© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

For Americans who lived through it, 1963 was a year of exceptional change

Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, Jun
Wikipedia images

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 22, 2013 - You may have seen an image of a bird etched on the base of an African stool, its body moving toward the future while its neck cranes back to the past. Called a Sankofa, the mythical bird is kind of a visual pun, a representation of the idea that we have to know and learn from the past to understand the present.

Some parts of our past seem more worthy of remembering than others. Take, for example, 1963, a big bang of a year of social, political and cultural changes that came at us with a rush and continue to shape us. Some of the big events from ’63 now cross our minds only as faint memories, but if we connect the dots, follow the light to its source, we discover that many changes in our lives emanated from repeated bursts of energy and ideas that formed and glowed during that watershed year.

It was a year of hope and possibilities expressed by a new generation of leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The unifying message in his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington, is still quoted to this day by liberals and conservatives alike. When we connect the dots, we discover how the march and King’s prophetic words foretold the coming of a voter rights revolution that would ultimately make possible the remarkably rapid political rise of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, sworn in to a second term this week.

During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.

But the most important political voice in 1963 was President John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated three months after the March on Washington, but not before using his brief time in the White House to help define much of what America would become following his death. He pointed us to the moon, offered a model of volunteer service to others around the globe, stood up to Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis and helped give birth to an arms-control movement.

1963 is also noted for women taking off their aprons and speaking more forcefully about their yearnings for a new identity and leadership roles outside the kitchen and the home. Feminist Betty Friedan set the tone with her book, “The Feminine Mystique,” which would help to trigger the women's movement. The Equal Pay Act in 1963 helped women, but connecting the dots to today shows how much more than a new law would be needed to correct workplace problems and other issues confronting women. Following the dots also shows that the movements for rights for women, the disabled and gays all morphed from the civil rights struggle.

The year saw Gov. George Wallace of Alabama become a symbolic counterpoint to social change, calling for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Though Wallace is remembered mainly for his racism, his oration is seen in hindsight as tapping into an issue beyond race, the deep public mistrust of big government. That philosophy of states rights didn’t begin with him, but it began to pop up increasingly in a variation of events ranging from anti-busing forces against school desegregation, North and South, to the growth of the Tea Party movement.

But America of 1963 was much more than a year of polarizing issues. It was also a cool period when the Beatles' first trend-setting album came to the U.S., and when gifted songwriter Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation, offering us memorable tunes like “Blowin in the Wind.” It was also the year when we sipped a diet cola called Tab, began attaching five-number ZIP codes to our mail, used touch tone phones to call our friends, and took pictures with Instamatic cameras. All these and other developments would be antecedents for change in our next 50 years.

Put another way, 1963 offered us carefree moments of leisure and fun even as it laid bare many challenging social, political and cultural issues with which we grapple to this day. During the next several months, with the Sankofa bird looking over our shoulder, we’ll look back and point to related events that have been a few degrees of separation from each of the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are today.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.