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Beatles, Ali epitomize hope and strife of 50 years ago in PBS '1964' docu

Fifty years ago America entered into what would become a pivotal year in its history.

Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) and The Beatles
Courtesy of ©Bettmann/CORBIS

Only six weeks after the Kennedy assassination, the year began with Bobby Vinton’s “There I’ve Said It Again” topping the charts, Bonanza among the top-rated TV shows, Hello, Dolly! beginning its long Broadway run, Rock Hudson and Doris Day starring in the romcom Send Me No Flowers.

In 1964, the exhilarating, sometimes agonizing new installment of the PBS "American Experience" documentary series, President Lyndon Johnson faced the overwhelming challenges of maintaining the optimism of the emerging postwar mass middle class that Kennedy so embodied while furthering an anti-poverty and pro-civil rights agenda--just as a relatively small military involvement in Southeast Asia simmered toward a boiling point.

ll this as the modern conservative movement was coming into being with Barry Goldwater and a conservative youth movement.

“It was in 1964 that every kind of split in American life suddenly became open and visible,” sportswriter Robert Lipsyte says in 1964. Notes writer Rick Perlstein, “It was the kind of watershed that you very rarely see in history.”

America seemed more united and at peace than ever before until that televised British invasion by The Beatles on the Feb. 9 edition of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Historian Susan J. Douglas states that “one of the big reasons we all screamed our heads off [is that] they sang about us.” The Beatles, she says, liked girls, and “felt the same pain that girls did.”

For sociologist Todd Gitlin, The Beatles also filled stadiums because they had fun and “represented hopefulness.” Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner was “just blown away by the kind of life, spirit, enjoyment, joy” The Beatles personified, not to mention that “the music was wonderful.”

At the same time, however, The Beatles “did scare a lot of parents,” says author Jon Margolis. They were inspiring “the first generation brought up in a well-ordered, comfortable life of suburbia,” who were therefore quite bored and beginning to rebel in a comparatively harmless manner—for the time being--of longer hair styles.

And then, in the days leading up to the momentous Feb. 25 heavyweight title fight in Miami Beach between the brash young Cassius Clay and the fearsome champion Sonny Liston, The Beatles visited Clay—truly the fifth Beatle.

They were supposed to pose with Liston, who backed off with “I ain’t posing with them sissies.” So they were taken to Clay’s camp as a consolation prize, though Clay wasn’t there.

Lipsyte recalls how the band, identified to unknowing onlookers as “singers for girls,” were peeved at having to wait in an empty dressing room until “the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen [Clay] burst into the dressing room” and said, “C’mon, Beatles. Let’s go make some money!” and they followed him out like kindergarten kids.

Playful, wonderful footage then follows, with Clay punching out the Fab Four, who are lined up sideways, with a single blow.

“It was the confluence of two of the great cultural rivers of our time,” says Lipsyte, “the toppling of the order that was my generation, and it was thrilling.” After The Beatles left, Clay asked him, “So who were those little sissies?”

But the fun was over shortly after Clay shocked the world by knocking out Liston, when he announced that the rumors were true: He had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name.

Muhammad Ali is my original name. That’s a black man name,” he said. “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I’m no longer a slave.”

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali added. “I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.”

For Margolis, it was an extension of the kids not getting haircuts, of not playing the role expected of them.

“He made no apologies for himself,” notes Lipsyte. “He just said, ‘Here I am.’”

Other cultural hallmarks of 1964 included the "Bikini Beach" movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, Ken Kesey and the band of Merry Pranksters.

“It was young vs. old, new vs. old,” says Wenner. “We were young and we knew better than anybody else.”

A legion of girls are shown facing police barricades in backing Ringo for president, another early expression of a new youthful energy while at the same time confronting the authority of the Establishment.

This was indeed a crucial moment in American history, one that would fundamentally alter the kind of nation America would become, as 1964’s narration (by Oliver Platt) points out and remaining footage illustrates—often unbearably.

The Freedom Summer campaign (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project) brought young, mostly white college students from the North down to Mississippi to register black voters and culminated with the June disappearance of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white activists from New York, and James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi. After a massive FBI search that gripped the nation and turned up the bodies of eight slain black men in rivers and swamps, their remains were found seven weeks later beneath an earthen dam.

To this day the names Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman resonate like Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, seared in memory as immortal symbols of 1964.

In August, a confrontation between the U.S. and North Vietnamese navies in the Gulf of Tonkin off the northern coastline of North Vietnam led directly to the escalation of the Vietnam War, which along with the Civil Rights Movement, helped galvanize the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, and the rise of civil disobedience on campus there and elsewhere.

“Nineteen sixty-four saw a series of events that really did crystallize the tension between the tremendous sense of idealism co-existing with a dawning sense of outrage,” says historian Stephanie Coontz, who participated in the Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements as a student at Berkeley. Says journalist and former Carter administration State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, who grew up in Mississippi and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, “I could never have asked for a better time to be invovled with the affairs of my nation.”

The year 1964, Carter adds, “was the propulsion from the past into the future,” which, per Perlstein, exposed the fault lines along politics, race and gender in bringing to the fore the contradictions in the way America sees itself--and reality.

The documentary ends as it begins, with a song.

Sam Cooke’s emblematic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which was released in December shortly after his tragic death, would eventually come to signify the entire Civil Rights Movement. Just last year it was recognized by the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Towering Song Award, presented to honor songs that have uniquely influenced culture throughout the years.

It complemented another monumental song shown earlier in 1964, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'.”

Of course, with the current efforts to curtail voting rights, limit health care for the needy, and foment foreign military quagmires, how much change has actually a-stuck is debatable--the election of a progressive black president notwithstanding. But for better and worse, America has never been the same since the events documented so vividly in 1964.

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