1963: The Civil Rights Movement’s watershed year

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A few days earlier, King, worried about the slow pace of change the Movement was seemingly mired in and JFK’s standoffishness, had broached to his aides the idea of a national “event” in Washington to pressure the president and the Congress to act.

Of course, that event—the March on Washington—became for many in the U.S. and around the world the signal moment of what Taylor Branch called “the King Years.” For many that halcyon gathering marks 1963 as the Movement’s watershed year and indicates there was then a smooth path to the landmark legislative victories: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But, just two weeks after the March came the Sunday morning bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls; and two months after that would come the assassination of President Kennedy—two events which for many within the Movement reaffirmed that tragedy would continue to shadow the civil rights trail.

In mid-June, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a virulent White supremacist with deep roots in Mississippi, was arrested and charged with Evers’ murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming. But, it being the Mississippi of the early 1960s, he escaped justice when his two trials in 1963 and 1964 ended in hung juries. Those legal conclusions, however, meant that he could be charged again should further evidence be discovered.

It was: an informant who testified that Beckwith had bragged over the years about the murder. In 1994 Beckwith was tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2001 at the age of 80.

In its September 1963 special issue, marking the centennial of President Lincoln’s announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, Ebony magazine reprinted a profile of Evers it had first published in 1958. In it, he said, “[T]his is home … Mississippi is part of the United States. And … I don’t plan to live here as a parasite. The things I don’t like, I will try to change. And in the long run, I hope to make a positive contribution to the productivity of the South.”

(Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”)

 

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