JFK, MLK, LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1960s

The Beatles arrive in the U.S. black and white photograph.


At the start of the 1960s, things seemed pretty much like the 1950s: prosperous, calm, and predictable. But by 1963, the civil rights movement was making headlines and the young and vibrant President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, one of the most stunning events of the 20th century. The nation mourned, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly became president on that day in November. He signed momentous legislation that included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he also became the target of protesters' wrath for the quagmire in Vietnam, which expanded in the late '60s. In 1968, the U.S. mourned two more inspirational leaders who were assassinated: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. For those living through this decade, it was one not to be forgotten.


Nixon and JFK debate on TV black and white image.
Presidential candidates Richard Nixon (left), later the 37th president of the United States, and John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, during a televised debate.

MPI/Getty Images

The decade opened with a presidential election that included the first televised debates between the two candidates: John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The first of four debates took place on Sept. 26, 1960, and was viewed by about 40% of the U.S. population.

On February 1, the civil rights era began with a lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Sharpeville massacre in South Africa occurred on March 21, when a crowd of about 7,000 protesters went to the police station. Sixty-nine people lost their lives, and 180 sustained injuries. .

On April 21, the newly built city of Brasília was founded and Brazil moved its capital there from Rio de Janeiro. On May 9, the first commercial birth control pill, Enovid, produced by G.D. Searle was approved for that use by the FDA. The first working laser, invented by several physicists over decades of research, was built by Theodore Maiman of the Hughes Research Laboratory in California on May 16th. The most powerful earthquake ever reported devastated Chile on May 22, with an estimated 9.4–9.6 on the moment magnitude scale. On September 8, Alfred Hitchcock's landmark movie "Psycho" opened in the theaters to mixed reviews, although it is today considered among Hitchcock's best.


Building the Berlin Wall in Germany, black and white photograph.
Workers building the Berlin Wall, a tangible symbol of the Cold War.

Keystone/Getty Images

On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps, a federal agency designed to give Americans an opportunity to serve their country and the world through volunteer community-based projects. Between April 11 and August 14, Adolf Eichmann went on trial for his role in the Holocaust, charged under the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment law. He was found guilty on 15 counts on December 12 and executed the following June.

On April 12, the ​Soviets launched the Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gargarin as the first man into space.

Between April 17–19, the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba occurred when about 1,400 Cuban exiles failed to wrest control from Fidel Castro.

The first Freedom Ride left Washington DC on May 4th: freedom riders challenged the southern states' non-enforcement of the Supreme Court's ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. And on May 25, 1961, JFK gave his "Man on the Moon" speech, setting a new course of discovery for the U.S. and the world.

Construction was completed on the Berlin Wall, sealing off East from West Berlin on August 13.


Marilyn Monroe

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The biggest event of 1962 was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Through this event, the United States was on edge for 13 days (October 16–28) during a confrontation with the Soviet Union.

In perhaps the most stunning news of 1962, the iconic sex symbol of the era, Marilyn Monroe, was found dead at her home on August 5. Three months earlier on May 19, she sang a memorable "Happy Birthday" to JFK.

In the ongoing civil rights movement, James Meredith was the first African-American admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, on October 1; he graduated in 1963 with a degree in political science.

In lighter news, on July 9, Andy Warhol exhibited his iconic Campbell's Soup can painting in an exhibition in Los Angeles. On May 8, the first James Bond movie, "Dr. No," hit the theaters. Also, the first Walmart opened July 2, Johnny Carson began his long run as host of the "Tonight Show" on October 1, and on September 27, 1962, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" documenting the adverse environmental effects caused indiscriminate pesticide use was published.


MLK waving to the crowd during "I Have A Dream" speech, black and white photograph.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August 1963.

Central Press/Getty Images

The news of this year made an indelible mark on the nation with the assassination of JFK on November 22 in Dallas while he was visiting on a campaign trip.

But other major events occurred. The March on Washington of May 15 drew 200,000 protesters who witnessed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. On June 12, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered, and on September 15, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was fire-bombed by white supremacists, killing four teenage girls and injuring 22 others.

On June 16, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman launched into space. On June 20, the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to establish a hotline telephone connection between the two countries. Ten men stole £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train between Glasgow and London on August 8, now known as the Great Train Robbery. They were all caught and convicted.

Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was published on February 19th, and the first "Dr. Who" episode aired on television on November 23.


