedy’s image changed history.
Had Nixon won in 1960, or LBJ for that matter, and been assassinated, the
impact would have been closer to the murder of James Garfield. Instead,
John F. Kennedy became an icon whose death headlined a disturbing phenomenon.
Before that day in Dallas, eighty percent of the people believed their
leaders and felt they always acted in the best interests of their constituents.
By decade’s end, the numbers had reversed.
* * *
In October JFK’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women concluded a 22-month study by recommending equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave and child care. In response Kennedy appointed a cabinet level panel to consider corrective legislation.
Like civil rights, our leaders would soon be playing catch up.
“The problem that has no name.”
— The Feminine Mystique
“Is this all?” asked left-wing author Betty Friedan. Was
the idealized life of the suburban housewife all there should be? If so,
why did so many women feel such emptiness in their lives? Why did they
lack a sense of accomplishment? According to Friedan, they found the role
of homemaking, child-rearing helpmate unfulfilling. To overcome it, women
needed “goals that will permit them to find their own identity.” Goals
such as careers and new lines of work — as well as equality before the
law. In articulating this vague feeling of dissatisfaction shared by many
middle class white women, her book laid the groundwork for the Women's
* * *
Harbinger of the rights revolutions to come, the Civil Rights Movement led to protests by many and varied groups from senior citizens to environmentalists to homosexuals. A lot of people, it turned out, felt they had something to overcome. Many did. A newer version of a 1901 religious folk song/Baptist hymn titled “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” copyrighted by a white school teacher captured the peaceful, idealistic spirit of the times.
We Shall Overcome
— the protest song
Music was vital to the Civil Rights Movement. This lilting song became its anthem, voicing all the soulful optimism and earnest determination of the thousands of young blacks and the few hundred whites who joined in the struggle to overcome and eliminate racial injustice.
Music became the perfect anodyne for the dissonance of the day. Every new pop tune that came out reinforced the growing emphasis on being young and having fun. One man’s music is the bane of another’s existence, which was part of the fun. Here was the anthem that provided the most oft-repeated three-chord progression in the history of Western Civilization.
— the Kingsmen
This song was the very heart of rock 'n' roll, important for both its “tune” and the urban legends surrounding its lyrics. Here are two that ought to be true, even if it they aren’t. The FBI spent considerable time trying to decipher the lyrics to determine the extent of their obscenity. They finally gave up, concluding that the words were too slurred to have any meaning. One of the reasons the lyrics were so indecipherable owed to the Kingsmen’s lead singer (a marginal band at best) singing through his braces while stretching up to a microphone that was suspended too far above his head.
According to composer Richard Berry, “Louie, Louie” is a sea ditty about a sailor pining to a bartender named Louie about his far away love.
Louie Louie, me gotta go. Louie Louie, me gotta
A fine girl, she wait for me.
Me catch the ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone.
I never think I'll make it home.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Three nights and days we sailed the sea.
Me think of girl constantly.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Me see Jamaican moon above.
It won't be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.