The Six Months That Made the Sixties

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Unless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous.

The March on Washington (“for Jobs and Freedom,” to give the event its precise title) on August 28 was at once the start of something and the culmination of what unfolded the preceding decade. This included a Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation, a woman who refused to change seats on a bus, federal troops enforcing the integration of Southern schools, a minister imprisoned during a close presidential campaign, the savage murders of black and white civil rights workers, and the proposal of landmark legislation only two months before by the president of the United States. The march was most notable for the appearance by the Reverend Martin Luther King in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered the greatest speech of the 20th century and, with Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, one of the two greatest speeches in American history. Following the Declaration of Independence and the Lincoln address, King’s “I Have a Dream” oration completed the spoken triptych of a national covenant struck, challenged, fought and died for, and realized institutionally over the course of two centuries.

Only in the wake of this realization could an era of possibilities like the Sixties flourish. Fittingly for a decade that, more insistently than any before or after, would be epitomized by its music, that August day had a soundtrack. It was a white soundtrack, or would largely be remembered as white, to the chagrin that day of some black activists. Though in fact the program was divided between white and black singers (the latter of whom included the formidable Odetta, Marian Anderson, and Mahalia Jackson), in what may have been a canny appeal to young whites of conscience, prominence was given to the trio Peter, Paul and Mary; reigning madonna of the folk movement Joan Baez; and wunderkind Bob Dylan, who had been updating Woody Guthrie’s songbook of protest. Unsettled to be a Midwestern Jew singing to black people songs like “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Dylan himself concluded that African Americans wary of his appearance had a point.

After the march, its leaders met at the White House with the president. By all accounts John Kennedy was impressed by the occasion, but also had tried to discourage it and then declined to appear in its proximity for fear of being booed; some junior members of the leadership, including future Congressman John Lewis, were underwhelmed by the civil rights bill that Kennedy had sent to Congress in June. The legislation’s prospects were poor and, though it’s tactless to say so, probably doomed to defeat by segregationists in Kennedy’s own political party if not for what happened 12 weeks later in Dallas. The suggestion that some idealism died on November 22 with the president’s assassination gets things exactly backwards. His death sanctified not just Kennedy but the objectives of the August 28 march as well as an image the country had of itself as visionary and utopian—traits that in life Kennedy represented only erratically. Whatever the nostalgia some progressives feel during Barack Obama’s administration for the strong-arming can-do of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t have passed the Civil Rights Act but for the inexorable momentum of Kennedy’s martyrdom, which in turn led to Johnson’s landslide presidential victory in 1964, which in turn swept in the veto-proof Democratic congress of Obama’s dreams, which then passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965—all before the Sixties that Kennedy’s assassination helped unleash consumed Johnson politically three years later. The balance of the decade would be haunted by a Kennedy legacy no longer threatened by sexual or medical scandals and that was synonymous with the struggle for civil rights. As his brother’s attorney general, Robert Kennedy was irritated by what he considered the impatience of black Americans, and approved FBI wiretaps of King’s phone conversations; with his brother gone, the younger Kennedy would go on to forge a connection with black America that no white politician had since Lincoln.

On the morning that Kennedy was shot, 6,000 miles away an English band whose growing popularity in Europe was noted by few in the United States released their second album. In spite of the fact that the band’s records had been issued stateside by small independent labels for the better part of a year, they had met the same reception as other Anglo sensations who never found success in the wayward colonies; but part of being great is being lucky, and now a grieving New World offered four working-class musicians an unprecedented chance that they seized as winter set in. That dark Christmas barely a month after Kennedy’s death, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” began gaining traction on American radio. Another month and a half later the band laid foot for the first time on the tarmac of the New York airport that had just been rechristened in the fallen president’s name. Only underscored by the grim coincidence of its release date, With the Beatles announced the Sixties more than any other recording, certifying that the group might not be just a passing spectacle, even if no one could contemplate how mythic they would become in terms of a decade with which they ultimately were more associated than slain statesmen. 

The sequel to the band’s debut was a distinctly more American record, which is to say a blacker record. Nearly half of With the Beatles was covers of songs by African American rhythm and blues artists, and if the Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, and Marvelettes selections are relatively obvious in hindsight, then a truer measure of the Englishmen’s sensibilities were more obscure choices like Barrett Strong’s 1959 “Money” (the first Motown record) and a black girl-group nobody had heard of, the Donays from Detroit, whose “Devil in His Heart” the Beatles’ lead guitarist unearthed in a record shop owned by the band’s manager. Then in their third of three appearances on American television’s The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired February 23, 1964 (though it was recorded earlier), the band performed a tune by the Isley Brothers, capping their so-called invasion during which they incessantly phoned radio stations with requests for Marvin Gaye hits and proselytized for the black artists of whom, to their astonishment, a white American public was barely aware.

The Beatles’ music, in other words, was closer to the spirit of the March on Washington than the music most of the public heard that August afternoon on the National Mall. Of course the Beatles had no particular interest one way or the other in advancing the march’s aspirations. They were careerists on the make who knew good material when they heard it and had just enough grace and guilelessness to acknowledge they were plumbing the archives of black American music. As King’s speech was both a beginning and culmination, so too the Beatles came to the United States as inheritors of what a 19-year-old white Tennessee truck driver began a decade before, his first heedless, racially mixed records having been cut within weeks of Brown v. Board of Education. The Beatles gave expression to the sheer adolescent fun of collapsing racial barriers, a notion that to some was a signal of moral degradation and to others who thought about it at all probably the trivialization of a noble cause. One of the reasons that town councils across America were so horrified by Elvis Presley and 1950s rock and roll was their well-founded dread that sooner or later white kids would start dancing with black kids. Allowing that Motown records were having almost as much impact on white kids from the other side of the racial divide, still the Beatles personified a disruption of an old American order—including as it had to do with race—at the same time that America symbolized to the Beatles an unfathomable liberation.

Marking the gestation and birth of the Sixties, the March on Washington in August, the assassination of the president in November, and the Beatles’ TV appearances in February were unto themselves a series of mini-Year Ones in a timeline that changed the country and the world. Each date cut off history from what had been before, the world already different in February from what it was November 22, when the world was different from what it was August 28, when the world was different from what it was August 27. Notwithstanding the racism to which the march responded, the horror that attended assassination, and the mania that characterized the music, each represented the Sixties at their most surpassing: Once and for all the King speech lay claim to an indisputable moral authority on behalf of justice; the Kennedy assassination gave to King’s quest its second white martyr after Lincoln, which in a racist society still counted for as much as the quest’s many black martyrs; and the Beatles relegated to obsolescence the existing structures of white American culture, as embodied at the march by Peter, Paul and Mary and even Joan Baez (Dylan, whose genius for opportunism matched his other gifts, knew a seismic forecast when he heard it and moved fast to become its American prophet). We’ll never know what anyone, black or white, might have made of the Beatles singing the Isleys’ “Twist and Shout” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But when the night of February 23 circled back to the afternoon of August 28, what was spoken at the march was inchoately fulfilled in terms no one anticipated, and the next six years would decode and then transcend what happened in those six months, before the decade succumbed to the destiny of promises too good to be true. 

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