1964 - What a Year It Was

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Ed Sullivan rehearses with the Beatles before their appearance in the United States.

Fifty years ago, the United States was still recovering from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson began to build his vision of a “Great Society.” Young men burned their draft cards as the Vietnam War escalated. The Civil Rights Act was passed but segregation was still the rule in much of the country and race riots ripped through New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. The Beatles led a British Invasion of popular music. The most popular TV show was the western Bonanza. 1964 is considered the beginning of “the Sixties,” a tumultuous era of political, social, and cultural upheaval in the country.

Here’s a brief look back at the year 1964

The first report on Smoking and Health was released by Surgeon General Terry Luther on January 11. The report concluded that smoking causes lung cancer.

Camel cigarettes ad

On January 3, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (nicknamed Mr. Conservative) announces his candidacy for president of the United States.  Though he was defeated in a landslide in November, Goldwater’s campaign begins a conservative revolution in the Republican Party that still affects and shapes the GOP and American politics today.

The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, starting the “British Invasion” of popular music. 73 million people, 34% of the American population, watched that appearance. By April, the top five songs on Billboard’s Top 40 were all Beatles songs.

On February 26, one day after he defeated Sonny Liston in one of boxing’s biggest upsets, Cassius Clay declares that he has joined the nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

Pop Tarts were unleashed on the American public on March 1. Kellogg’s toaster pastry came in four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, apple-currant, and brown sugar cinnamon.

Pop Tarts

Question: Long-running game show debuted on March 30 on NBC.

Answer: What is Jeopardy!?

The show’s theme song Think! (originally written as a lullaby for his son) earned creator Merv Griffin over 70 million dollars in royalties.

Sidney Poitier becomes the first African-American man to win an Academy Award for best actor on April 13 for his role in Lilies of the Field.

The Mustang was introduced on April 17 at the World’s Fair in New York City. The muscle car was an immediate success—Ford took orders for 22,000 that day and sold a total of 418,812 that year.

President Johnson outlines his vision for a “Great Society” in his speech at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony on May 22. While many of the programs established during his term of office are still in use, including food stamps, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, the opposition to his social agenda has been just as enduring.

After North Vietnamese patrol boats attack the U.S.S. Maddox in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passes the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7, giving President Johnson congressional approval for all future actions regarding the war. This allows Johnson to launch full-scale war against North Vietnam without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

June 21, one day after the first Freedom Summer volunteers arrive in Mississippi, three of the civil rights workers are arrested and held for several hours. The three disappear after their late night release. Forty-four days later, the bodies are discovered buried in an earthen dam.

On July 2, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment and ending segregation in public places.

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act

“I Get Around” by the Beach Boys reaches the top of the Billboard charts on July 4. The British Invasion would end the surf music craze, but by moving away from their original surf rock style, the Beach Boys would become the main American competition to the Beatles

On July 16, a black teenager is shot and killed by a white off-duty police officer in Harlem. Two days later, peaceful demonstrations break into violence and the rioting lasts for six days.

Harlem riots of 1964

The Free Speech Movement is born in Berkeley, California. On October 1, student activists giving out information on racial discrimination are told by university administrators to keep political activities off campus. Feeling their first amendment rights have been violated, thousands of students protest for two days. Demonstrations continue for months.

Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 14.  At age 35, he is the youngest recipient ever.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 363 words were first cited in 1964, including dork, braless, skank, ninja and pizza face.

All this and so much more happened in the year 1964. For more information, check out these books and websites:


The last innocent year: America in 1964: the beginning of the “sixties”/Jon Margolis

1964. /American Experience Television Program/DVD

The Sixties

The Sixties: years of hope, days of rage/Todd Gitlin

American Decades: 1960-1969 (This is a series; we have a volume for every decade beginning with 1900-1909. These are a great resource for all kinds of information about the era.)

A multimedia collection of resources on the 1960s created by the University of Virginia.

Lyndon Johnson

The Passage of power: the years of Lyndon Johnson/Robert Caro

Flawed giant: Lyndon Johnson and his times/Robert Dallek

Tonkin Gulf Crisis

Tonkin Gulf and the escalation of the Vietnam War/Edwin E. Moise

http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq120-1.htm—The U.S. Navy’s account of the incident that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War

Freedom Summer

Freedom summer: the savage summer that made Mississippi burn and made America a democracy/Bruce Watson.

Letters, photographs and other documents from the Civil Rights Digital Library at the University of Georgia.

And you can find books on The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King, Barry Goldwater, and any of the other topics mentioned above in the library catalog.