A year of revelation and revolution
By Scott Eyman
September 06, 2009
Sometimes the earth splits open and the rough beast rides out. When
it's all over, everybody draws a breath and tries to figure out what
Other times, the beast just keeps riding.
1969 was one of those years.
"Protest, dissent and demonstration characterized that year in
history," says Christopher Strain, a professor at the Honors College
of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter, where he teaches a course
on the 1960s. "There was clamor and public disorder in almost every
part of the world. That's why it's remembered as such a chaotic time.
The establishment was under fire."
1968 has gotten a lot of attention - 16 books have been written about
that year, because it was a brutish, drunken ride, topped off by the
assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. and the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
1969 saw that bet and raised it with the January inauguration of
Richard Nixon as president and Spiro Agnew as vice president. It
didn't end well, either.
In March, Sirhan Sirhan pleaded guilty to murdering Kennedy, and a
week later James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to killing King. In April,
Students for a Democratic Society seized the administration building
at Harvard. In May, Abe Fortas resigned under fire from the Supreme
Court because of a $20,000 check from Miami financier Louis Wolfson
that Fortas had held onto for 11 months. Fortas' nominated successor,
Clement Haynesworth, was later rejected by the Senate.
In July, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick and
a 28-year-old secretary named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. Kennedy
didn't call the police until the next morning. A couple of days
later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin broke the monotony of
catastrophe by walking on the moon - a spectacular feat of
engineering, and a momentous metaphor that led precisely nowhere.
In August, Charles Manson and his deranged crew slaughtered Sharon
Tate. Hurricane Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast, killing 200
people in what was the most destructive hurricane up to that time.
That same month, Woodstock occurred, lulling everybody into a
temporary state of peace, love and understanding, but the spirit of
Manson was alive and thriving at Altamont at year's end.
Politically, Francisco Franco declared martial law in Spain, Yasir
Arafat was appointed head of the Palestine Liberation Organization,
and Moammar Gadhafi seized control of Libya and declared a Muslim state.
Surely there must have been some flickers of light amid the darkness?
Well, it was certainly a good year to be a New York sports fan, and a
bad time to be from Baltimore, as Joe Namath and the Jets defeated
Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and the
Amazin' Mets took out the Orioles in the World Series.
With all the uproar, nobody noticed a small civic uprising at the end
of June in New York City, and a small business that was incorporated
in Arkansas. The civic uprising was the Stonewall Riot, the small
business was Wal-Mart, both far more important to posterity than
anybody could have guessed at the time.
One other good thing: in November, Sesame Street went on the air, but
that was overwhelmed by Seymour Hersh breaking the story of the My
Culturally, the raunchy musical review Oh! Calcutta! opened in New
York. The Beatles gave their final public performance on a London
roof top and split up a few months later because of egos, exhaustion,
and some truly unfortunate choices in women.
The world of movies was alive with an appropriate level of ferment,
as The Wild Bunch introduced the apocalypse to the Western. Peter
Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson went looking for America in
Easy Rider and didn't like what they found. Midnight Cowboy
introduced middle America to the world of the hapless hustler and the X rating.
Not everybody was buying ugly, however; the most popular Western of
the year was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with True Grit not far behind.
Literature didn't have anything to be ashamed of. Philip Roth wrote
Portnoy's Complaint, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, John
Fowles wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman and the most astonishing
thing in retrospect about those books is that they were all
bestsellers. So was Mario Puzo's The Godfather.
Locally, the problems were civic and fiduciary. On May 27,
construction began on Walt Disney World, and two weeks later, the
newly configured Flagler Drive opened in downtown West Palm Beach
after a three-year, $800,000 project that widened the road from two
to four lanes.
On July 1, publisher John H. Perry sold his 27 newspapers, including
The Palm Beach Post and Evening Times, to Cox Enterprises for a
reported $75 million. Forty years later, Cox is still publishing the
Post, and the city is still trying to get Flagler Drive right.
Not to be outdone by Woodstock, on November 28-30, local promoters
presented the Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival,
otherwise known as the Woodstock of the South, at the Palm Beach
International Speedway. The Rolling Stones headlined, Janis Joplin
and Johnny Winter jammed with Vanilla Fudge. Along for the ride was
Iron Butterfly, The Byrds, Grand Funk Railroad, Jefferson Airplane,
Ten Years After, Sly and The Family Stone and Country Joe and the Fish.
It was cold, it was wet. The audience numbered about 40,000 people in
the beginning and about 3,000 by the time the Stones played at 4 a.m.
For a time, the state of Florida seemed to tremble under the
onslaught of the forces of anarchy. Gov. Claude Kirk was there,
presumably not for the music. Sheriff's deputies masquerading as
hippies made more than 100 drug arrests.
In slightly weightier matters, the county school board and the
federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare spent the entire
year haggling over how best to integrate Palm Beach County schools.
Kids all over America were rioting. Kids in Palm Beach County watched.
"I don't remember any drama," says Palm Beach County Commissioner
Karen Marcus, who was in the 11th grade at Palm Beach Gardens High at
the time. "Some of the guys were smoking dope - I can see their
pictures in the yearbook - and there was some drinking, but none of
it was serious. It was a small town. We had curfews.
"Nobody worried about integration, because Riviera Beach High School
and our high school had a very low minority population. Riviera Beach
had a lot of Conchs, Bahamians. My best friends were all in Riviera.
That's where Burt Reynolds' dad was police chief.
"Overall, we felt safe; there were no protests at any of our schools,
because as far as we were concerned, there were no issues. We saw the
'60s raging around us, but we saw it at a distance."
By closing time on December 31, Boris Karloff and Dwight Eisenhower
had died of old age, Judy Garland had overdosed, and Jack Kerouac had
drunk himself to death, although whether that was a misguided
lifestyle choice or an appropriate response to a hideous time is
difficult to say.
"1969 was not the end of the '60s," says FAU professor Strain. "1973
is a better case for a bookend to the decade. 1973 entailed Nixon's
resignation and the end of the draft. 1969 marked the beginning of change.
"Where did it lead? We don't know. We're still reeling from the
1960s, still trying to reconcile all the change that began then."