The 1960s are often described by historians as having the most significant changes in history. While 1960 to 1962 looked a lot like the 1950s, the world has been “all shook up” for the past 50 years, beginning in ’63.
A month ago, we reflected on and honored John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier in the year, we noted a couple of other events, such as the March on Washington on Aug. 28, when a crowd estimated at 250,000 heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I have a dream” speech.
Those events are remembered on their own, but 1963 was a pivotal year for many reasons.
In terms of setting the stage for today, the civil rights movement heated up dramatically — and in turn had the most lasting effects a half-century later. Demonstrations in New York and Chicago made headlines, as did
violent incidents in North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia and Maryland.
This was the year when the last Southern state universities were integrated, Clemson being the final one to admit black students. George C. Wallace moved to one side in response to the U.S. government’s intervention in the integrating public schools. Martin Luther King also was arrested in Birmingham, and from there wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” outlining a call for nonviolent protest and peaceful demonstrations for equal rights for all.
Kennedy called for legislation permitting school integration suits and providing equal access to public businesses that engaged in interstate commerce. Fittingly, perhaps, a black man named Sydney Poitier won the Oscar as best actor for his role in “Lilies of the Field.”
This was the last year with a relatively small federal government in this country. President Kennedy’s budget for that year was $98.8 billion, with a deficit of $11.9 billion, which was considered extremely large at the time.
Ironically, unemployment was deemed the “most pressing challenge” of the time and the No. 1 economic problem. The rate stood at 6.1 percent in 1963, up from 5.6 percent in ’62. But by the following year, Lyndon Johnson had begun the escalation of the Vietnam “conflict” and removed the silver backing from currency, and government size and scope have grown exponentially since.
JFK signed a bill in midyear requiring equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender, another milestone for equality efforts. About the same time, Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” which laid the foundation for the feminist movement.
There were equally great strides on other fronts. In medicine, 1963 produced the first liver, lung and kidney transplants, procedures now taken almost for granted. A proposal for Medicare was submitted to Congress early that year, a safety net legacy we are still wrestling with today. The American Heart Association launched the first public awareness drive against smoking.
Technology took great leaps forward. The first telecommunications satellites were put into working order, orbiting the Earth to relay television and telephone signals between continents. The world suddenly got smaller. This was essential to establishing the kind of electronic world we live in today. The touch-tone phone was also introduced in this year, a first-generation digital signal.
Arts and culture always reveal and parallel the times, and never is that truer than in 1963. The first exhibition of “Pop Art,” featuring Andy Warhol and his contemporaries, was put on public display.
Music was all over the place. Peter, Paul & Mary were very much on the scene and in the charts. Folk idols Bob Dylan and Joan Baez found their place in the spotlight in ’63. But the pop record of the year was “Days of Wine and Roses,” by Henry Mancini, and the best album was considered to be Barbra Streisand’s debut.
Other pop hits came from such diverse directions as Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole, The Miracles, Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys. Little Stevie Wonder had his first hit with “Fingertips,” as did Johnny Cash with “Ring of Fire.” No hint anywhere of the hard rock music that would dominate within a few years.
Another thing happened in ’63 that still reverberates. On the day Kennedy was killed, the Beatles’ first American album went on sale. It was, shall we say, a smash hit. The Beatles’ effect on American culture rivals anything that comes to mind over the past 50 years. Once the Beatles did it, it seemed OK. A generation followed their lead, and the world has literally never been the same.
The theoretical concept of “The Butterfly Effect” was also introduced in 1963. This is the idea that a small change in one place can effect large differences in another place far away, such as a hurricane being started by the flap of a butterfly’s wings several weeks earlier.
My family moved to Charlotte in December 1963, just in time to see the Beatles debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That is where I grew up. And as with the butterfly that flaps its wings in South America and starts a hurricane off the coast of Africa, the world has never been the same for it.
Pat Taylor is advertising director for The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com.