All Together Now: Civil Rights and The Beatles' First American Tour

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“We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere,” The Beatles said in a press statement on September 6, 1964. Halfway through a 23-city U.S. tour, the group was looking ahead to their date at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, where they’d heard that blacks were confined to the balconies or upper tiers at public events such as concerts.

The next day, The Florida Times-Union ran a disparaging editorial entitled “Beatlemania Is A Mark Of A Frenetic Era.” The group was called “a passing fad, perfectly timed and fitted to the mores, morals and ideals of a fast-paced, troubled time.” Their sound was described as “high pitched monotone.” There was no mention of segregation, but it was clear that the paper hardly considered these “hirsute scourges of Liverpool” intelligent enough to comment on social issues.

“The Beatles were interlopers in the eyes of most people,” says Kitty Oliver, a Jacksonville native who was one of a handful of black teenage fans who attended their Gator Bowl concert. “They were nobodies, and strange on top of that. Especially in the south, in a place like Jacksonville, where tension was already high about differences. Whether you were coming from another state to demonstrate civil rights, or coming from another country to undermine our youth – it was equally threatening.”

The Fab Four’s outspokenness certainly stood in sharp contrast to the behavior of most American pop stars, who were coached to stick to safe topics like favorite desserts and most embarrassing personal habits.

“At that time, no one that I knew of really took the initiative to address any kind of social issues,” says Mark Lindsay, lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders. “I can see The Beatles coming over here and being assailed by this weird, unfair policy of segregation. They were not just good musicians. They had intellect. They spoke up.”

With Great Power...

“They were really the first group to have the power to do that,” agrees singer Brian Hyland, whose big hit was “Sealed With a Kiss.” “They used that platform really well. They could’ve just let it ride and not said anything about the Jacksonville show. It took a lot of courage.”

Both of these artists were part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, an interracial tour crossing paths with The Beatles in an America that was churning with racial tensions. Protesters were marching in northern cities from Seattle to Baltimore demanding better jobs, schooling and housing for blacks. In the south, the situation was more desperate. Blacks were still denied a place at a lunch counter or a seat in the front of a city bus. In July, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

But old prejudices die hard. In the weeks after, riots broke out in Harlem and Rochester. Black churches, homes and businesses were burned in Mississippi. And there were countless incidences of violence throughout southern cities, including Jacksonville.

In February 1964 – the same month The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan - a bomb exploded in the home of a black family whose son had integrated into a white school. A month later, rioting broke out.

Oliver recalls, “I was a junior in high school, and there was a very tense situation downtown that summer. I got involved in demonstrations and picketing. There wasn’t any violence that I recall, but people were yelling at us.”

When The Beatles arrived, the city had settled down, but was still spinning its wheels in desegregation efforts. Only 60 of the 30,000 black students in Duval County attended integrated schools.

Live at the Gator Bowl

Opening the concert that Friday night was the Exciters, a black R & B vocal quartet from New York, best known for their hit “Tell Him.” Though WAPE - “The Big Ape” - the local radio station promoting the concert, chose the support act, The Beatles were most likely pleased.

Oliver recalls, “Where I sat, there were two other black kids. I ran into them accidentally as I found my seat. I went alone. No school friends would go. I remember that I sat in the high-up least expensive seats, because that is all my family could afford. Yes, it was scary in the sense that I didn't know what to expect. You develop a strong antenna for danger, watchful of any sudden movements or shift of mood in a crowd, and, at the same time, a shield that allows you to look straight ahead and seem impervious.”

Once The Beatles started to play, Oliver forgot about any possible danger. “There were a lot of girls screaming, and I was screaming too,” she says with a laugh. “And singing all the lyrics to the songs. I loved The Beatles, and had seen Hard Day’s Night seven times. I even won one of those short “_______is my favorite Beatle” contests and my name was called on the radio announcing that I had won a free signed album. I kept it for decades.”

And The Beatles’ human rights crusading continued for decades, until the group’s end and right on through their solo careers. Paul McCartney summed up their position when he told a reporter in 1966, "We weren't into prejudice. We were always very keen on mixed-race audiences. With that being our attitude, shared by all the group, we never wanted to play South Africa or any places where blacks would be separated. It wasn't out of any goody-goody thing; we just thought, 'Why should you separate black people from white? That's stupid, isn't it?'"

“I think The Beatles did a lot in terms of bridging cultures, and that was something very new at that time,” says Oliver, who now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, where she’s an oral historian and author. “They came from another country and another culture, so that made them intriguing to many black people. These people were different and they were singing some R & B songs that were familiar to us. It was the cross-cultural aspect that went beyond racial issues that made them so important. They gave us a new way of dialoguing at a time when we were really at odds with each other.”

April 18, 2012 - 8:16am
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