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The Beatles fight bigotry in America

The Beatles encounter a segregated America in... 00:39

This piece by Larry Kane is part of a series of essays to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first American television appearance on CBS's "The Ed Sullivan Show." It culminates with CBS News, 50 Years Later...The Beatles at The Ed Sullivan Theater: Presented by Motown The Musical, a live, interactive multimedia event at The Ed Sullivan Theater on Feb. 9. 

The "boys" grew up in an atmosphere of sometimes harsh religious and racial intolerance in post-World War II Liverpool. Fortunately, for them and the world they influenced, all four rose above it.  Just ask British singer Joe Ankrah -- his story coming up. But first I take you inside the Beatles' rooms at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. The date was Aug. 20, 1964, and we had returned to the hotel in between the afternoon and evening concerts.

Press Secretary Derek Taylor had arranged for me to conduct some interviews and, for a change, I had some news for them!  My contemporary music station in Miami had advised me that the management of the Gator Bowl -- where the Beatles were scheduled for Sept. 11 -- stated firmly that the stadium would be segregated, as were many in the South back then.

As I entered the room, I told manager Brian Epstein and the four about the Gator Bowl rule. Paul got up from the sofa defiantly, "We are not going to play there." John was even more blunt, "No chance that happening." Ringo and George agreed.

After my taped interviews were concluded, I relayed the outrage in a phone report to my station WFUN. It was distributed to 51 other radio stations nationwide. The stage had been set for a test of wills that would conclude in, of all places, balmy and quiet Key West, Fla.

As Beatles' management filed protests with the Gator Bowl, the tour barreled through 13 more cities. Then, on Sept. 9, after a concert in Montreal, Epstein faced an added challenge heading into Jacksonville.  Hurricane Dora with its dangerous winds would be hitting nearby. At the Montreal airport, Epstein asked me where else the entourage could travel in Florida, a spot for a day or two of quiet as they waited out the threats of weather and segregation. From my "local knowledge,"  I recommended Key West and called some friends there. The plane tracked southbound.

when they were boys cover.jpg
"When They Were Boys," Larry Kane Running Press
 The landing was at 4 in the morning. We settled in the Key Wester hotel. For a few hours, on Sept. 10, the boys relaxed. John even made into a swimming pool with several members of the Exciters, a '60s pop group -- three girls, one guy, all African-American. The pictures of John in the pool with several black woman enraged Southern reporters. The photos became an overnight sensation.

Years earlier, Paul and John had enraged the Liverpool establishment by putting Joe Ankrah and his magical group the Chants on the stage of the Cavern. Joe is black, and in my book "When They Were Boys," he remembers, "It was bad enough that the modern moods [racism] never gave a black group a chance, but if not for Paul and his friends, we would have never stayed together. . . . In fact, I think that meeting with the Beatles changed the direction of my life."

Back in Key West, with the hours ticking down to the Gator Bowl, Epstein advised that the word had come in. The Gator Bowl, for the first time, would be fully integrated. The actual concert was not a sell-out, winds from hurricane Dora keeping people away.  But as the Beatles headed for the next gig in Boston, they knew they had made more than music in Florida. They had also made history.

Larry Kane has had a 55-year career in broadcast journalism, including a 40-year stint as a TV anchor in Philadelphia. He has covered 23 political conventions and news worldwide, and is remembered as the only American journalist to travel to every stop in the Beatles traveling party in the great summer tours of 1964 and 1965. His books include "Ticket to Ride," New York Times bestseller "Lennon Revealed" and his most recent "When They Were Boys."

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