They came wearing crowns of daffodils in their hair, their foreheads painted rainbow blue and gold as they strolled through Central Park, kites drifting overhead. It was March 26, 1967, and more than 10,000 New Yorkers from Brooklyn to the Bronx gathered for a “Be In” on Easter Sunday to spread a message of love and tolerance.
Attendees covered a police car with flowers. They chanted, “L-O-V-E, L-O-V-E, L-O-V-E,” and strummed guitars as police officers kept a watchful eye. Women showed off their Easter bonnets. The New York Times described it at the time as “noisy, swarming, chaotic and utterly surrealistic.” For many it was a reminder that Central Park was a unique place for people to gather in a country divided by race, politics and women’s rights. It was front-page news.
Indeed, a month later, crowds would gather again, but this time their message was more pointed: End the war in Vietnam. That is why the Be-In from March 1967, inspired by an earlier one in San Francisco, was a singular event.
“It represents a cultural moment in our history,” said Marie Warsh, a historian for the Central Park Conservancy, which oversees management of the park. “Central Park became an epicenter of the counterculture in New York, where different people from all walks of life could gather.”
Sure, there were later Be-Ins or happenings in the 1960s. The subsequent rally in 1967 was part of the “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam” and ended with a march to the United Nations, where orators like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke against war. A year later, a peace rally and another Easter Be-In were combined. By 1969, though, the gatherings had become explicitly political.
Jeanne Gutierrez, a curatorial scholar at the New-York Historical Society, said protesters built bonfires and left mountains of trash, leading to complaints that revelers were ruining Central Park. City officials “got pushback about the Be Ins,” Ms. Gutierrez said. New Yorkers debated whether Central Park should be a place of protest or an oasis of contemplative beauty.
The March 1967 Be-In was not planned as a political protest. Thomas Hoving served as parks commissioner for a year leading up to the Be-In before becoming director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had championed a series of “Hoving Happenings,” with concerts and festivities, to get more people to enjoy the city’s green space. “He wanted to make the parks a democratic space,” Ms. Gutierrez said.
The Be-In was organized by James Fouratt, an actor; Paul Williams, a magazine editor; Susan Harnett, an art administrator; and Claude Badal, a poet and playwright from Chile. According to The Times, the four raised $250, which they spent on posters that appeared in Greenwich Village, the East Village and Harlem. (Some were printed in Spanish.) Two newspapers, The Village Voice and The East Village Other, promoted it, as did local radio stations. But it was largely word of mouth that made New Yorkers show up at the Sheep Meadow.
“We wanted to be a celebration of being alive,” Mr. Fouratt said at the time. “People in New York don’t look at each other, don’t see each other, don’t talk to each other.”
They arrived in the morning with drums, bells and bubbles for blowing, the sound of music lilting in the spring air. Sunday strollers, some who came after the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, stopped and gawked.
“Isn’t the young generation awful?” a woman wearing egg-shaped gold earrings and a crown of flowers told The Times. “What are they coming to? In my generation things were never like that.”
The Be-In was modeled after one two months earlier in San Francisco, which was attended by tens of thousands of people to celebrate personal empowerment, youth culture and higher consciousness (often aided by drugs).
“They wanted to create good energy,” Ms. Gutierrez said of the New York attendees. “It was not dominated by personalities. It was much more organic. People were in costumes. Everyone shared food.”
Subsequent Be-Ins, though, raised the question: Who was allowed to congregate in Central Park? And what was the cost? “Within a few years of that first Be-In, people were up in arms,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “They hated seeing hippies in Bethesda Fountain.”
Attitudes toward Central Park changed as city officials made it harder to hold large-scale political events, Ms. Warsh, the historian, said. The city began to ask organizations to pay for permits as well as the cost of cleanup and salaries for police officers. “It was complicated,” she said.
As donors, too, paid millions of dollars to refurbish Central Park, major protests dwindled, with a few exceptions. In June 1982, hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators rallied against nuclear weapons at a concert attended by, among others, the singers Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow.
Large gatherings were often funded by corporate sponsors who could foot the bill. In recent years, throngs have gathered in awe to hear Beyoncé, Coldplay and other musical acts play at the Global Citizen Festival to end world poverty. “A lot has changed in Central Park since the 1960s,” Ms. Warsh said.