In January of 1964 Americans were still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States, and, in his first year as president, he would enact a series of radical reforms that would fundamentally alter American life. Read more about the dramatic events of 1964 -- in political legislation, civil rights and youth culture -- that forever changed American society.

January 3

Arizona's two-term Republican senator Barry Goldwater announces his candidacy for president of the United States. Nicknamed "Mr. Conservative," Goldwater and his campaign spark a conservative revolution within the Republican Party that will define the GOP and American politics for generations.

January 11

U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry releases the first Report on Smoking and Health. After reviewing more than 7,000 scientific articles, his advisory committee concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer as well as a host of other medical issues.

January 18

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey releases designs for the original World Trade Center buildings.

January 29

Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb premieres. The film satirizes Cold War politics, playing upon American anxieties and changing attitudes towards nuclear warfare. The film has since been cited as the “best political satire of the century” by Roger Ebert.


Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is released as a paperback, with its first printing selling 1.4 million copies. Friedan’s book ushers in a transformative feminist movement as housewives across America come to identify with the “problem that has no name” and acknowledge dissatisfaction with their domestic roles.

February 2

G.I. Joe makes his debut as an “action figure” toy.

February 9

The Beatles perform “Till There Was You” live on The Ed Sullivan Show to an audience full of screaming teenagers and a record-breaking 73 million television viewers. Though the group had been rapidly gaining popularity in America since the December 1963 release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their Ed Sullivan appearance confirms that Beatlemania is sweeping the country.

February 25

In a surprise upset, Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay beats Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida, and is crowned heavyweight champion of the world. Just one day later, he announces that he has joined the Nation of Islam and is changing his name. For the remainder of the decade, Muhammad Ali becomes known outside the boxing ring for his socio-political beliefs -- specifically on racial equality and the Vietnam War.

March 4

Union leader Jimmy Hoffa is convicted of jury tampering, fraud and bribery.

March 14

In the United States’ first-ever televised trial verdict, Jack Ruby is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death for fatally shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

March 16

President Johnson submits a plan for his “War on Poverty” initiatives to Congress. The proposal helps establish federal programs still in use today, including food stamps, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tells LBJ that 40% of South Vietnam is under Viet Cong control.

March 27

The largest earthquake in U.S. history hits Alaska, registering a magnitude of 9.2.

March 30

Jeopardy! premieres on NBC.

April 13

At the 36th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, Sidney Poitier becomes the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field."

April 16

The Rolling Stones' self-titled album “The Rolling Stones” debuts in the U.K., selling more than 12 million copies. A slightly altered version of the album, England's Newest Hit Makers, is released in the United States a month later in late May. The band helps fuel 1960s counterculture and propel the “British Invasion.”

April 17

The Ford Motor Company unveils the Mustang at the 1964 New York World's Fair. That day, Ford takes 22,000 orders for the new car, and the company will make a record-setting 418,812 sales that year.

May 12

In one of the first publicized instances of this kind of protest, 12 students burn their Vietnam draft cards and declare, “We won’t go!” This will become a common act of defiance against the war.

May 22

President Johnson delivers his “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony. His speech calls for an end to racial injustice and poverty in the United States, and outlines his presidential agenda for the next four years.

June 2

The Rolling Stones perform their first U.S. concert at a high school in Lynn, MA.

June 12

Nelson Mandela is convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison and sent to Robben Island in South Africa.

June 14

The first group of Freedom Summer volunteers gather for training in Oxford, Ohio. Of the nearly 1,000 participants working to educate and register African Americans to vote in Mississippi and across the South, the majority are white college students from the North.

June 21

A day after the first group of Freedom Summer volunteers arrives in Mississippi, three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney set out to investigate a church bombing near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three activists are arrested for a traffic violation and held for several hours. When they are released at 10:30pm, it is the last time they are seen alive. 

July 2

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment, ends segregation in public places, and outlaws segregation practices common amongst many southern businesses for decades.

