Beatlemania took America by storm in 1964, but that same year, the president of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association dumped muriatic acid on black people who were swimming in a “whites-only” pool.
The Beatles were in Las Vegas when a reporter informed them the Jacksonville, Florida stadium they were scheduled to play on Sept. 11, 1964, was segregated. Paul McCartney stood defiantly and said, “We are not going to play there.” John Lennon added, “No f***ing chance that’s happening.” All of the Beatles agreed. Just weeks later, the young band drew a line in the sand against America’s systemic racism from a Key West motel.
Key West was never part of the Beatles’ planned itinerary. Hurricane Dora necessitated a routing change, and their plane touched down in Key West at 3:36 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1964. Three hundred Key West teens swarmed the Key Wester Motel on South Roosevelt, near the airport, as Ringo, George, John and Paul checked in with their entourage.
The Beatles slept late on Sept. 10, but spent time later that day by the pool with a photographer from “Life” magazine. During the photo shoot, one of the Beatles shared the swimming pool with members of their black opening band, The Exciters. Reports of a Beatle in the pool with black women “enraged Southern reporters,” according to reports. But the Beatles were just getting started.
The Key West swimming pool incident was a muscle flex. Reports indicate authorities at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl stood their ground on their segregation policy until just hours before the scheduled concert. Meanwhile, the Beatles extended a long middle finger from the Southernmost City by refusing to budge. Newspapers reported that extra time needed to launder the Exciters’ costumes delayed the Fab Four’s arrival in Jacksonville, but history shows the real reason for the delay: The Beatles refused to tolerate racism or play a segregated stadium.
After experiencing America’s racism in Jacksonville, the Beatles added a clause to their contract stating they would not play to segregated audiences. Paul McCartney wrote “The Night You Cried” about his time in Key West, and the Florida events helped forge the Beatles song “Blackbird.”
Paul McCartney recently posted to social media, “I feel sick and angry that here we are almost 60 years later and the world is in shock at the horrific scenes of the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of police racism. … I want justice for all those who have died and suffered. Saying nothing is not an option.“
Key West has a long history of ignoring racism. And despite our claims of acceptance today, this history must be shared, so it is not repeated. Stay tuned to Keys Weekly in the coming weeks for “Love Me Do: Times Key West was an Unhuman Family.”
As Paul says, silence is not an option.