- By Tad Simons
The most pivotal year of the 1960s, arguably, is 1964. That’s the year American culture fractured and eventually split along ideological lines — old vs. young; hip vs. square; poor vs. rich; liberal vs. conservative — establishing the poles of societal debate that are still raging today.
PBS's new American Experience documentary, 1964, explores the critical events of that watershed year and their reverberations through American life over the past 50 years. (It premieres Tuesday, January 14. Check local listings for times and watch a sneak peek at the bottom of this story.)
Based in part on The Last Innocent Year: 1964, by Jon Margolis, the documentary presents different perspectives on what the events of that year meant to those who lived through it. From Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan to conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, many voices provide a multi-dimensional look at an era that is far more complex and important than most people realize.
(MORE: JFK’S 3 Enduring Legacies for Boomers)
1964 was the year America grieved John F. Kennedy’s assassination; the year Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; the year when poverty, inequality, and war became part of our daily dialogue.
Oh, and the girls went crazy over a very popular musical group, what were they called? Oh yes: The Beatles.
History in the Making
Using a treasure trove of photographs, news reports and rare film footage, 1964 weaves together the threads of multiple cultural conversations — on politics, civil rights, women’s rights, sexuality, inequality, poverty, Vietnam, youth culture, and suburbia — to present an account of the year’s events that includes a healthy appreciation for the messy, accidental nature of history in the making.
“In 1964, we see everything being called into question, from our relationship with our government and the military to our notions of free speech and individual freedom,” says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels.
(MORE: Growing Up White During the Early Days of School Busing)
For those who were born in the 1960s or lived through them, one of the most amazing takeaways from the show is how relevant the cultural fault lines of 1964 are to what’s happening in America today.
1964 covers in detail Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to end poverty and inequality with The Great Society and the reactionary presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, which laid the philosophical groundwork for today’s conservative movement.
In one fascinating piece of footage, a handsome young conservative commentator delivers a passionate half-hour speech on television defending Goldwater’s ideals — a speech that goes a long way toward explaining the polarized nature of today’s political landscape. The man who gave that speech: Ronald Reagan.
The American Dream Falls Apart
Likewise, 1964 dives deeply into the undercurrents of popular culture — The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, the rise of television, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Motown, the Ford Mustang, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters — as they played out against the backdrop of events happening in the news: the murder of three Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi, student protests at UC Berkeley, the Harlem riots, the rise of the Vietnam War, etc.
This layered approach echoes the way reality really unfolded, in that the cultural conversations being discussed are all happening at once, so understanding what they meant in the context of history wasn’t necessarily possible at the time.
As one commentator puts it, the 1960s were “the letting loose of everything” — a time when everything America thought it was suddenly wasn’t, and parts of the American Dream simply fell to pieces. No one quite knew what it all meant.
(MORE: A '60s Activist is Back in the Trenches Again)
Women were an important part of this change as well. Betty Friedan discusses how many women in America suffered from “the problem that has no name” (a problem that would now be called depression). Many women were depressed, says Friedan, because they “had everything they were supposed to want, but still weren’t happy.” The image of the happy homemaker was a “trap,” she explains — one that made women feel worse about wanting to improve and fulfill themselves, not better.
This conflict was reflected in such television shows as Bewitched, in which a housewife with a rebellious streak basically needs magical powers to make her man happy.
Yesterday’s Influence on Today
For Americans over the age of 50, the 1960s are the decade that cannot be escaped or ignored, because — for better or worse — it is the decade that defined the cultural landscape of the late 20th century until now.
No single year can explain everything, of course, but Margolis chose 1964 because that was the year that the fractures and fault lines on display in American society started to become visible. It was a year of remarkable transition that prefigured 50 years of tumultuous change.
1964 provides a much broader and deeper examination of this era than the usual “1960s” documentary. Focusing on this single crucial year, as explained by those who were there, allows viewers to experience at least some of the anger, heartbreak and disillusionment that characterized the times — as well as some of the joys and satisfactions of living in a country that takes its ideals seriously, and occasionally lives up to them.
Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St. Paul Magazine.
Watch a preview of 1964 here: