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Violet's America: A Journey Through the South in 1964

In Violet, it's September 4, 1964 when Violet Karl boards a bus in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her journey will take her across the American South during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. By 1970, civil rights, Vietnam, women's liberation, and rock and roll youth culture will have reshaped society.


President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 dominated the start of 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson, sworn into office at Kennedy's death, was committed to pushing Kennedy's civil rights legislation and social welfare policies forward. President Kennedy had called for a new civil rights act in June of 1963, and behind-the-scenes efforts to obtain the congressional votes for its passage began soon after.

In August 1963, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom drew enormous crowds who rallied for civil rights and economic justice for African-Americans, and during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, putting civil rights in the national spotlight. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the House of Representatives in February of that year. The legislation prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment and housing. It outlawed segregation in places of public accommodation (such as buses) and businesses. This attempted to protect voting rights and encouraged school desegregation through changes to federal funding. It was deeply unpopular with southerners, including Alabama Governor George Wallace, who ran a pro-segregation presidential campaign against Johnson, despite being in the same party.

Violet's America: A Journey Through the South in 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March in Washington, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

When the act reached the Senate, southern senators, primarily Democrats, held a 54-day filibuster in an attempt to kill the act. Finally, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a modified version of the legislation. This gathered enough support to pass the Senate and was signed into law by Johnson on July 2. The Civil Rights Act was law on September 4, 1964, but challenges to its enforcement, and to entrenched segregation and racism, remained.


While the Civil Rights Act was filibustered in the Senate, a group of 1,000 volunteers, mostly white college students, poured into Mississippi in a highly-publicized attempt to register voters and end disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Known as Freedom Summer, it was run by a group of local civil rights organizations known as the Council of Federated Organizations. Volunteers were regularly harassed, threatened, arrested, and beaten-often by members of the Mississippi law enforcement community. Just days after the work began, three volunteers, two white and one black, went missing. They were found murdered weeks later.

Violet's America: A Journey Through the South in 1964

Mug shot of Freedom Riders who were arrested after going into a whites-only waiting room and refusing to move after being asked to do so by the police.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected women from discrimination based on gender in employment. Prior to this, women were effectively shut out of many professions and sometimes prevented from certain courses of study in universities. In 1960, 37% of women worked outside the home, and they earned about 60% of what men earned. With just a high school diploma, Violet's options for work in Spruce Pine, a mining town, would have been limited. Women were marrying very young in 1964, at an average of 20.5 years old. Birth control pills, which allowed women, not men, to control their fertility, became available in 1960. By 1963, 2.3 million American women were taking birth control pills. Despite this advance, laws against contraception remained in eight states.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's landmark book on women's identity in postwar America, was published in 1963. In it, Friedan argued that the image of women as happy, fulfilled housewives was created by men and was detrimental to women's selfactualization. Written by and aimed at the educated, upper-middle class suburban homemaker, the book probably would seem irrelevant to the poor, rural, and single Violet Karl.


During the Cold War, the United States attempted to prevent Soviet communism from spreading further, particularly into Southeast Asia. The United States had engaged in the Korean War in the 1950s to prevent Soviet-backed North Korean forces from taking over pro-Western South Korea. The Korean War ended in stalemate (the region remains divided into North and South Korea). It did, however, give African-American soldiers in the newly-integrated military the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. After the Korean War, the United States maintained a military presence in the waters off the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese coasts. On August 2, 1964, the Destroyer USS Maddox exchanged fire with three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson responded by authorizing an air attack on North

Vietnamese gunboats and support facilities. On August 7, Congress authorized a joint resolution, known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that gave Johnson the power to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" without having to seek the approval of Congress. This began a new stage in theVietnam War. In 1964 it was possible to be drafted into military service, though large numbers of men were not being called up regularly. The first draft card burning actually took place in May of 1964, before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In subsequent years, as more young men were drafted into an increasingly unpopular war, draft protests would become common.

Violet's America: A Journey Through the South in 1964

Image of a man burning his draft card in protest of the Vietnam War.


The British Invasion
1964 marked the start of the "British Invasion," which refers to the extreme popularity of British rock and pop music in America. The Beatles performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February, kicking off Beatlemania. In June, The Rolling Stones performed their first concert in the U.S. at a high school in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Race Riots
In Harlem, the police shooting of a 15-year-old African-American boy with a knife led to massive protests that quickly turned into riots. Similar riots, driven by anger about discrimination, poverty, and police brutality, happened in Rochester and North Philadelphia in the summer of 1964.

Sidney Poitier
On April 13, 1964 Sidney Poitier became the first Bahamian-American man to win the Best Actor Oscar, for his role in Lilies of the Field.

Anti-miscegenation Laws
In 1964, it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person in all of the states Violet travels through. It would take the landmark Loving Case, in which Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial married couple with three children, sued for the right to live as a married couple in their home state of Virginia, to begin to turn over these laws.

In 1964 the United States Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health linked smoking to lung cancer for the first time.

This article features in our Upstage playgoers guide for Violet.

Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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