PBS’ American Experience: 1964, an Examination of the Year that Transformed America

The Beatles “training” with boxer Cassius Clay in 1964.

The Beatles “training” with boxer Cassius Clay in 1964.

Fifty years ago, 1964 was a monumental year. It was the year Beatle-mania came to America, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, Berkeley students rose up in protest, folks marched for Civil Rights, and the country was still mourning President Kennedy’s assassination. Now the acclaimed documentary series American Experience: 1964 will examine the year that transformed America, premiering Jan. 14 on PBS.

It’s good to go back and compare the “then” and “now,” and I’m glad that PBS has put together a lot of information that will stir our memories.

The film is based on The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 by award-winning journalist Jon Margolis. It follows some of the most prominent figures of the time — Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Friedan, etc. It also examines the actions of ordinary Americans whose frustrations and ambitions began to change the country, charting a new course for future generations.

As champagne popped on Dec. 31, 1963, America’s optimism hit a rough patch. Just five weeks earlier, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, leaving Americans shaken. Eight days into the New Year, the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, gave his first State of the Union address, demanding an end to racial injustice and an “unconditional war on poverty in America.”

I remember it well. Everywhere you looked in 1964, old conventions and attitudes were under assault. The arrival of the Beatles electrified teenagers across the country. One day after shocking the sports world by defeating Sonny Liston and becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, the young Cassius Clay announced he had become a Muslim, declaring, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be who I want.” It was a mantra that seemed to be rippling throughout American society in 1964.

It was a year when Americans faced choices between the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson or Barry Goldwater’s grassroots conservatism, or between embracing the emerging counterculture or defending traditional values. Women across America were finding a new voice thanks to Betty Friedan’s bestseller The Feminine Mystique, which helped the feminist movement take hold.

In the spring of 1964, visitors flocked to the New York World’s Fair where the now classic Ford Mustang made its debut. On the political front, seismic change could also be felt. At his commencement address at the University of Michigan, LBJ called upon the graduates to help him build a “Great Society,” and used his legendary powers of persuasion to engineer the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But racial unrest, in both the rural South and the cities of the North, would continue.

During the summer of 1964, Martha Reeves’s “Dancing in the Street” was on the radio and the Free Speech Movement was born on the Berkeley campus. Their nonviolent, highly organized, grassroots style of protest would become the model for student protest and student activism that would reverberate throughout the decade.

In November, Johnson was elected president by a landslide. But his fight for civil rights in the South transformed the previously Democratic region into a formidable block for the emerging Republican right. In the years to follow, LBJ’s dream of a Great Society would be shattered by the long and divisive war in Vietnam. Out of the ashes of Goldwater’s defeat, young Republicans regrouped and finally made good on their conservative revolution.

Young people increasingly embraced a cultural revolution that forever changed American. I remember it well. Tune in American Experience: 1964 for a history lesson fifty years in the making.