1963 was a pivotal year that changed the world: Brian Stewart

From Martin Luther King's "dream" to the assassination of JFK, 1963 was one of those pivotal years that changed the world, Brian Stewart writes. Add in Beatlemania, and it was the gateway to the turbulent Sixties.

From Martin Luther King's 'dream' to the assassination of JFK, 1963 was one of those pivotal years that changed the world

The assassination of president John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22 hung over an already tumultuous year like a bad dream. (CBC)

When you've spent a long enough life in the news business, years can blur into one another and some you'd happily forget altogether. A very few, however, stand out as historic — pivotal moments that changed the world.

Those years bundled together the good and the very bad, and also had heart-stopping moments that ensured you would always remember just where you were at that particular time.

1963 was one such year. As we've gone through this current year marking all those 50th anniversaries, I've come to think of it as the wildest emotional roller coaster of my time.

It was a year that contained scores of big stories, including the historic March on Washington, Martin Luther King's greatest triumph, and the early involvement of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, along with the start of Beatlemania.

Then, on Nov. 22, the shattering horror of president John F. Kennedy's assassination. All were events that divided time before and after.

Before 1963, the Fifties still lingered; after, the Sixties took their powerful hold.

Pivotal years ensure things just aren't quite the same again.

Take 1956. A wild year that saw the Suez Crisis in which postwar British and French pretensions to superpower status were broken and Arab nationalism emerged as a world force.

Thanks in large part to Canada's Lester Pearson, international peacekeeping was invented. But in that same year, the Hungarian Revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks and the Cold War grew ever more dangerous.

I was 14 then, and I was so dazzled by the media that brought us the drama of these distant crises that I wrote a school paper vowing one day to become a foreign correspondent. Little did I know what lay ahead.

1968, another pivotal year, with its Vietnam fury and youth-led riots from Chicago to Paris; 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union; 2001, which divided a world before and after 9/11 and along the lines of civilizations, some said; and 2011 with its Arab Spring and its upheavals across so many countries.

Blowin' in the wind

But, to me, 1963 still has an intensity that sets it apart. I don't base this only on memory for I have beside me the diary I kept from its hopeful first day — "Come on year, let's see what you have in store of us" — to its sombre finale.

For many of us coming of age around then, the great drama was the civil rights battle in the U.S., which saw fire hoses and police dogs turned on non-violent protestors in places like Birmingham, Ala., and civil rights workers attacked across the American South.

It's difficult to recreate the desperate nature of that struggle now. In January, Alabama's white supremacist governor George Wallace pledged at his inauguration to fight for "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"

Later when thousands of black protesters were crammed into Birmingham's jails, along with leader Martin Luther King, the whole world was truly watching. That's when King, in April, released his historic "Letter from Birmingham jail," his defence of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression.

King's searing call to a universal conscience still inspires rights movements across the world: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

At the time, freedom seemed everywhere fresh and in the air. The writings of free-spirit Jack Kerouac were still popular, and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the wind" was released. And, yes, as poet Philip Larkin famously assured us later, "Sex was invented in 1963 … around the time of the first Beatle LP."

'I have a dream'

Well, perhaps not so much for me. But at least travel was so cheap that I was able to hop a freighter from Montreal to Lisbon that May for $5 a day and then spend most the summer in Spain on about the same daily amount.

I was 21 at the time, and recall being in Madrid's Retiro Park with friends, reading and re-reading aloud the news accounts of Martin Luther King's remarkable "I have a dream" speech before a momentous crowd of about 250,000 supporters, black and white, in Washington.

I didn't actually hear the speech until months later, but the force of so improbable a triumph for decency in those days froze that sunny afternoon in the park in my memory.

All that year, dramatic stories crowded the news: The John Profumo (Britain's war secretary) sex and spy scandal riveted the world; Britain's Great Train Robbery became a crime classic; Lester Pearson was elected prime minister; president Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech inside a tense West Berlin.

Even with growing reports of the escalating war in Vietnam, spirits seemed high and the year on a roll right up until the shots fired in Dealey Plaza in Dallas when Kennedy's assassination became the nightmare event forever overhanging 1963.

I find no neat insights in my diary as to why the shock seemed so pulverizing — "a great man … people feel a family member died." But I can exactly recall those raw emotions that I jotted down almost hourly.

"I am sad, confused, angry and scared today," I wrote on Nov 23. "Perhaps 100 times today I have felt that sense of shock. Who can believe this?"

When I try to explain those days to my 19-year-old daughter, Katie, I say that it was not just the death of a popular president that was so overwhelming, but the loss of hope that for months depressed and even fatigued people.

It would pass, but not easily, and the Sixties never fully recovered.

Now, 50 years later, the diary confirms that a year that had begun with such high excitement ended with a wish to escape it.

"What a year … I'm glad to have done with it," I wrote of a dull New Year's Eve. "A bad year goes out with a bad taste. We are too worn down to celebrate."