We’ve seen lots of reminders of 1964 this year—partly because it was 50 years ago, a nice milestone, and partly because we are facing issues today that eerily echo the issues of that year.
Maybe history does always repeat itself. Maybe we just keep making the same mistakes.
I recently watched a documentary about 1964’s Freedom Summer project, when college students volunteered to register black voters in Mississippi, an effort that got three young volunteers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—killed. That summer’s activity broke the back of Jim Crow laws in the South, but only after 35 shooting incidents, six activists murdered, 80 beatings, and 65 houses and churches burned.
It was also the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally proposed by President Kennedy and signed by President Johnson. It abolished racial segregation in education, workplaces and public accommodations, and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The following year, Johnson signed the companion Voting Rights Act, sections of which were last year judged as unconstitutional by a conservative majority on our current Supreme Court. Hey, 50 years later, with a black president, voting issues based on discrimination no longer need oversight from the federal government. Hadn’t you heard that we’re now “post-racial”?
That momentous year, 1964, was the year Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa for “sabotage and subversion.” He was not released until 1990, and then went on to become head of his country and a renowned world leader—amazingly calling for reconciliation despite all that had happened during Apartheid. Even now, we see countries where there is no orderly turnover of power and where those who disagree are said to be inciting violence and silenced, jailed or worse. Will a new movement toward peace and reconciliation in the Middle East or Africa, led by someone we cannot now recognize, result? One can at least hope.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed by Congress in 1964. It gave President Johnson the power to take “take whatever actions he deems necessary” to defend Southeast Asia, on the premise that a “domino theory” meant if Vietnam fell to Communism. then all of Southeast Asia would fall as well. Similar authority was granted to President George W. Bush regarding Iraq, based on the threat of “weapons of mass destruction” and the instability that could be caused among other nations in the Middle East. That resulted in the second-longest war in our history. The only longer war was in Bush’s post-Sept. 11 response in Afghanistan, from which we are still extracting ourselves.
The War on Poverty was declared in 1964, in the words of President Johnson, “because it is right, because it is wise, and because for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” That war has now surpassed all wars we have waged and is still not “won.”
That pivotal year also saw the beginning of the Student Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, which led to the May 2nd Movement, when more than 1,000 student demonstrators gathered in New York, along with others in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and other cities, to protest the Vietnam War, ultimately contributing to the end of Johnson’s presidency. Fifty years later, the role of students was instrumental in the election and re-election of President Obama, and, not unlike with the protesters of the 1960s, questions persist as to whether young people will stay involved when they face the reality of the difficulty involved in changing national policy.
In September 1964, the Warren Commission released its report indicating the belief that President Kennedy was killed by a sole assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a judgment that many still don’t find credible. Compare that with our current investigations into the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, where even with military testimony that no “stand down” order was ever given, the issue is being used as a political football.
It was in 1964 when the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed, declaring Israel an illegal state, the ramifications of which are being acted out to this day.
There were other events to remember about 1964 as well. The Mustang was introduced by Ford. The first Pink Panther cartoon short debuted, winning that year’s Academy Award for Short Film. Kitty Genovese, 28, was stabbed to death on the streets of New York without any of the 38 people who heard her screams even calling the police.
At the 1964 Republican convention, moderate Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was booed when he denounced “extremism,” and Sen. Barry Goldwater won his party’s nomination for president on the first ballot in what was called a “revolution from the right.” Wasn’t that just last week?
In 1964, the Vatican condemned the use of the contraceptive pill for females.
As for me, 1964 was the year I got divorced and needed to support 2-year old twins on my own, although I yearned to get on one of those buses to Mississippi. I wanted to participate in the attempt to erase the vestiges of racism, and influence American society to fulfill its promise for everyone.
Fast-forward 50 years, and I’m still motivated by that same yearning—and unfortunately, we’re still fighting some of the same battles.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.