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"From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago." -- Walter Cronkite
It’s easy to find the focal point of the year 1963 -- the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd. It is a watershed moment in American history in the sense that people remember it in such a personal way -- everybody knows where they were and what they were doing when the President was shot. More significantly, it was a blow to America’s hope and faith in the future. The energy of a young President and the promise of a “New Frontier” was gone. Certainly, America didn’t change over night. But the radical transformation that American society would experience during the rest of the decade of the 60’s was at least partially a product of the shock that came out of Dallas that November. And certainly, the changes that were coming had their seeds in the years prior to 1963. But in many ways, 1963 was the end of an era.

Adding to the impact of the event itself is the ongoing controversy about what actually happened in Dallas on November 22nd. While the killing was officially ruled to be the act of a lone gunman, over fifty years later conspiracy theories abound and a majority of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. The President and his wife, Jacqueline, were on a political trip to Texas to rally support for the Democratic Party -- they had been in neighboring Fort Worth in the morning and then flew to Dallas. They were in a motorcade heading from the airport to downtown when shots were fired. The President was hit and was immediately driven to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he was later pronounced dead. The Secret Service took possession of the body and transported it to Air Force One for a flight back to Washington. Before the plane took off, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Later that afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. Two days later, Oswald was shot and killed by a Dallas night club owner, Jack Ruby. Thus, there was never a trial, but a special group, the Warren Commission, was eventually appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination -- it was this group, headed by Chief Justice, Earl Warren, that concluded that President Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, and that Oswald had no accomplices. In the ensuing years other investigators challenged the Commission’s findings, questioning Oswald’s background (he had lived in Russia and had married a Russian woman); questioning the number of shots fired and the direction of those shots; questioning Ruby’s motivation for killing Oswald. Many have concluded that we will never know what really happened, but there is no question that terms such as “grassy knoll,” “Texas School Book Depository,” “Dealy Plaza,” and “Zapruder film” have become permanent residents in the American lexicon.

President Johnson proclaimed November 25th as a national day of mourning and John F. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery where his grave is marked by an “eternal flame.” The Kennedy family, the Kennedy White House, and the nation grieved at the passing of the young President.

The death of the President was seen as a blow to the civil rights movement and black Americans grieved his death as much as any. While JFK had been presented in the Presidential campaign as a supporter of the movement, and had garnered most of the black vote, his administration had not pursued the civil rights platform with much energy until 1963. But by the time the Kennedy’s traveled to Dallas in November, the civil rights of African-Americans had taken a couple of giant steps forward through a protest campaign in Birmingham, Alabama and the national “March on Washington.” President Kennedy had seized the opportunity to promote the civil rights agenda. After the Birmingham protests, and prior to the March on Washington, President Kennedy had proposed a bill to Congress that would make a federal effort to end segregationist policies. The March on Washington is credited with helping build support for the bill which was eventually passed by Congress in 1964 as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Birmingham was a segregated city. 40% of its population of 350,000 was black, and nearly all were relegated to manual labor and service jobs. The average salary for blacks was half of that of white citizens. The local steel mills had lower pay scales for blacks and it was even unlawful for black secretaries to work for white professionals. Segregation of public facilities was strictly enforced. And the city had a history of violence toward its black population. From 1945 to 1962 there were fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings -- the city was called, “Bombingham.”

All of this made Birmingham a prime target for the civil rights movement. In Birmingham, the goal was to desegregate downtown stores, create fair hiring practices, and desegregate public parks. The campaign began in the spring as a boycott of downtown businesses that supported segregation. But when that brought only limited success, a strategy called “Project C” was adopted. The “C” stood for confrontation. Protesters staged marches and sit-ins for the purpose of aggravating Director of Public Safety, BullConnor, and the white citizens of Birmingham into aggressive responses. National attention was drawn as eventually 2,500 were arrested and jailed, including Martin Luther King. But there weren’t enough citizens willing to risk jail until the SCLC recruited high school students to participate in the marches. When the jail cells were filled, Connor resorted to a more violent responses. On May 3rd, when protesters began their march, the police used attack dogs and powerful water hoses to deter the demonstrators. The images of the students being attacked by the dogs and pummeled by the high pressured water filled the national media. Eventually 3,000 protesters filled the Birmingham downtown area. The pressure on the business leaders succeeded and a solution was negotiated that public facilities would be desegregated and blacks would be hired in the stores. But on May 11th, a bomb destroyed the Gaston Motel where King had been staying. Soon after, rioting broke out in Birmingham and ultimately federal troops were sent to restore order. As a result of the protests, the public facilities of Birmingham were desegregated and some of the businesses complied with the desegregation ordinances. But no black police officers or city clerks were hired and the Birmingham Bar Association still wouldn’t allow membership to black attorneys. And in September, four African-American girls were killed in a church bombing. But the true success of the Birmingham campaign was the elevation of public concern over the practice of segregation in the south. President Kennedy proclaimed, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

