Many people equate the word “revolution” with violence when it simply means, as the American Heritage Dictionary says, “activities directed to bringing about social change.” I like to say that revolutions begin the minute someone decides to stand up and speak out. This is what plants the seeds of change in the minds of the people. Thus, the seeds of change were planted in the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley, the actions of Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, and the voices of Fredrick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. In 1964, revolution was also in the music and popular culture that developed into a sub-culture in America.
I was ten years old, living in New York City, and doing things that I’d never even dreamed of doing a year ago, like hopping the train to Manhattan or Brooklyn to shoe shine to make money. I had started hanging out with a new friend I’d met at school. David was quite the enterprising adventurer. He was always hatching new plans for making money. Some were legal, and some, well, you know.
In 1964, as in 1963, many things had occurred domestically and across the globe that affected life in America. The September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed, had occurred just weeks after the Great March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s incredible, “I Have a Dream” speech. Two months later, in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Acting President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam conflict; then, in his 1964 State of the Union address, also declared war on poverty, confronting an issue that nineteen percent of Americans lived with daily. The Civil Rights Movement was picking up momentum; and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) did everything it could to make passage of the hotly debated Civil Rights bill easy by kidnapping and murdering three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner.
As for me, I was hearing about all these events but really had no clue as to what was going on. All I knew was that it was a Friday, my friend David and I were broke, and who wants to be broke on the weekend? The weather on this particular Friday in February was perfect, so David and I had made plans to hop the train and go to Manhattan and do some shoe shining, since we did not exactly receive an allowance.
I told my mother I was going shoe shining that day but I failed to mention where. Manhattan was definitely out of my jurisdiction; but what’s a little white lie between child and parent? It wasn’t even a lie, anyway; it was more like a “Don’t ask; don’t tell situation.” So off to Manhattan we headed. When we emerged from the subway we immediately headed for our favorite spot—the Plaza Hotel across the street from Central Park. As we approached our destination, however, we were surprised by the sight of at least a “trillion” young girls, screaming and pushing uncontrollably, and the police desperately trying to contain them. David gave me a bewildered look and all I could do was shoot one back. Shining shoes in “our spot” was not going to happen.
We raced across the street to Central Park to get a better look at what was going on, but we could see nothing. Having a little “cat” in me always helped in these type of situations, so I decided to climb a tree to get a better view. A few of the policemen were not too thrilled with me climbing the tree, but their hands were filled so they had to let me stay in the tree. I had the perfect spot to see a big car pull up and four young men emerge. All four had funny haircuts. They kind of reminded me of Moe from the television show The Three Stooges. At that moment the crowed got even louder and really started to push. The police were doing all they could to keep the crowd from mobbing the four men. I can honestly say that New York’s finest really earned their money that day. As the four young men hurried into the hotel, the last one looked back at the crowd and saw me up in the tree. He waved, and I waved back. Then they were gone.
The crowd of girls and TV crews quickly dispersed, and the police breathed a sigh of relief. The excitement over, David and I went about our business of shoe-shining. I would not find out who the young men were until later that night on the news: there they were with all the screaming girls, the new singing sensation from Britain, The Beatles. The Beatle who had waved at me was John Lennon! I blurted out that I had been there and seen them. Stupid, huh? I was grounded for the weekend and had no idea I had witnessed a bit of history. Like the rest of America, I watched them on the Ed Sullivan show.
I became a fan and remain one to this day. Admittedly I liked a lot of their latter stuff much better. I consider John Lennon and Paul McCartney two of the greatest songwriters in the history of music. To say they were not part of the Revolution of 1964 would be like saying cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. These four young men came to America with their sound and hairstyle and pretty much revolutionized not only the hair and fashion industries but how we looked at life, music, and each other. The start of “The British Invasion” began with the Beatles making groups like the Beach Boys almost obsolete. Men wore their hair longer without worrying about their sexuality being questioned. In fact, wearing your hair long became a sign of rebellion towards the establishment and its ways. A Broadway play entitled “Hair” became very popular, shocking us with nudity, neon lights, and lyrics about “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding…. Mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation.”
Speaking of hair, a week after the Beatles’ arrival I was ordered by my ex-marine father to the barber shop to get a haircut. Long hair did not really matter much in the black community; it was more of a white thing, until the Black Nationalist movement a couple of years later brought wearing a big afro into vogue. As I sat and waited my turn to get a haircut the grown-ups were in an animated discussion about the upcoming heavyweight championship fight between a boxer then known as Cassius Clay and the reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
The discussion was not whether Liston would win but in what round he would knock out the loudmouth Clay. I had heard of Liston through my father, an avid fan who was always talking about sports. He claimed to be friends with former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.
I reached over and picked up a boxing magazine, wanting to find out more about this Cassius Clay guy. On the third page, there he was. He did not look all that fearsome, more like a Hollywood star with his good looks. Yet the article said he was the number-one contender for the heavyweight crown. On the next page was Sonny Liston. Now he looked like someone who could hurt you and enjoy it.