Fifty years ago this month I was on Spring Break in Daytona Beach. Sun, surf, suds and sex. Well, the sex was more anticipation than fulfillment, but could life get any better?
No one year can be viewed as a watershed but if one in the recent past could — up until 2001 — 1963 may be as close as it gets. A new America was being birthed.
World War II was a generation prior and the post-war euphoria had crested. Alabama governor George Wallace was making the last stand for segregation in the Deep South, defiantly proclaiming: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”
Women were stay-at-home moms, the Cold War was at its peak, Vietnam was a distant police action, black-and-white television was the dominant popular technology and jazz, pop and oldies were the main music genres.
Everything is about to change.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is among thousands arrested for sit-ins and parading without permits in Birmingham, Alabama. Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor shocks the nation by turning fire hoses and police dogs on the demonstrators, many of them young children.
Media coverage of Connor’s brutal methods and later in the year the killing of four young girls in a Birmingham church and the murder of black activist Medgar Evers raise intense scrutiny of racial segregation in the South. The March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech change the national dynamics on race leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in hiring practices and public facilities.
Betty Friedan launches the modern women’s movement with publication of “The Feminine Mystique” three years after the birth control pill is approved for contraception. For the first time women have the inspiration and the ability to explore the full spectrum of life’s possibilities.
Less than a year after near nuclear conflagration over Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Senate approves the first partial nuclear test ban treaty, lessening tensions with the U.S.S.R. and starting the adversaries on the path to détente.
The U.S. instigates a coup replacing South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, signaling deeper American involvement in the war, prompting the start of antiwar protests and the counterculture and ultimately leading to a new skepticism in the way Americans view government, even today.
The first communications satellite is placed into geosynchronous orbit, launching modern communications technology. New groups, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, impact music and popular culture for decades.
Just over 1,000 days into his presidency John F. Kennedy is assassinated, shattering the innocence of a nation.
Fifty years! How time flies.