originally published January 17, 2014
You might not be able to tell by the weather, the Ouija or whatever earthly vibrations to which you tether your chakras every morning, but we are seventeen days into a rather significant anniversary. 1964 was one of those game-changing trips around the sun in western culture, when society found a sufficiently snug toehold with which it could scoot a little further across the floor, away from antiquity and closer to modernity. We are fifty years out, and quite possibly hiking through another annum of note. We’ll see; history will let us know.
Next month you’ll hear fond reminiscences from silver-haired boomers, telling you how they remember watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and how it changed the very face (or at least the hat) of America, and so on and so on. And they won’t be wrong; the February 9 broadcast, which is still among the most-viewed episodes of any show in the history of the medium, set the culture train rolling through the greatest 5-year landscape of popular music in the century.
This June you’ll be swimming in articles applauding the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. History didn’t have to wait for perspective on that one – it was a national footstep forward that still echoes off the canyon walls. And amid all this change and progress sat the US Supreme Court – nine white guys whose gavel-hands flung some of the most important decisions of our time in 1964.
Civil Rights was the theme song behind the opening credits of every news cycle in ’64, as the nation tried to catch up with common sense while tugging on the curtain in an attempt to cover up the backwards buffoonery of its deep-southern embarrassments. Mary Hamilton had been among a group arrested in Gadsden, Alabama during a civil rights protest. But Mary got in more trouble when she refused to address the court unless she herself was referred to as ‘Miss Hamilton’. It was customary to address white folks in that manner, but Mary was simply called ‘Mary’ on the stand. She zipped her lip and did five days for contempt.
In a display of astounding backbone and tenacity, Mary took the case through all the stops to the US Supreme Court. Three of the justices voted against even hearing the case, but once it hit the proverbial table, the case was stamped with a swift and unanimous vote to reverse the contempt charge. This was in March, before the Civil Rights Act existed; the froth of social change was clearly already lathering up the waters of society.
On June 22, two days after the Civil Rights Act was booted into being by the US Senate, the Supreme Court handed down decisions in five cases involving racial discrimination. It’s believed (by those who believe such things) that the court was holding off, ensuring the Act would go through by not passing any judgments that might cause it to be unnecessary or require a re-write. Two of those cases involved the city of Columbia, South Carolina. Sorry Columbia – you may have given us Mary-Louise Parker, Hootie & The Blowfish and Aziz Ansari, but fifty years ago you were a town with its civic head deep in its own rectal chasm.
In Barr v. City of Columbia, five African-American college kids sat down at a lunch store in a Columbia department store. They had the audacity to want food, maybe some coffee. They wouldn’t leave when asked, so the cops hauled them out. Bouie v. City of Columbia was a similar case, but with only two students involved. In both cases, the Supreme Court applied the Civil Rights Act retroactively, and the charges against the students were shmushed beneath the nation’s judicial foot like a stale cigarette.
The New York Times was no stranger to controversy in ’64. Four years earlier they had published the above full-page ad, looking to raise funds to defend Martin Luther King Jr. from a perjury indictment. Some of their facts were painted with a clumsy brush – bits about police behavior, or how he had been arrested seven times when it was only four. L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery, Alabama Public Safety commissioner, felt these allegations reflected poorly on him and he demanded a retraction. When he didn’t get one, he sued. He also sued four black ministers and won a settlement of $500,000 because L.B. Sullivan hated black people.
Ha – you see? That’s flagrant hyperbole (maybe) for the sake of humor. Fully legal under the First Amendment. No malice intended. In The Times’ case, the Supreme Court also ruled no malice was meant, that their slip-up was due to some faulty fact-checking. The Times printed a retraction, but only when Alabama Governor John Patterson asked for one – they didn’t want their mistakes to reflect poorly on the entire state. If they’d made Sullivan and his police department look bad, well that’s neither a big loss nor a lengthy stretch of the truth.
Racial scale-balancing wasn’t the only judicial pistol in the Supreme Court’s holster fifty years ago. In the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, the court took on the concept of obscenity and censorship. Nico Jacobellis had been fined $2500 for exhibiting the French film The Lovers for public consumption. The state of Ohio considered the movie to be obscene, as it depicts a woman being unfaithful to her husband, and also features a brief display of full-frontal boobies. The Supreme Court hauled out that ol’ First Amendment again and reversed the fine.
The most significant moment in this case came from Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence, in which he pointed out that the Constitution protects all obscenity except for “hard-core pornography.” Stewart didn’t dig into the matter any deeper, except to point out, “I’ll know it when I see it.” As vague and subjective as this sounds, the statement was actually praised as an example of sound judgsmanship, or it would have been had ‘judgsmanship’ been a word.
The Supreme Court also had time to settle some intellectual property concerns that year. The Stiffel Company was proud of their pole lamp, which had quickly become a staple of the mid-60’s basement-bar, shag-carpeted deco look. Sears loved it, but rather than swing a deal with Stiffel to carry the product, they stocked their shelves with their own knock-off look-alikes. Stiffel sued Sears for patent infringement and the Illinois justice system found in Stiffel’s favor.
The top court in the land saw things a little differently. Sure, the lamps looked pretty much alike. But there was no attempt to deceive the public into buying the Sears product, and no one thought they were buying a genuine Stiffel. The truth is, consumers probably didn’t care. Sears was allowed to sell their pole lamps and Stiffel was denied their settlement. The lighting company folded in 2000, though from what I’ve seen Sears might not be too far behind.
There you go – your first retrospective look into the year that was, some five decades hence. Get used to it. You’ll see a lot more over the next eleven and a half months. But those flashback montages will all be set to some pretty damn good music, so it’s all good.