Thursday, January 16, 2014

American Experience: 1964

by Bill Holmes

American Experience: 1964 is a PBS documentary. Like most of these type shows it mixes film clips of that period with current statements by those who were on the front lines, a couple of period "experts" and a narrator. I was not overly impressed with the production of the documentary although I was very interested in the subject matter.

I was a high school junior and senior in 1964. That's a time of personal change and growth combined with a time of national change. I remembered most of what was covered in the program which is surprising since I was a self important, self centered high school student. Of course after all these years it is hard to tell what I actually remember from 1964 and what I remember from what has been written, filmed, televised and discussed about that year and period.

The gist of the documentary is that 1964 was a pivotal year in our nations history. It was at least the beginning of the post World War II generation flexing their adult muscles. They had been raised radically different than their parents. Much of the status quo was being questioned. The generations were splitting apart.

Before I get into the more serious stuff, let me touch on a few of the events of 1964. It is the year the Beatles invaded the United States. Cassius Clay, soon to be Mohammed Ali, defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. It was the year of the New York World's Fair. The Ford Mustang was introduced. Smoking was officially linked to cancer in congressional hearings. The Warren Commission said Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the Kennedy assassination. The language of the day referred to Blacks (African-Americans) as Negroes officially, much worse unofficially.

There were several 1964 events that still influence us today. Some even slightly more serious than the Beatles invasion.

The documentary contends that 1964 actually began on November 22,1963. That's the day Kennedy was assassinated. That's when the country, especially the youth, began questioning things. Blacks and women were beginning to rebel against the old white guy rules. The civil rights movement was in full bloom and often in full battle.

There was a major political shift. The civil rights votes in congress, particularly the senate, changed the complexion of the Democratic and Republican parties. Prior to this, the south was 99.9% Democratic. Why, because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves. Then Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat, pushed the civil rights bill. He needed Republicans in the senate to support the bill because the southern Democrats were against it. Later that year Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative, became the Republican candidate for president. He was soundly defeated by Johnson but he carried some southern states, the first time since Reconstruction for the Republicans. That was the beginning of where the parties are now. Republicans are conservatives and rule the south. Democrats are more liberal and are strongest in the north, west coast and big cities. The other change is that a Democratic president can no longer get Republican support in congress. All the old Dixiecrats are now Republicans or Teabags. This was also in a time when congress actually passed legislation on a regular basis.
1964 - Red = Goldwater - Blue = Johnson

The civil rights movement got into full swing. There were some gains and there were some tragic casualties. At least the civil rights legislation made most of the old Jim Crow laws null and void.

The other big item is that we became fully involved in Vietnam. Prior to '64 we had only officially supplied advisers and equipment to South Vietnam. Now Johnson was committing combat troops, planes and ships. How did that work out?

It was a time when the government, authority and old ways were in question. The youth were beginning to break out from the standards of the 50's. Some of it was messy but the country is better off now because of what happened in 1964.

This is not a great documentary but if you were around back then it's a fun watch. The old clips are interesting. We've come a long way baby.

The program is available online so give it a watch.

American Experience: 1964.


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