President Kennedy gave an eloquent televised speech to the nation that night. He said, “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for Whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.”
The euphoria of a victory in my hometown was short lived. Within hours of Kennedy’s speech, Medgar Evers, who headed NAACP field operations in Mississippi, was shot to death in Jackson, Miss. after parking his car in his driveway and exiting to enter his home. Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for the crime. However, he was acquitted by an all-White, all male jury. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when new evidence surfaced, that Beckwith was finally convicted for murdering Evers.
Of course, 250,000 gathered Aug. 28, 1963 for the March on Washington. Much has been written about the March as part of the 50th anniversary celebration, so I won’t devote much space here except to note that the news media was fixated on the possibility of the March turning violent. But, as the Baltimore Sun noted, only three people were arrested that day and “not one was a Negro.”
Like the desegregation of the University of Alabama, White racists were eager to “send a message” that the March on Washington would not change their world.
In the wee hours of Sunday, Sept. 15, four Klansmen—Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank and Robert Chambliss, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., a rallying point in the city for civil rights activities. At 10:22 a.m., the bomb went off, killing four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair—and injuring 22 others.
Although the violent message was supposed to remind Blacks that there were no safe places for them, not even church, Blacks sent a more lasting message by continuing to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham and across the South.
The enormous sacrifices of 1963 were not in vain. They provided the groundwork for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It was a year worth remembering.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the NNPA. He is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.)
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