"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 September 11th date at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, where they'd heard that blacks were confined to the upper tiers at public events such as concerts.
The next day, The Florida Times-Union ran a disparaging editorial, calling the group "a passing fad, perfectly fitted to the 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 concert. "They were nobodies, and strange on top of that. Especially in the south, 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 Fabs' outspokenness certainly stood in sharp contrast to most American pop stars, who were carefully coached to stick to non-controversial topics like favorite pizza toppings and most embarrassing personal habits.
"They did quite a lot in terms of bridging cultures, and that was something new at that time," says Oliver. "They came from another culture, so that made them intriguing to many black people. They were different, but singing 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 at odds with each other."
And America was definitely at odds. From the riots in Harlem to the church burnings in Mississippi, summer 1964 was a cauldron of violence.
Before the Beatles arrived in Florida, a different kind of violence occurred. Hurricane Dora brought 100 mph winds and torrential rain, causing $280 million in damage. It knocked out power for most residents.
Luckily for fans, electricity was supplied to the Gator Bowl by underground power lines.
Opening the show was the Exciters, a black R&B quartet, best known for their hit "Tell Him." Though WAPE, the local radio station promoting the concert, chose the support act, the Beatles were most likely pleased.
Oliver recalls, "I remember that I sat in the high--up seats, because that is all I could afford. I went alone. 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. And singing all the lyrics to the songs. I loved the Beatles, and had seen A Hard Day's Night seven times. I even won one of those "___is my favorite Beatle because" radio contests and got a free signed album. I kept it for decades."
And the Beatles' human rights crusading continued for decades, right through their solo careers. Paul McCartney summed up their position in 1966: "We were always very keen on mixed-race audiences... 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?'"
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