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.”

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Getty Images

Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”


According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.


Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”


Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.


It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.


Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.


Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."


A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.


If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.


Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.


According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.


Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.


It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”


In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.


Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.


In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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The World's Last Male Northern White Rhino Has Died, But Could He Still Help Save the Species?
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

Following age-related complications, Sudan the northern white rhinoceros was euthanized by a team of vets in Kenya at 45 years old, CNN reports. He was one of only three northern white rhinos left on Earth and the last male of his subspecies. For years, Sudan had represented the final hope for the survival of his kind, but now scientists have a back-up plan: Using Sudan's sperm, they may be able to continue his genetic line even after his death.

Northern white rhino numbers from dwindled from 2000 in 1960 to only three in recent years. Those last survivors, Sudan, his daughter Najin, and granddaughter Fatu, lived together at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Each animal had physical issues making it difficult for them to breed, and now with Sudan gone, a new generation of northern white rhinos looks even less likely.

But there is one way the story of these animals doesn't end in extinction. Before Sudan died, researchers were able to save some of his genetic material, which means it's still possible for him to father offspring. Scientists may either use the sperm to artificially inseminate one of the surviving females (even though they're related) or, due to their age and ailments, fertilize one of their eggs and implant the embryo into a female of a similar subspecies, like the southern white rhino, using in vitro fertilization.

"We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species," Jan Stejskal, an official at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic where Sudan lived until 2009, told AFP. "It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring."

Poaching has been a major contributor to the northern white rhino's decline over the past century. Rhinos are often hunted for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian cultures. (Other people just view the horn as a sign of wealth and status). Procreating is the biggest issue threatening the northern white rhinoceros at the moment. If such poaching continues, other rhino species in the wild could end up in the same situation.

[h/t CNN]


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