When the Beatles Refused to Play Before Segregated Audiences on Their First U.S. Tour (1964)

When Amer­i­can rock and roll made its way to the UK in the 1950s and 60s, along with a bur­geon­ing folk and blues revival, many young British fans hadn’t been con­di­tioned to think of music in the same way as their U.S. coun­ter­parts. “Unlike racial­ly seg­re­gat­ed Amer­i­cans,” for exam­ple, “the Bea­t­les didn’t see—or hear—the dif­fer­ence between Elvis and Chuck Berry,” writes Joseph Tirella, “between the Ever­ly Broth­ers and the Mar­velettes.” They also couldn’t see play­ing to seg­re­gat­ed audi­ences as just one of those social cus­toms one polite­ly observes when tour­ing abroad.

In 1964, at the height of Beat­le­ma­nia, the band was booked to play Florida’s Gator Bowl in Jack­sonville just after a dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane and months after the intro­duc­tion of the Civ­il Rights Act into Con­gres­sion­al delib­er­a­tions. Major polit­i­cal shifts were hap­pen­ing in the coun­try and would have hap­pened with or with­out the Bea­t­les tak­ing a stand for inte­gra­tion.

But they took a stand nonethe­less and used their celebri­ty pow­er to show how mean­ing­less the sys­tem of Apartheid in the South actu­al­ly was. It could, in fact, be annulled by fiat should a group with as much lever­age as the Fab Four refuse to play along.

The rid­er for the Sep­tem­ber 11 con­cert “explic­it­ly cit­ed the band’s refusal to per­form in a seg­re­gat­ed facil­i­ty,” writes Ken­neth Wom­ack at Salon. When con­cert pro­mot­ers pushed back, John Lennon flat­ly stat­ed in a press con­fer­ence, “We nev­er play to seg­re­gat­ed audi­ences, and we aren’t going to start now. I’d soon­er lose our appear­ance mon­ey.” Despite storm dam­age and evac­u­a­tions, the 32,000-seat sta­di­um had sold out. The Gator Bowl had to relent and deseg­re­gate for the evening’s show.

One of the concert’s atten­dees, his­to­ri­an Dr. Kit­ty Oliv­er, who appears in the clip at the top from Ron Howard’s Bea­t­les doc­u­men­tary Eight Days a Week, was a young Bea­t­les fan who hadn’t heard the news about the show deseg­re­gat­ing. Deter­mined to go, and sav­ing up enough mon­ey to score a seat near the front row, she remem­bers fear­ing the atmos­phere she would encounter:

At the time, I didn’t know any­thing about the group’s press con­fer­ence announce­ment refus­ing to per­form for an audi­ence where Black patrons would be forcibly seg­re­gat­ed from Whites, prob­a­bly rel­e­gat­ed to the worse seats far­thest away from the stage and maybe sub­ject­ed to a threat­en­ing atmos­phere if they showed up.

Instead, she writes, “the crowd rose, thun­der­ous, in uni­son, when the Bea­t­les took the stage. Then tun­nel vision set in: Eyes glued to the front, I sang along to ‘She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah…’ full voiced, just as loud­ly as every­one, all of us lost in the sound.” The band “left behind a lega­cy that night,” writes Wom­ack, hav­ing “stood up to insti­tu­tion­al racism and won.” It was not a cause-of-the-moment for them but a deep con­vic­tion all four mem­bers shared, as Paul McCart­ney explains above in an inter­view with reporter Lar­ry Kane, who fol­lowed the band on their first Amer­i­can tour.

McCart­ney had been so moved by the events in Lit­tle Rock in 1957 that almost a decade lat­er, he remem­bered them in his song “Black­bird,” as he explains above. This year, he recalled the band’s stand against seg­re­ga­tion in Jack­sonville and com­ment­ed, “I feel sick and angry that here we are, almost 60 years lat­er, and the world is in shock at the hor­rif­ic scenes of the sense­less mur­der of George Floyd at the hands of police racism, along with the count­less oth­ers that came before. I want jus­tice for George Floyd’s fam­i­ly, I want jus­tice for all those who have died and suf­fered. Say­ing noth­ing is not an option.” When it came to issues of injus­tice, even at the height of their fame, the Bea­t­les were will­ing to say—and, more impor­tant­ly, do—something about it even if it cost them.

via Salon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Bea­t­les Per­form Their Famous Rooftop Con­cert: It Hap­pened 50 Years Ago Today (Jan­u­ary 30, 1969)

How “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er” Con­tains “the Cra­zi­est Edit” in Bea­t­les His­to­ry

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Every Place Ref­er­enced in The Bea­t­les’ Lyrics: In 12 Min­utes, Trav­el 25,000 Miles Across Eng­land, France, Rus­sia, India & the US

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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