In contrast to the violence in Birmingham, the other big event of the civil rights movement in 1963 was the “March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Sponsored by a co-op of the national black leadership, the event was held on August 28th, 1963. Over 200,000 gathered in Washington, D.C. on the national mall. It was there, in front of the Lincoln Memorial that Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Since taking office in 1961, President Kennedy had increasingly supported U.S. efforts to help the South Vietnamese government in its conflict with Communist insurgents and the Communist North Vietnamese. By 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. American foreign policy remained anchored in efforts to control the spread of communism and Vietnam was seen as a key component in that policy. But the instability and brutality of the ruling party in South Vietnam was making it more and more difficult for the President to continue U.S. support. In June, a Buddhist monk burned himself to death on a street in Saigon as a protest against the government of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem’s persecution of Buddhists. Photos of the event were circulated world wide and President Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” As persecution of the Buddhists escalated, the United States expressed its displeasure. On November 1st the government of Diem was overthrown by a group of military leaders and on November 2nd, Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed. In the years to follow, the South Vietnam government would struggle to achieve any kind of stability. North Vietnam Communist leader Ho Chi Minh called the United States’ support of the coup “stupid” and pointed out that Diem was the U.S.’s best chance at defeating communism. As President Kennedy reviewed the situation in Vietnam, he became more and more disillusioned with any prospect of success and on October 11th signed an order removing 1,000 troops. On November 26th, President Johnson reversed the order and proclaimed that the United States was in Vietnam to defeat the communist forces.

President Kennedy’s death was a shock to the nation primarily due to its violent and sudden nature. But its shock value was multiplied by the sense that the President was moving the nation forward toward a brighter future. All indications were that the nation was finally moving forward to correct the inequalities of racist policies. It appeared that the country was considering extracting itself from a military involvement in Vietnam. When the Berlin wall was erected in 1961, the administration was criticized for its lack of reaction and lack of support for free Germany. On June 26th, the President visited Berlin and in a speech at the wall, declared in German, “I am a Berliner.” By 1963, the Peace Corps which President Kennedy had established shortly after taking office had nearly 3,000 participants in 28 host countries. On August 5th, the President signed a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. On August 9th, the Kennedy’s courageously faced the loss of their two day old son Patrick. On November 21st, the President asked his advisors to begin preparing a “War on Poverty” program for 1964 -- President Johnson would further this idea in his administration. In short, the Kennedy presidency was showing a great deal of promise for the future as 1963 was coming to a close. The tragedy was that Kennedy’s presidency suddenly came to a close.

As is always the case with a death in a family, life goes on in spite of the burden of grief and the emptiness left behind. Such was the case for America. In the remaining weeks of 1963, America moved forward, but with a sense of having no idea where it was going, and less enthusiasm for the journey. 1963 was the end of an era. In years to come we would see the violence experienced in Birmingham pour out into the streets of urban America and the violence poured down on the Vietnam countryside come home in a relentless procession of body bags. The hope of the Peace Corps of John F. Kennedy would be replaced by the alienation of the counter culture of hippies. Martin Luther King’s attempts of nonviolent protest would become the “peace-niks” and “yippies” in the streets of Chicago.

