I watched a fascinating documentary on the PBS program “American Experience” chronicling the momentous events of 1964.
I turned 11 years old that year but I remember much of what happened like it was yesterday.
As 1964 began, the accidental president, Lyndon Johnson, consoled a nation still grieving over the assassination of the beloved Jack Kennedy; the Beatles arrived in America and made us smile; Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and then he became Mohammed Ali.
In 1964, white college students from the North descended on Mississippi to register blacks to vote during Freedom Summer and the Ku Klux Klan murdered three of them. The nation was appalled and demanded action.
In 1964, race riots broke out in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood after a policeman shot and killed a black teen. Rejecting Martin Luther King’s call for non-violence, Malcom X began speaking about achieving freedom “by any means necessary,” giving rise to the Black Power movement.
In 1964, LBJ lobbied hard for the Civil Rights Act and won its passage; students in Berkley challenged the University of California administration’s attack on their free speech rights and won, setting the stage for the Cultural Revolution that would follow; LBJ used the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to escalate the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1964, the Republican presidential candidate was Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator was an unapologetic right wing extremist who promised small government and opposed the Civil Rights Act. He also seemed a little too eager to launch a nuke at the Soviet Union.
Listening to Goldwater’s speeches, I closed my eyes and heard 2014 tea partiers.
Goldwater cast every New Deal reform including Social Security as failures (remember, this is only about 30 years after FDR took office) and demanded states be left alone by Washington to conduct their affairs as they saw fit.
Then, as now, Social Security saved millions of elderly Americans from poverty and states like Mississippi couldn’t be trusted to guarantee and protect the rights of all their citizens. It was up to the federal government to step in and do it.
In 1964, Americans rejected Goldwater’s brand of radical conservatism the same way they told Mitt Romney to hit the road 48 years later. LBJ crushed Goldwater in a in a landslide.
It was a remarkable year.