July 4

The Beach Boys' "I Get Around" begins a two-week stint at the top of the charts.

July 16

At the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, CA, Senator Barry Goldwater is nominated as the next presidential candidate. In his acceptance speech he declares, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," placing his conservative agenda in direct opposition to more moderate Republicans.

Black teenager James Powell is shot and killed by a white off-duty police officer in Harlem, NY. Two days later, peaceful demonstrations erupt into violence. For six days, more than 8,000 people take to the streets, smashing windows, setting fires, and looting local businesses. They cause over $1 million worth of damage.

August 2

Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attack the U.S. destroyer U.S.S. Maddox in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, reports come in that the North Vietnamese have launched another attack.

August 4

After a six-week search, the FBI finds the bodies of the three Freedom Summer volunteers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, buried in a Mississippi earthen dam. Local officials refuse to prosecute the case, so federal investigators step in.

August 7

Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing President Johnson to launch full-scale war against North Vietnam without securing a formal declaration of war from Congress.

September 17

Bewitched premiers on ABC. The popular sitcom about a witch and her mortal husband subtly reflects changes to traditional domestic roles, as the leading woman, Samantha, has significantly more power than her non-magical husband, Darrin.

September 24

The Warren Commission announces that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole gunman in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Despite its findings, the Commission does not answer the question of “why” Oswald did it.

October 1

Student activists at the University of California at Berkeley distribute information on racial discrimination at a row of tables set up at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph Streets, a location which had traditionally been a place to share information about a variety of campus activities and events. Berkeley administrators tell the students they must keep all political activities off campus. Students see this as a violation of their First Amendment rights, and begin a protest that lasts for two days, involves thousands of students, and results in eight suspensions. One activist, Jack Weinberg, is held in police custody. Student demonstrations at Berkeley continue throughout the fall semester.

October 12

The Soviet Union launches Voskhod 1, the first spacecraft to carry a multi-person crew in orbit around the Earth. While in space, the cosmonauts conduct physical and technical experiments, and perform extensive medical-biological tests. The mission is a success and places the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in the space race.

October 14

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent civil rights activism. At 35 years old, King is the youngest person ever to receive the prize.

October 16

The People’s Republic of China successfully tests a nuclear bomb, making it the fifth nation in the world with nuclear bomb capabilities.

October 22

The popular children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming is published posthumously. The author, well known for his James Bond series, died August 12.

October 27

Actor Ronald Reagan launches his political career when his "A Time for Choosing" speech broadcasts on NBC. In it, Reagan stresses his belief in small government. The speech raises $1 million for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign.


Police apprehend the Boston Strangler when they arrest Albert DeSalvo for his role in the “Green Man” rapes. DeSalvo confesses to sexually assaulting and murdering 11 Boston-area women between 1962 and 1964.

November 3

Sitting President Johnson wins a landslide victory over Republican challenger Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson takes over 60 percent of the popular vote, which breathes new life into his “Great Society” ambitions.

November 28

NASA launches the Mariner 4 space probe to take the first pictures of the surface of Mars. The Soviet Union's first Mars probe failed in May; they will launch a second on November 30 which will also lose communication.

December 2-3

After the University of California Berkeley’s chancellor refuses to drop charges against suspended free speech protesters, over 1,000 students stage an overnight sit-in at Sproul Hall. Over the next 12 hours, 814 students are arrested. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement inspires similar protests across the country and helps define modern American student activism.

December 4

The U.S. Justice Department charges 21 Mississippi men with conspiring to deprive Freedom Summer workers James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman of their civil rights, since murder is not a federal crime. In December 1967, seven of the conspirators are found guilty, though none of the will serve more than six years in jail.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

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Whether in politics or popular culture, civil liberty or civil rights, 1964 saw a lot of change. What event or set of events do you think had the biggest impact on the year, on American society, or on America as we know it today? Share your story.