But in 1963 we knew none of that. Americans still watched a lot of television and it was the first year more Americans got their news from television rather than newspapers -- CBS and NBC expanded their coverage from 15 to 30 minutes. General Hospital and The Fugitive debuted, and audiences were told for the first time “do not attempt to adjust the picture, we control the horizontal; we control the vertical ... you are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits” (“The Outer Limits”). Wilma gave birth to Pebbles on “The Flintstones.” Donny Osmond made his singing debut on “The Andy Williams Show.” “The Beverly Hillbillies” was the most popular program. The FCC authorized the use of remote controls.

In music, rock and roll was still the predominant style, but the music had a softer edge. Songs such as the import from France, “Dominique” by Soeur Sourire (The Singing Nun) and one from Japan, “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamotut topped the charts. Crooner Bobby Vinton had major success with two number ones (“Blue Velvet” and “There I’ve Said It Again”). But as Huey Lewis would sing years later, “The heart of rock and roll was still beatin’” -- the beach sounds of Jan & Dean (“Surf City”) and The Beach Boys (“Surfin’ USA”) were also big hits. Billboard’s number one song of the year was a bonafide rocker, “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs. And it was the year of “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen. But the most significant music events of 1963 were occurring off the American charts -- The Beatles had their first #1 song in Great Britain, “From Me To You” in May and performed for the Royal Family in concert in November. On November 12th, Brian Epstein negotiated a contract with Ed Sullivan to have The Beatles perform in the United States the next February. Those appearances would spark a rejuvenation of rock and roll in popular music.

At the movies Americans were treated to some great film moments: Steve McQueen jumping his motorcycle over barbed wire fences in “The Great Escape”; Tippi Hedren running from the birds in (what else?) “The Birds”; the “eating” scene in “Tom Jones,” and Ann Margaret’s introduction to “Bye Bye Birdie.” The epic of the year was also the biggest box office success, “Cleopatra.” Another epic, “How The West Was Won,” along with “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” introduced “Cinerama,” a super wide screen projection technique. The aforementioned “Tom Jones” was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture (a rarity for a comedy). . Although two Doris Day / James Garner movies (“The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over Darling”) made the top twenty at the box office, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win the Best Actor award (“Lilies of the Field”) and Patricia Neal was awarded the Best Actress award (“Hud”).

It was the year we said hello to Hooterville and goodbye to “the Beaver.” We met Ronald McDonald and The Beatles met The Rolling Stones. Johnny Depp and Michael Jordan were born. Robert Frost and Aldux Huxley died. American Bandstand moved to California; the Mona Lisa moved to Washington D.C. (temporarily). “Weight Watchers” began and Alcatraz ended. We were introduced to touch tone phones, zip codes, and the instamatic camera. On Broadway, Camelot closed and Oliver! opened. Lenny Bruce was arrested for his “obscene” comedy performances in Chicago, Arthur Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was banned in Boston. Betty Friedan wrote about “The Feminine Mystique.”


We “pop a top” for the first time; we have our first Tab. We turn on our first lava lamp. We go to Whiskey-a-Go-Go. We sing “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener.” We have our first Hootenanny. It's 1963.

Lee Harvey Oswald after his arrest -- Oswald claimed he was "just a patsy."
Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office administered by Judge Sarah T. Hughes, flanked by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, and Mrs. Kennedy and became the 36th President.
JFK gravesite with the "eternal flame" -- Jacqueline Kennedy had requested the flame, inspired in part by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Students marched in Birmingham in 1963 to help fill the jail cells.
In spite of the apparent success of the Birmingham campaign in the spring, four girls were killed in the bombing of a church in September.
Martin Luther King, Jr. prepares to give his famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death on a Saigon street to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnam government.
Although there appeared to be some progress in civil rights in 1963, segregation remained prominent in the South. George Wallace was elected Governor of Alabama on a platform of "segregation today, segregaation tomorrow, segregation forever." He resisted a federal court order to allow black students to enroll at the University of Alabama.
The Clampetts of "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- the most popular television show of 1963. After striking oil in the Ozarks, as the song goes, they are encouraged to "move to Beverly ... Hills that is."
Those who consider 1963 to be the doldrums of rock and roll need look no further than than "Dominique," a #1 record sung by a Frrench nun, Soeur Sourire.
Steve McQueen rode a motorcycle in "The Great Escape" as he tried to outrun the Germans.
Ann-Margret introduced the movie version of "Bye Bye Birdie."
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1963