The Beatles color promotional photograph in front of U.S. flag.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On July 2, 1964, the landmark Civil Rights Act became law, ending segregation in public places and banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On November 29, the Warren Report on the assassination of JFK was issued, naming Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone killer.

Nelson Mandela was arrested and at the Rivonia Trial on June 12 he was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa with seven other anti-apartheid activists. Japan opened its first bullet train (Shinkansen) commuter line on October 1, with trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka Station.

On the culture front, the news was big: The Beatles arrived in New York City on February 7 and took the U.S. by storm, changing music forever. Hasbro's GI Joe showed up on toy store shelves beginning February 2, and Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) became the heavyweight champion of the world, beating Sonny Liston in six rounds on February 25.


Malcolm X black and white photograph.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On March 6, 1965, two battalions of U.S. Marines waded ashore near Danang, the first wave of sent troops sent by LBJ to Vietnam in what would become a source of division in the U.S. in the decades to come. Activist Malcolm X was assassinated of February 21, and riots devastated the Watts area of Los Angeles between August 11 and 16, killing 34 and injuring 1,032.

The Rolling Stones' mega-hit "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" hit the rock and roll radio airwaves on June 6, and miniskirts started showing up on city streets, making designer Mary Quant the driving force behind 60s fashion.

The Great Blackout of November 9, 1965 left about 30 million people in the Northeast U.S. and parts of Ontario in Canada in the dark for 13 hours in the biggest power failure in history (up to that point).


Sally Kellerman and William Shatner in a 1966 episode of "Star Trek."

McFadden, Strauss Eddy & Irwin for Desilu Productions/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On September 30, 1966, Nazi Albert Speer was released from Spandau Prison after completing his 20-year sentence for war crimes. In May Mao Tse-tung launched the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement that would remake China. The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Elbert Howard in Oakland California on October 15.

Mass protests against the draft and the war in Vietnam dominated the nightly news. In Washington DC, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Pauli Murray, and Muriel Fox founded the National Organization for Women on June 30. "Star Trek" made its legendary mark on TV, with its first program on September 8.


Super Bowl I image from the game.
Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor (31) turns the corner with Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Andrew Rice (58) during the first Super Bowl.

James Flores/Getty Images

The first Super Bowl ever was played in Los Angeles on January 15, 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Argentinian physician and revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army on October 8 and executed by firing squad the next day.

Three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee—were killed during a simulated launch of the first Apollo mission on January 27. The Middle East witnessed the Six-Day War (June 5–10) between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. On March 9, Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva (Lana Peters) defected to the U.S. and arrived there in April 1967.

In June, LBJ nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, and on August 30, the Senate confirmed him as an associate justice. He was the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.

South African Christaan Barnard performed the first successful human to human heart transplant in Cape Town on December 3. On December 17, the Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming in Cheviot Bay and his body was never found.


My Lai Massacre Survivor
Surrounded by his children, a survivor of the My Lai Massacre stands in a village near the site of the massacre. | Location: near My Lai, South Vietnam. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Two assassinations overshadow all other news of 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, while on a speaking tour in Memphis, Tennessee, and then-presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin's bullet on June 6 as he was celebrating his win in the California Democratic primary.

The My Lai massacre—in which American soldiers killed nearly all of the people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16—and the months-long military campaign known as the Tet Offensive (January 30–September 23) topped Vietnam news. The environmental research ship USS Pueblo, attached to Navy intelligence as a spy ship, was captured by North Korean forces on January 23. The crew was held in North Korea for nearly a year, returning to the U.S. on December 24.

The Prague Spring (January 5–August 21) marked a time of liberalization in Czechoslovakia before the Soviets invaded and removed the leader of the government, Alexander Dubcek.


Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag on the moon in 1969.

NASA/Neil A. Armstrong/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.

On July 18, SenatorTed Kennedy (D-MA) left the scene of an accident on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, where his campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne died.

The legendary outdoor Woodstock rock concert was held on Max Yasgur's farm, New York, between August 15–18). On November 10, "Sesame Street" came to public television. Yasser Arafat became the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization on February 5, a role he would keep until October 2004. The first message was sent between computers connected by the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the precursor of the Internet, on October 29.

In the most grisly news of the year, the Manson family killed seven people including five at the home of director Roman Polanski in Benedict Canyon near Hollywood, between August 9–11.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "JFK, MLK, LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1960s." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/1960s-timeline-1779953. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). JFK, MLK, LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1960s. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1960s-timeline-1779953 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "JFK, MLK, LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1960s." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1960s-timeline-1779953 (accessed May 29, 2023).