Tuesday, April 29, students and members of the community gathered in the Ellsworth Room to see Vermont Public Televisions’s public screening of American Experience’s “1964.”
The film began with footage of the ball dropping in Times Square marking the beginning of 1964, a year that would bring unparalleled change to the country and begin to shape what it is today. However, as the film explains, 1964 really began on Nov. 22, 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This event let everything loose, including a drastic change in American politics that can still be felt today.
As Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson took his place the same day and was initially unpopular. While he lacked Kennedy’s famous charm and charisma, Johnson would do what Kennedy could not, presiding over the successful passage the 1964 Civil Rights bill ending segregation across the nation. Johnson’s ability to persuade the Southern Democrats Republicans to end segregation ended up being a game changer to American society. He also launched the war on poverty and the Great Society initiative.
But, what 1964 also brought was the birth of the modern conservative movement. Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for the 1964 election and arguably the person who destroyed any two sides within the Republican party. When Goldwater ran, he ran on the belief that what freedom meant was freedom from the federal government, while Johnson ran on the belief that freedom meant ending Southern segregation. Although Goldwater lost the election in a Johnson landslide, his influence on the Republican party was enough to begin the shift in the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. The Republican party also began its drift to the right and the marginalization of the moderate and liberal wings of the party. “This marked the reinvention of the modern GOP,” Part-time Professor of Humanities Jim Moran said in a panel discussion following the film. “Because what happened is the Goldwater people systematically began to weed out the moderate and left.”
1964 also brought a change in American culture. It marked the beginning of a period where America had survived WWII with relatively little damage economically and was now thriving. This created an entire generation of college-age and young people who had been raised in suburban neighborhoods and were now bored. Coming to fill the need of the suburban youth were four long haired Brits known as the Beatles.
When the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan show Feb. 9, 1964, they represented a culture of hopefulness and rebellion. Youth around the country began to grow out their hair and rebel against the 50’s culture their parents represented. This generation was told that they mattered economically and therefore politically. Cassius Clay, the legendary boxer after beating Sonny Liston, soon announced his name change to Muhammad Ali and his switch to Islam. Ali said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
This attitude defined the generation that came out of 1964 and completely changed the decade.
The film then went on to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the U.S was allegedly attacked by the North Vietnamese. This was the beginning of the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam and the beginning of student protests as a form of activism. Students began demanding the ability to have a voice on campuses across the country. It was also during this time that Ronald Reagan began to be known as a voice in politics. Two years later he would become governor of California.
In the end, it would be the war in Vietnam that would make Johnson not seek a second term.
The film ended with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a fitting song since after this year, a change did come that would reverberate across the decade.