Civil rights advances of 1963 spilled into a broader sense of possibilities.
Many people had long hoped for relief from the specter of atomic war — what Kennedy called the "darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth" as he announced the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in July.
"Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness," he said. "For the first time, an agreement has been reached on bringing the forces of nuclear destruction under control."
For years, people had staged "ban the bomb" street demonstrations — but almost unnoticed in 1963, they were joined by a few early protesters against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, where Kennedy had been sending American military "advisers."
In the continuum of popular culture, no single year is definitive. Still, by 1963, record buyers, radio stations, even jukebox operators were embracing a broadening range of entertainment. There was the "Motown sound" of black pop songs — singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson has spoken of "the barriers that we broke down with music" — and audiences would soon embrace the "British invasion."
"The '60s revolution in music and style began somewhere, maybe here," say the liner notes for a just-released Beatles collection, "First Recordings: 50th Anniversary Edition," which received a nomination for this year's Grammy awards.
The music never really went away (the Rolling Stones' recent tour was playfully called "Fifty and Counting"). Spivey's '60s class ends with a sing-along, and Varon at the New School marvels at how many of his students know the old lyrics.
A quieter revolution made 1963 "a lever," in the words of historian Stephanie Coontz, who also teaches '60s courses. In February of that year, writer Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique."
At the time, magazines and TV constantly reinforced a view of the American woman and her assigned place: She would marry, raise children, and not work outside the home, which she would maintain with products and appliances designed to make her middle-class life efficient and ideal.
The trouble, Friedan recognized, was that for many this was not ideal, but suffocating, said Coontz, author of the 2011 book "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."
When she reviews the sexism of those days with her students today — "head and master" laws in many states making wives legally subject to husbands, help-wanted ads seeking "pretty looking, cheerful gal" for office work, and the like — "jaws literally drop," she said.
For middle-class women who read Friedan's book, it was a revelation. They'd been told "they should not want anything more out of life — and were 'sick' when they did. These people Friedan literally rescued," Coontz said in an interview. "People I interviewed said ... they were considering suicide."
The book told them they were not alone and change might come.
Transformative change is a central theme of '60s courses; some even offer '60s-style civic outreach projects as substitutes for traditional research papers. Students learn how Kennedy pushed variations of this message in 1963.
In June in Berlin, where a communist-built wall showed the Cold War divide most sharply, he envisioned the ultimate triumph of freedom. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin," he said, "and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "
That same month, promoting peace was his theme in a commencement address. "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet," he told the graduates. "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
Five months later, he traveled to Texas, for political fence-mending ahead of the 1964 election. He was waving at the cheering crowds that lined his sunny Dallas motorcade route when the rifle shots came at 12:30 p.m. Central time.