The most amazing week of the 1960s: Bob Dylan, MLK, the pill, Vietnam, and more.

MLK, Dylan, the Pill, Vietnam, and the Single Most Amazing Week of the 1960s

MLK, Dylan, the Pill, Vietnam, and the Single Most Amazing Week of the 1960s

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 23 2015 10:30 AM

The Week the ’60s Were Born

March 20–28, 1965—50 years ago.

March 20–28, 1965
Clockwise from top left: the Supremes, the pill, the Beatles, the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Bob Dylan—all 50 years ago this week.

Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Photos courtesy of (clockwise from top left) Jac. de Nijs/Anefo/Nationaal Archief, Shutterstock, VARA/Sound and Vision Archive/Beeld en Geluidwiki, the Library of Congress, and Bob Dylan.

Adapted from Andrew Grant Jackson’s book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, out now from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books.

The seemingly never-ending 50th anniversary celebrations of the events of the 1960s make it appear as though during that decade something groundbreaking was happening every month. But even by the standards of that astonishing era, the final week of March 1965 was amazingly dramatic. Television beamed seminal moments of the civil rights and antiwar movements into millions of living rooms. The sexual revolution went on trial as the Supreme Court heard arguments about the legality of the pill. The psychedelic era kicked into high gear when the Beatles were dosed with LSD. And Bob Dylan released the album that changed rock ’n’ roll. You could argue that the 1960s as we know them started during one single week—an eight-day week, befitting the Beatles song that topped the charts—exactly 50 years ago.

Sunday, March 21, 1965: Civil rights activists had already attempted to walk the 54 miles from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery twice in order to demonstrate for their right to vote and to protest the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper. Both times troopers stopped them, violently so on March 7’s infamous “Bloody Sunday.” But on March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson vowed on television that “we shall overcome” and sent 3,000 National Guardsmen to protect the marchers.

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3,200 walked out of Selma on March 21, but when roads narrowed to two lanes, only 300 people were allowed to march for the next four days because that was the maximum number the guardsmen felt they could reliably protect. Threats against Martin Luther King Jr. prompted many marchers who shared King’s build to wear similar blue suits to confuse potential assassins. The march blanketed news coverage that week, and as public support continued to increase, pressure on the federal government to pass legislation escalated.

Monday, March 22, 1965: Bob Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, his first album featuring session musicians playing rock ’n’ roll (including Spike Lee’s father, William Lee, on bass). Dylan had recorded the entire album in just two three-hour sessions. By singing visionary folk lyrics accompanied by an electrified band, Dylan showed his peers they could write any kind of song they wanted. In response came a string of No. 1 hits with lyrics that would have been unthinkable a year before, from the trippy “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the protests of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Eve of Destruction” to the introspective “Help!” The LP’s release also marked the moment the rock album transformed from a collection of singles and filler into a cohesive work of art.

Wednesday, March 24, 1965: No doubt Bringing It All Back Home blasted from campus windows as the University of Michigan hosted the first teach-in on Wednesday. The first 3,500 ground troops had arrived in Vietnam on March 8. In protest, 82-year-old activist Alice Herz immolated herself eight days later in Detroit. (She would die of her injuries on Friday of this week.) Antiwar faculty at the nearby state university planned to strike for one day, but the university president threatened censure after heavy criticism from Gov. George Romney, the state Legislature, and parents. So the professors, along with Students for a Democratic Society, staged a program of speakers and films that began after the final class of the day and lasted through the night. More than 3,000 attended. Despite a bomb scare, approximately 500 were still there Thursday morning for the closing rally. In May, Jerry Rubin helped organize a Berkeley teach-in that attracted between 10,000 and 30,000; there would be 120 across the country before year’s end.

Thursday, March 25, 1965: The name “teach-in” was inspired by the civil rights movement’s “sit-in,” and on Thursday came one of the greatest moments in the movement’s history. As marchers arrived in Montgomery, more than 25,000 people joined them. King ascended the steps of the state capitol building to give his “How long? Not long!” speech. President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act the following August. King would later remark that the march produced the Voting Rights Act, a signal accomplishment of the movement, just as surely as Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Montgomery the acts of ’57 and ’60.

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Saturday, March 27, 1965: The Supremes hit No. 1 with “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Motown’s owner Berry Gordy was determined to end the era when a black artist could only rise so high on the pop chart before a white performer covered the same song and enjoyed the bigger hit. The Supremes shattered the ceiling for good, racking up 12 No. 1s. Civil rights leader Andrew Young has said that, in regards to integrating society, “There’s a sense in which the music has been more successful even than the courts and the church.”

The song the Supremes knocked out of the top spot was “Eight Days a Week.” That same Saturday night, another force blasted the Beatles beyond their light-hearted early phase. George Harrison and John Lennon, along with Harrison’s girlfriend Pattie Boyd and Lennon’s wife Cynthia, went to John Riley’s flat for dinner. But either Riley (Harrison’s dentist) or his girlfriend slipped LSD-dosed sugar cubes into their coffee without asking permission. As the couples ventured into London’s nightlife, Harrison felt compelled to tell people he’d never seen before how much he loved them. Cynthia Lennon, on the other hand, felt trapped in a horror film with demons. John Lennon had read books by Romantic writers about their hallucinations on opium and was fascinated to find himself in a similar experience. Along with the marijuana Dylan had recently turned them on to, acid soon inspired the Beatles to experiment with myriad new sounds in the studio, leading rock into the psychedelic era.

Monday, March 29, 1965: On the other side of the Atlantic, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut. The Food and Drug Administration had approved the oral contraceptive pill in 1960, but eight states banned its use even for married couples. Thus Planned Parenthood directors Estelle Griswold and C. Lee Buxton had been arrested for distributing the pill. Ultimately, the court decreed the Constitution protected the “right to marital privacy.” State laws banning birth control could now be overturned, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began distributing birth-control services to low-income, married women as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. As more women considered alternatives to motherhood, there was a sharp increase in the number of those who attended college and joined the workforce.

Technology was the root cause underlying all the changes. Pharmacology brought both the pill and LSD. Citizens in the North had been able to disregard the horrors of Jim Crow in the southern states until television. Televised antiwar demonstrations revealed that there was not complete consensus among the American public with regard to the war, causing many viewers to think harder about their own stance. Television showcased musicians with shockingly long hair while radio broadcast their increasingly subversive critiques of mainstream society.

As the feeling of foment intensified, the historical changes in civil rights, the sexual revolution, the antiwar movement, psychedelia, and popular music not only played out in their own spheres but snowballed into each other, galvanizing countless citizens to re-examine all of their beliefs and, ultimately, demand more personal freedom. As the seismic cultural forces entwined to unleash a social reformation, events in the final days of March 1965 determined the course of American culture for the next 50 years.

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Adapted from Andrew Grant Jackson’s book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, out now from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books.