When discussing the Sixties, most commentators point to 1968 as the year that not only “defined” the decade but, in fact, somehow encapsulated the hopes and fears of the entire era. Without a doubt, across the U.S. and around the globe, major events in ’68 seemed to come fast and furious: the Prague Spring; the Tet Offensive; the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy; student riots in Paris; police riots in Chicago; the Mexico City summer Olympic games; the return of Elvis as a cultural force. For sheer volume of significant markers, 1968 has all the other years of the decade—and most of the years of the 20th century beat.
But with all due respect to 1968, one could as easily argue that it was really during 1963 when not only the 1960s, as we’ve come to remember them, but the latter half of the 20th century was truly born.
After all, in 1963 the Viet Cong won their first major victory of what would prove to be the signature conflict of the time; the Beatles recorded (in one day!) and released their first album; Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique; a 22-year-old singer-songwriter released the genre-demolishing masterpiece, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; in late August, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; two weeks later, four young girls were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church terrorist bombing in Birmingham; and in November, on the very same day that the Beatles released their second album in the UK, the 46-year-old President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated on a warm, sunny day in Dallas, Texas.
Here, LIFE.com presents a gallery featuring all of LIFE magazine’s covers from 50 years ago, in 1963: a look back at one year that played an outsized role in shaping America’s view of itself, through the singular lens of a hugely influential publication. There are classic, memorable covers here and, to be frank, utterly average ones, too. There are covers tied to critical, historic people and events, and covers that quite likely barely registered on readers’ radar even when the issues were still peering out from newsstands, or were being pulled from subscribers’ mailboxes.
In the end, we hope that the gallery provides viewers with at least a sense of the vertiginous highs and the appalling lows — as well as the far more numerous weekly trifles — that millions of Americans encountered on the cover of LIFE 50 years ago.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE