Florida history: State’s first hippie love-in was in Lantana?

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As Peggy Murphy was getting ready to leave home that summer morning in 1967, her dad begged her: “Don’t get involved.”

When she came back hours later, in a homemade bikini and her torso covered in painted flowers, handprints and the word ’Love,’ she told her dad: “I got involved.”

Murphy, then 20 and a Palm Beach Junior College student, had joined her boyfriend and hundreds of others at Florida’s first love-in, a communal gathering of youthful music and spirit that was spreading like the scent of patchouli oil from the flower power capitols of California.

It was the summer that became known as the Summer of Love, but it wasn’t all far-out bliss. Deadly riots ripped apart American inner cities. Marches and war protests increased. Muhammad Ali was sentenced to jail for refusing his draft notice. The soundtracks of that summer were druggy studies in light and dark, from the Beatles’ trippy “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

Palm Beach County, a sleepy, square community, seemed immune to a lot of the growing unrest. So maybe it needed a little shaking up, some college kids figured. Why not a love-in?

And where did this new tribal rite of the hippie republic take place? Some groovy spot like Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale?

Nope. Lantana.

On June 11, 1967, teens, college students, police officers and a motorcycle gang member or two gathered at Lantana’s beachfront for Palm Beach County’s first certifiable recognition that change was in the air, or as Bob Dylan sang, “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is…”

The conservative power brokers didn’t know what it was, but they knew they didn’t want any of it. Newspaper stories mocked the love-in with a condescending air. Town officials and police were wary, but didn’t try to stop the event.

Alton Murray, then the county’s juvenile court administrator, thundered that it was the starting gun of civilization run amok, “the forerunner to draft card burning and flag burnings.” A letter to the editor claimed the love-in was being carried out by an “underground” movement “whose purpose is to lower and corrupt the morals of American youth.”

Murphy, now 71 and living in Delray Beach, remembers it differently.

“It was pretty innocent,” she said of the crowds that listened to local bands, sported temporary Day-Glo paint jobs and peacefully discussed their generation’s stand against the Vietnam War.

“There was probably some pot there, I don’t know. I was pretty naive at the time.”

Flowers and…bananas?

Today, a “love-in” would spring at lightning speed from the Internet, crowd-sourced on numerous social media sites. Palm Beach County discovered the happening when posters made on a stencil machine began popping up from Cape Canaveral to Key West in early June of that year.

The fliers promised a chill scene of live music and poetry readings, of “bananas, surfboards, flowers, children, records, wives, mothers, daughters and buttons.”

Flowers, OK. Bananas? A Lantana police officer, having been educated in the strange rituals of the hippie, told The Palm Beach Post that every love-in had a spirit fruit.

Organized by local college students, the love-in encouraged participants to wear gold — representing “the beauty of fantasy” — and announced that its guiding principle would be to “come together, enjoy one another and find a common ground. We will convince everybody there is beauty in being alive.”

Sounds like any family-friendly wellness festival, doesn’t it? But the so-called “spontaneous show of love” and some loose talk that organizers were acolytes of LSD guru Timothy Leary immediately drew the attention of the Lantana Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office and, as the Post reported, “a group of concerned mothers.”

The Post did not take it too seriously — it surmised the crowd would be a “large number of poetry lovers, guitar twangers and sing-along types.” The paper provided a definition of hippies for clueless readers and reported rumors that costume-wearing peaceniks might — gasp! — take off their garb.

When June 11 arrived, the Post headline read: “Love-In’s Today, Kiddies.”

Just in case, the police called in 20 officers, including all of its reserve patrolmen. Undercover cops dotted the gathering. Apparently, newspaper reporters even went incognito, shedding suits and ties to blend in.

After all the bluster and buildup, the love-in was pretty laid-back, just like the “kiddies” said.

“Anticipated trouble between the long-haired, bell-bottomed, psychedelic-shirted types and denim-jacketed, tight jeaned, motorcycle groups did not materialize,” the Post reported. Pictures of the event indicated most people were wearing swim trunks and casual wear, like any day at the beach. Lantana was no San Francisco.

The event, with a large “Welcome, Lovers” banner, drew a reported 1,500 people. It lasted from about 4 pm until 9 pm, “when rain started to dampen love’s ardor,” the paper said.

The crowd ranged from “teeny-boppers” to retirees. The hippies sniffed flowers, ate bananas and bikini-clad youths “gyrated to the throb of steel guitars and the whine of a kazoo,” the Post said. “Several of the oldsters wore flowers given them by the hippies.”

At least one pot bust was reported. A “little old lady” called the motorcyclists “devils” and “animals.” The biggest disturbance came when “a group of townies jostled a Vietnik and tore up his anti-war sign,” the paper said.

“It might have been better if a motorcycle addict had not decided to take a public bath,” a Post reporter opined. “It might have been better if commercial literature and Vietnam anti-war slogans had not been distributed.”

That last comment was a not-so-subtle reminder of the prevailing “Silent Majority” ethos of Palm Beach County, and its tough-as-nails Sheriff William Heidtman. They were not interested in letting a bunch of longhairs and motorcycle freaks foment revolution.

“It was a very conservative town,” Murphy recalled. “The sheriff was not well-liked (among youth) and was very strict.”

“It was an awakening for me“

The Post took Murphy’s picture at the love-in and reported that she “wore a yellow flower in her hair and a painted flower on her tummy with red petals circling her yellow-daubed navel.”

What it didn’t report was that Murphy and her friends weren’t there solely to make a fashion statement.

“It was an awakening for me,” she said. “It probably did form how I thought about things — certainly how I felt about the war.”

Like many families of that era, the Murphys experienced the generation gap first-hand. Her father was a conservative Navy veteran of World War II who supported the war. Murphy’s brother was drafted into the Army, but was assigned as a drill sergeant stateside.

“We got lucky,” she said, even though her brother had the painful task of watching his trainees sent to Vietnam.

The love-in even got noticed in Vietnam, where a soldier friend of Murphy’s told her he read about it in the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Murphy’s political awakening led her to take part in civil rights and anti-war marches, and work for a legal services project. She eventually returned to Delray and ran her family’s beloved Atlantic Avenue restaurant-nightclub, Erny’s. (She was once named Delray’s Small Business Person of the Year.)

After it closed, she was a director of services for Old School Square’s art center and still works as an administrative assistant at the Delray Beach Golf Club. She has two sons, and four grandchildren.

When friends ask her about the era, they tell her, “Oh, you have your ’60s credentials in order.”

“I guess it helped form my values,” she said of the love-in. “I don’t know how many opinions were changed (about the war), but it did make a statement.

“And it was a cool thing to have done.”

Palm Beach Post staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report. The story was based on the original reporting of former Palm Beach Post staff writers Douglas Kalajian, Florence Allen and Jack Owen, as well as historical information from pennlive.com.

This was originally published to PalmBeachPost.com and shared to GateHouse Media’s Florida websites.

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