“There comes a time, there even comes a moment, in the affairs of men when they sense that their lives are being altered forever, that an old order is dying and a new one is being born,” proclaimed host Frank McGee to kick off NBC’s unprecedented Labor Day airing of a three-hour prime-time special on the turbulent civil rights activity in 1963.
Fifty years later, the old order no longer looks like it once did but, while the wounds have healed, the scars remain, especially for those who fought on the front lines of the battle.
For many, 1963, a hundred years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, is punctuated by the triumphant March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28. They recall Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech but not the nightmare that birthed it. 1963 was a year of bold action and heartbreaking consequences that rocked the nation.
Recently, the brutal murder of Mississippi native son and fierce civil rights activist Medgar Evers fifty years ago, outside his Jackson, Mississippi home with his wife Myrlie and children James, Reena and Darrell inside, has been front and center. Evers, a World War II veteran who served in France and England in the Red Ball Express, the important truck convoy that supplied Allied forces, was the NAACP’s first Mississippi field secretary and, with wife Myrlie, established the NAACP’s first Mississippi office. He applied and was rejected by the University of Mississippi Law School due to race before James Meredith’s historic enrollment as an undergrad there, which he also helped guide. Evers, who died on June 12, 1963, did not live to see Meredith receive his degree on August 18.
Despite Byron De La Beckwith being tried twice in 1964 for Evers’s murder, he was not convicted until 1994. Whoopi Goldberg played Myrlie Evers in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi about efforts to bring De La Beckwith to justice. But Evers’ murder was unfortunately part of a string of violence that erupted that year.
Birmingham was particularly volatile and was actually dubbed “Bombingham” for the level of violence directed towards civil rights participants there.
At the urging of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the outspoken Alabama civil rights leader who co-founded and led the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which took the place of the shut-down Alabama branch of the NAACP, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, came to Birmingham and initiated what its executive director Wyatt Tee Walker termed “Project C,” with the “c” standing for confrontation. Activities got underway on April 3, 1963 and didn’t let up.
Three days later, on April 6, Rev. Shuttlesworth led a protest, followed up by Dr. King’s brother, Rev. A.D. King April 7 and then by Dr. King and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy on April 13, resulting in Dr. King’s arrest.
While being held in jail, King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to his fellow clergyman in which he called them out for not supporting civil rights activity, especially in Birmingham. He also proclaimed that “[o]ppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.”
It is in Birmingham that Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor turned hoses and let the dogs loose as Birmingham’s children took to the streets on May 2 and were arrested in the hundreds during the historic Children’s March. These images that sparked global headlines are largely ones we see today. On May 10, a deal was struck to desegregate Birmingham’s downtown stores and release those arrested, but the violence did not end. Not even a month after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, four little girls — 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins — were killed during Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15 in Birmingham. Spike Lee’s 1997 Academy-Award-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls explores the bombing.
By the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 in Dallas at age 46, it was already official that 1963 was one of the bloodiest of the civil rights era. Although it is generally believed Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s act was not motivated by Kennedy’s increasingly vocal involvement in the civil rights activism of the time, there is no denying that his death was a huge blow.
Reportedly, Evers’s assassin De La Beckwith was motivated by the president’s televised address on June 11 regarding his decision to send the U.S. National Guard to the University of Alabama on June 10 to ensure the enrollment of African-Americans Vivian Malone (Attorney General Holder’s sister-in-law) and James A. Hood.
In his inaugural address earlier in the year, Alabama governor George Wallace had promised “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” and, thus, personally blocked the doors to prevent Malone’s and Hood’s enrollment. Interestingly, when he attempted to block the desegregation of a public high school in Huntsville that September, Kennedy again responded with a federalized National Guard.
During his June address known as the civil rights address or announcement, Kennedy said, “One hundred years have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
So, as the nation gears up for the silver anniversary of the March on Washington in August, the sad commemoration of the violent deaths of “four little girls” in September and the reliving of the shocking assassination of President Kennedy in November, there is no disputing that 1963 was a critical one for black America. It tested not only the mettle of those committed to freedom and civil rights, proving that “we shall not be moved” even under the most unimaginable circumstances, but also established that “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
That 50 years later an African-American president would sit in the White House during his second term is indeed vindication.
While our union has yet to become “perfect,” even with today’s challenge of the Trayvon Martins, senseless killings by African-Americans themselves in such urban centers as Chicago, not to mention the poor educational system and lingering economic discrimination, it is better than whence we’ve come.
Fifty years later, we should be inspired more than ever to keep up the fight until the day victory is truly won.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.