Yesterday, I watched a PBS program reprising the year 1964. Last November's JFK anniversary may have whetted the media's appetite for such recollections. It is a fact that 50th anniversaries are big occasions. One reason, I suspect, is that those who participated in the original events (and many of those who remember them well) won't be around for ever.
I obviously don't know how much longer I will be around, but 50 years on I certainly do remember - and remember well - that decisive year 1964 and the series of society-transforming events that occurred then. The PBS program correctly characterized 1964 as the year that the underlying divisions in American life split open, a watershed year when American society's latent fault lines - political, racial, generational, gender - became visible.
In the case of race, that claim may be a bit excessive. The same could, conceivably, be said for 1963. The racial tensions and conflicts that surfaced so dramatically in 1963 continued, to be sure, in 1964. The big change was Lyndon Johnson's throwing his full weight into the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act and succeeded, thanks to his personal skills and command of the legislative process in ending the Senate's filibuster (at a time when cloture still required 67 votes) and getting the bill passed. If the 1963 March on Washington was the highpoint of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the decisive legislation that transformed the public parameters of race relations in the U.S. Politically, it ushered in the realignment of our two political parties as the old Confederacy began to abandon its traditional home in the Democratic party, a process eased by the fact that, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee that year, voted against the Civil Rights Act (unlike most of his Republican colleagues, including the Senate Republican leader).
The latent political fault line was less that between Republicans and Democrats as between Conservatives and everyone else. A minority movement, American conservatives consciously sought in 1964 to transform the political landscape, to prevent society's further slippage in directions they didn't identify with. Goldwater lost the election, of course, but the process of transforming the Republican Party into a right-wing party really gained its momentum that year. (And, as the PBS program pointed out, 1964 was also the year that Ronald Reagan emerged as a conservative spokesman.)
The generational split was largely still over the horizon in 1964. But the Beatles' first American tour in February and Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in the fall symbolically lit the fuse that would set off the generational divisions that dominated the rest of the 1960s. We Baby Boomers, brought up to prosperity and affluence unlike our Depression-era parents, were just beginning to sense our own social significance. (The program also mentions Bob Dylan and his signature song about the times a-changing; but, whereas I remember the Beatles well and the Berkeley student riots, I was largely oblivious to Dylan for another year or more.)
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique hit the best-seller list in mid-March 1964. The dramatic transformation of relations between the sexes and the growth in social conflict along gender lines were still in the future. But the program correctly recognized gender as the final fault line revealed in 1964, even if it was as yet nowhere nearly so evident as the long-standing racial split and the developing political and generational ones.
I've always thought that dating the beginning of the post-Camelot, contentious sixties back to Kennedy's assassination was but a convenient convention. Last night's month-by-month trip back through 1964, however, has reminded me how truly transformative that year was and how different everything would be after from what it had been before.
Recalling his experience of that year, one of those interviewed called it "the propulsion of the past into the present" and said there was no better time to be involved in the nation's affairs. Thinking back to how I remember that year - the War on Poverty, the Beatles, the Surgeon General's Report on Smoking, the Great Society, the Civil Right Act, the Harlem Riots, the Gulf of Tonkin, the LBJ landslide - he may well be right.