In 1964, The Beatles produced an act of defiance which ultimately made a huge step toward fighting racial segregation. The band, with thousands of people waiting with bated breath, refused to play a show that had split the audience by race without their consent.
Showing their support for the US civil rights movement, the iconic Liverpool four-piece refused to perform to a segregated concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. As the pressure of The Beatles’ act of defiance threatened to boil over, officials at the concert eventually allowed the segregated audience to merge together.
Upon entering the stage, John Lennon said: “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now.”
“I’d sooner lose our appearance money,” he added.
The details of the incident were later captured in the comprehensive documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week which was directed by Ron Howard. “Their first controversial political stance didn’t have to do with Vietnam, it had to do with segregation in the South’, director Howard explained. “They found out that one of their concerts in Jacksonville, Florida, was meant to be segregated and they refused to play it that way. They even had in their contract they would not play to segregated audiences. It was a ludicrous idea to them,” he added.
“But it was clear to them and that’s the position they took, and lo and behold, they de-segregated that concert,” he continued.
“Often, the world was influencing what the Beatles were going through and the Beatles were influencing the way the world looked at things.”
Remembering the incident, Paul McCartney later recalled: “When we were making the film, all these little facts had come out and Ron was sifting through them with his team. We were due to play Jacksonville in the States and we found out that it was going to be a segregated audience—blacks one side, whites the other—and it just seemed so mad, we couldn’t understand that. So we just said, ‘We’re not playing that!’”
A year after the incident in Florida, with The Beatles still passionately but informally refusing to perform for segregated shows, the band successfully managed to incorporate their beliefs into a legally binding contract. The Beatles secured an official contract, which was signed by then-manager Brian Epstein, that specified that the band “not be required to perform in front of a segregated audience.”
The deal was put in place prior to a mammoth Beatles performance at Cow Palace in California and, given their battles against racism, the relentless struggle for racial equality in the United States is what later inspired Paul McCartney to write the song ‘Blackbird’.
“The concert we did do was the first non-segregated audience,” Macca later reflected on that one momentous night in Florida. “And there was a girl, Kitty, who remembers it well as her first contact with whites, really, in a concert situation.
“So I’m very proud of that and it actually ended up in our contract – ‘will not play segregated audiences’—and back then, you know, to us it was just common sense. But it turns out it was quite a statement.”