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‘American Experience’ on PBS presents '1964': Beatles, Civil Rights, Vietnam

1964 promotional poster
1964 promotional poster
Promotional Image/Courtesy

PBS’ award-winning history series "American Experience” does it again with taking a singular topic and expanding it. “1964” premiered Tuesday night with its well-thought out, chronological order of events taking place that year. The episode starts off with a stark black & white film clip of New Year Eve revelers in Times Square kicking off the start of ‘64.

Many are still feeling the effects of Kennedy’s assassination from the previous year, while resenting Johnson’s illegitimate gain to the presidency. One of the first events to wake up the restless youth in February 1964 is the arrival of the Beatles.

They land at the newly named John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. Currently on the charts is Bobby Vinton’s mind-numbing hit song “There! I’ve said It Again.” Music in America is about to get a shot in the arm.

A young boy is interviewed on why his hair so long (it’s actually very short by today’s standards). What did his parents think about it? He basically tells the reporter he’s not concerned what they think. The reason his hair’s long, it’s because of the Beatles. This is just the start on how young kids began to rebel

After their enormously successful television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles set off to Miami. Initially the four lads were to meet heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. He has no desire to be bothered with them. Sportswriter Bob Lipsyte recalls when they met Cassius Clay (Ali’s name at the time) at his training camp. He joked around with them and posed for photos.

Interesting to note, Clay was not at all favored to win the championship against Liston. As the new heavyweight champion of the world he later acknowledged his conversion to Islam, and a new name, Muhammad Ali.

During the middle part of the two-hour documentary was devoted extensively to the civil rights movement. President Johnson aggressively petitioned and later signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Freedom Summer civil rights program took place later that summer, recruiting college students in the north to go to Mississippi. Their mission was to assist blacks in that state with voter registration.

Two civil right workers from Freedom Summer, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, along with Mississippi native James Chaney, were reported missing and later murdered. This would later be the basis for the 1980s film “Mississippi Burning.” Once the nation found out what was happening in this Deep South state, rebellion for civil rights began taking place at many college campuses including the University of California at Berkeley.

In the last segment of “American Experience - 1964,” the Vietnam War was then a quite conflict until the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Johnson took it upon himself, without conferring with Congress, to use military force in Southeast Asia, more specifically Vietnam. During the program’s epilogue, the Johnson administration would see the war escalating out of control. He would not seek another term in office. Rebellion amongst the youth reached a fever pitch at college campuses across the nation.

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