1963: The Civil Rights Movement’s watershed year

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LEE A. DANIELS

 

(NNPA)—Fifty years ago this month, two of the chief characteristics of the modern Civil Rights Movement were dramatically, tragically illuminated in Jackson, Miss. by an assassin’s bullet.

The first was that Black Americans’ nonviolent quest for full citizenship was going to be marked by a violent resistance and the sacrifice of martyrs. The second was that that reality would stop neither the Movement’s frontline activists nor the Black masses from pressing forward.

For it was in Jackson, on the night of June 11, 1963, that a bullet, fired from a 30.06-caliber rifle with a telescopic sight, struck down Medgar Evers, the young, charismatic field secretary of the Mississippi state NAACP as he exited his automobile in the driveway of his home.

Evers’ murder, when it occurred and in hindsight, bore witness to the fact that the Black freedom struggle had risen in explosive fashion to the top of the nation’s agenda. It occurred just weeks after the violent response of city officials in Birmingham, Ala., to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-led demonstrations there—the police beatings of nonviolent marchers; firemen turning their high-pressure hoses on defenseless men, women and children; police dogs shredding the clothing of stoic demonstrators—had stirred outrage and a groundswell of support for the Movement around the globe and, even more importantly, among a critical minority of White northerners.

The Birmingham protest itself provoked an eruption of more than 750 demonstrations of one kind or another against segregation across the country, historian Taylor Branch noted in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. In Jackson itself, city officials had seemingly out-maneuvered the civil rights forces. But at a mass meeting on the night of June 11, Evers, a World War II veteran who had fearlessly confronted racism in the state all his life, electrified the audience by calling for a renewed “massive offensive” against segregation in the city. The gathering applauded for 20 minutes.

Evers’ murder also occurred on the night of the very day that the federal government had forced Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace to stage his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” and then retreat as Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first Black students to successfully enroll in the University of Alabama since Autherine Lucy’s mob-inspired withdrawal in 1956.

That success had spurred President Kennedy to instantly decide to alert the national television and radio networks that he was commanding air time that evening to deliver a major address to the nation on civil rights. In it, JFK dropped his hitherto politically expedient distance from the Movement and fully embraced its cause, announcing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers’ wife, Myrlie, and their three young children, had watched the president’s speech that evening and were eagerly awaiting Medgar’s return to discuss it with him.

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