The year 1964 doesn’t seem like half a century ago, but it is memorable because of the turbulent times the country experienced.
Civil rights and the Vietnam War dominated the news during that sizzling Summer of ’64. It was just months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was running for his first full term against the Republicans’ Barry Goldwater.
It was during the Republican convention that Goldwater made his famous then-controversial statement, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue,” which sounds pretty benign in today’s political climate. Goldwater won the nomination over Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, but some said the comment helped him lose the presidential election to Johnson. Alabama Gov. George Wallace withdrew from the race.
That was when Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was still a Democrat.
The Civil Rights Act that passed Congress was a monumental achievement, but it didn’t mean a peaceful end to discrimination. Riots erupted in New York’s Harlem. Four Ku Klux Klansmen were accused in the shotgun murder of Lemuel Penn, a high-ranking black Army Reserve officer from Washington who was attacked while traveling through Georgia’s Madison County.
The bodies of three civil rights workers were found near Philadelphia, Miss.
Lester Maddox barred blacks from eating in his Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta, brandishing an ax handle that became a symbol for many who continued to resist laws mandating equal treatment. He closed his restaurant rather than serve blacks and later became governor.
In Winder, more than 300 whites turned away blacks trying to see a movie in a previously all-white theater. In Gainesville, the city commission imposed an 8 p.m. curfew after bottle-throwing marked a black-white confrontation. The local Chamber of Commerce urged calm and compliance with the new civil rights law.
President Johnson’s War on Poverty passed Congress, with 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum playing a key role in the U.S. House. Johnson came to Gainesville to tout the package of laws designed to reduce poverty especially in Appalachia. Democrat Landrum drew opposition, but won re-election against Jack Prince, the first Republican to run for the office in 22 years.
Johnson also escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War during the summer of 1964.
The war, civil rights and politics weren’t the only things on people’s minds at the time. Indeed, it was a progressive summer locally. Peachtree Industrial Boulevard opened between Gainesville and Buford. The Hall County section of the road is now named McEver Road.
Interstate 985, which connects Gainesville to Interstate 85, was approved and about to start construction. Gov. Carl Sanders had promised a four-lane connection after his predecessor, Gov. Ernest Vandiver, had shifted the route of I-85 away from Gainesville.
Hall County Hospital was building an addition, and a new Gainesville Junior High School was under construction. Since then, Northeast Georgia Medical Center has expanded several times, and a new middle school building has opened on Jesse Jewell Parkway.
Hall County’s tax digest had increased by $2 million, and Hall County Community Chest, now United Way, had an ambitious goal of $133,000. In 2013, United Way raised more than $1.8 million.
The Milwaukee Braves baseball team admitted it was considering moving to another city, but denied several times it had chosen Atlanta. Two summers later, however, Hank Aaron and the Braves indeed were knocking it out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
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That 1964 summer also was when law enforcement agencies really cracked down on car theft rings. A raid on a garage in Commerce resulted in the arrest of three members of the same family.
1964 wasn’t all that somber, however. Several sightings of unidentified flying objects were reported. Nine different witnesses said they saw strange lights on an object in the sky over Habersham County. Some said they experienced stinging and burning sensations while watching the UFO.
The Daily Times, as the newspaper was called back then, turned the UFO story into a fun diversion, inviting readers to submit drawings of how they envisioned the pilot of an outer spacecraft. Scores of people responded.
No official ever confirmed an interplanetary visit by aliens, and the UFO story promptly faded into the starlight.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.