The JFK assassination ended the seemingly placid fifties era. Although the Civil Rights Movement battled southerners in the streets with nonviolent protest, Elvis Presley changed the culture, and Cold War pressures frightened Americans, there was a suburban vernier that permeated the nation. This curtain fell in Dallas in late 1963 with the Kennedy assassination. The following year laid the foundation for the sixties and nearly 20 years of turmoil.
Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed office upon John Kennedy's death. LBJ hoped to heal the nation quickly, bury the tragedy's memory, and pivot to domestic policy. Chief Justice Earl Warren led a committee investigation into JFK's murder. The Warren Commission released their report in September 1964. They concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy and wounding Texas Governor John Connally. Many disregarded the report preferring to believe in a coverup. Subsequent evidence has since vindicated the Warren Commission. However, that does not satisfy conspiracy theorists. Either way, the quick, tidy investigation aided Johnson's goals by putting the assassination in the nation's rear view mirror.
President Johnson wanted to focus on domestic reforms in order to advance the nation and mimic his hero Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt created the New Deal, Kennedy proclaimed the New Frontier, so LBJ envisioned the Great Society. The president declared war on poverty, introduced many new programs, improved education, created Medicare and Medicaid, enabled consumer protections, pioneered environmental reforms, and invented modern welfare. The Great Society became a lightning rod for controversy and political battle for several decades. In the end, LBJ oversold his program, poverty never ended, and it helped slow the economy and balloon Washington spending.
While expanding the parameters of federal domestic policy, Johnson became entangled in the Vietnam conflict. The Vietnamese civil war began a century earlier, embroiled the French, and then ensnared Johnson. On August 4, the president announced North Vietnam attacked American naval forces on two occasions. The so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7. Congress gave the president full authority to punish North Korea in any way he saw fit. Johnson eventually escalated the incident into a fullscale war. The war created fissures in America that exist to this day. He should have bombed the North Vietnamese ports and declared victory.
The Vietnam War ended in disaster, but LBJ triumphed on civil rights policy. The modern Civil Rights Movement began in earnest with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The movement spread throughout the south battling racism and the legal system. LBJ moved to eradicate legalized racism in America. He ushered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on race, national origin, color, religion, or gender. The act effectively ended legal segregation in public accommodations and discriminatory voting practices. The president recognized that his support for civil rights would lose the south for the Democrats in the long run, but felt it was the right thing to do.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved a victory for African Americans, President Johnson, the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. King's efforts on behalf of the movement led to the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest recipient in history. The committee recognized King's non-violent tactics in the battle for equality.
While King won the Nobel Prize, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. At this point, Malcolm X declared his willingness to work with the Civil Rights Movement. In Detroit, he delivered his " Ballot or the Bullet" speech attacking white Democrats as frauds. He advised his audience to vote as a bloc to offset a split white community. At the same time, he warned that people would "turn the cheek" for only so long before retaliating.
Malcolm X tapped into the anger younger activists felt. They experienced the bulk of southern violence while struggling for their rights. Mississippi became the showcase for the violence and injustice in the summer of 1964. Three civil rights workers were murdered by police near Philadelphia, Mississippi. By this point, the press had discovered that southern violence against non-violent activists was a good story. The federal government entered the investigation since Mississippi proved reluctant to act. The bodies were discovered 44 days later, the state refused to prosecute, so the Justice Department charged 18 people with civil rights violations. The case helped Johnson pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
President Johnson won a sweeping victory over Republican Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. Johnson successfully branded Goldwater a trigger happy lunatic. Goldwater did not help his case with a major gaffe at the Republican Convention. Kennedy's ghost overshadowed the election creating an emotional advantage for Johnson. In the end, LBJ earned 61% of the vote, won 44 states, and collected 486 electoral votes. However, Goldwater won five states in the Deep South foreshadowing Republican ascendancy in the region. Additionally, Goldwater's ideology eventually permeated his party and led to five presidential election victories between 1968 and 1988.
The political world changed in 1964, but so did the music world. The Beatles ushered in the British Invasion when they appeared on Ed Sullivan. The group revolutionized rock n roll's sound. By this point, rock had stagnated with the exception of The Beach Boys and a few other acts. The Fab Four reworked American rock making it the dominant musical genre for a decade. They would continue to change the musical culture over the next several years. Meanwhile, a host of British acts began to appear including The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Who. That same year, Pete Townshend broke his first guitar symbolically initiating a movement. Rock became the music of revolution and a way of life by the mid-sixties.
JFK died in 1963. His death ushered in a sea change for America. Kennedy's successor dramatically expanded the government, the budget, and entered the Vietnam War head on. President Johnson's support of civil rights changed the political dynamic and freed an oppressed minority. Modern divisions in America were essentially in their fetal form in 1964 and birthed four years later. Meanwhile, the culture itself began to change with the British Invasion.