1963: 50 years later, the nation is still shaped by changes wrought in days of tumult

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photoThe Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

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A new year was just beginning -- an extraordinary year, in which so much would change.

Half a century ago, on Jan. 14, 1963, George Wallace took the podium to give his inaugural address as governor of Alabama. His words framed a fiery rejoinder to a civil rights movement gathering strength.

"I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny," he thundered, "and I say, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!'"

Fifty years later, the words still have the power to shock. In college classes like "The Sixties in History and Memory," today's students recoil.

But turn the pages of their text to a day just seven months later, and there's another riveting oration. At the thronged Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a vision of a "day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!'"

The students shiver at the speech -- and at the contradictions and convulsions of 1963.

"We constantly make the point," notes Donald Spivey, who teaches "The Sixties" at the University of Miami, "that you're hit with all of these things at once."

Under the shadow of the Cold War's threat of "mutually assured destruction," 1963 was the year of dawning arms control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In June, the adversaries set up a "hotline" communications link between the Kremlin and the White House to insure against a catastrophic mistake.

For many women, it was a year of liberation. The 1963 best-seller "The Feminine Mystique" catalyzed the modern women's movement. One author says the book literally saved lives.

Around 1963, the critical mass of the baby boom generation was reaching a critical moment. Its leading edge, teenagers by then, were starting to recognize what they wanted to do, to believe and, significantly, to buy. The music they listened to was beginning to challenge certainties. Bob Dylan, who sang in 1963 of all that was "blowin' in the wind." Motown. And soon the shaggy-haired, parent-unsettling Beatles, whose first album came out in Britain that year.

At the center of it all was the Kennedy administration, glamorous and youthful, often likened to "Camelot" -- the mythical world lasting, as a Broadway lyric lamented, just "one brief, shining moment."

Then suddenly, in November, the greatest jolt of all in a year of tumult, one felt still today: Rifle shots in Dallas that brought that moment to a close.

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"So much happened in the '60s that every year is almost its own brand … and '63 has a rightful place," said Jeremy Varon, a history professor at New York's New School and co-editor of the journal "The Sixties." The decade's themes resounded, he says, including a societal turn toward youth.

Ever since, "youth has defined popular taste."

"Coming of age in the '60s still is sort of the great archetype of … what youth is all about," he said. "Kennedy gave young people this charge to define American strength … and virtue."

And today's students appreciate that -- even while consigning Kennedy and King to a misty past. Having grown up during the shadowy war on terrorism, many show no sense of "what it's like to live in a culture of optimism."

"The biggest thing I find," Varon added, "is that students are enraptured by the fact that once upon a time young people had a sense of purpose in life."

Cultural historian Thomas Hine calls the young people of the 1960s "the luckiest generation." There was "the idea that we can take more control of our lives."

• • •

In Spivey's '60s classes at Miami, students grasp the sense of purpose in 1963's pivotal chapter in the civil rights movement.

Ticking off milestones, the professor mentions Birmingham, Ala., where King and others went to launch Project C, for "confrontation."

Hundreds were arrested, including King, whose galvanizing "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is read by students now.

"Injustice anywhere," its best-known line says, "is a threat to justice everywhere."

Reports from Birmingham showed peaceful marchers, including children, being attacked by snapping police dogs and blasted by fire hoses.

"Then the water hit them," an AP reporter on the scene wrote. "Cowering first with hands over their heads, then on their knees or clinging together with their arms around each other, they tried to hold their ground." A man's T-shirt was ripped off by the fire hose blast, and afterward a woman was bleeding from the nose and a young girl's eyes were cut, the story said.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," Kennedy said in a June 1963 speech, formally supporting a sweeping Civil Rights Act. "Are we to say to the world -- and much more importantly to each other -- that this is the land of the free, except for the Negroes?"

On Aug. 28 came what may be the signature moment of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

"By special train, plane, buses by the thousand, private automobiles and even in some cases on foot, the marchers poured into the capital," the AP reported.

An estimated 250,000 people, mostly black but many white, met at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King pronounce, "I have a dream."

• • • 

Civil rights advances of 1963 spilled into a broader sense of possibilities.

Many people had long hoped for relief from the specter of atomic war -- what Kennedy called the "darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth" as he announced the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in July.

For years, people had staged "ban the bomb" street demonstrations -- but almost unnoticed in 1963, they were joined by a few early protesters against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, where Kennedy had been sending American military "advisers."

By 1963, record buyers, radio stations, even jukebox operators were embracing a broadening range of entertainment. There was the "Motown sound" of black pop songs -- singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson has spoken of "the barriers that we broke down with music" -- and audiences would soon embrace the "British invasion."

Spivey's '60s class ends with a sing-along, and Varon marvels at how many of his students know the lyrics.

A quieter revolution made 1963 "a lever," in the words of historian Stephanie Coontz. In February of that year, writer Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique."

At the time, the American woman had her assigned place: She would marry, raise children, and tend the home, which she would maintain with products and appliances designed to make her middle-class life efficient and ideal.

The trouble, Friedan recognized, was that for many this was not ideal, but suffocating, said Coontz, author of the 2011 book "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

When she reviews those days with her students today -- "head and master" laws in many states making wives legally subject to husbands, help-wanted ads seeking "pretty looking, cheerful gal" for office work, and the like -- "jaws literally drop," she said.

For middle-class women, Friedan's book was a revelation. They'd been told "they should not want anything more out of life -- and were 'sick' when they did. These people Friedan literally rescued," Coontz said. "People I interviewed said … they were considering suicide."

The book told them they were not alone and change might come.

• • •

Transformative change is a central theme of '60s courses; some even offer '60s-style civic outreach projects as substitutes for traditional research papers. Students learn how Kennedy pushed variations of this message in 1963.

In June in Berlin, where a communist-built wall showed the Cold War divide most sharply, he envisioned the ultimate triumph of freedom. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin," he said, "and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"

The same month, he gave a commencement address. "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet," he told the graduates. "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Five months later, he traveled to Texas, for political fence-mending ahead of the 1964 election. He was waving to cheering crowds in sunny Dallas when the rifle shots came at 12:30 p.m. Central time.

In newsreel footage, cheers turn to shrieks, as TV announcers break into soap operas with bulletins. The nonstop coverage, though common now, was like nothing before on television. The nation shared bewilderment and grief.

"Up until that point," Hine said, "there was this widespread belief in big business, big government, big thinking to lead us into a better future. The assassination didn't completely undo this, but it showed that some things are far more fragile than we ever imagined them to be."