In 1963, despite the tremendous campaigns aimed at breaking down legalized segregation and national oppression that had been going on for eight years, the demand for federal civil rights legislation remained stalled due to Southern segregationist influence, Northern indifference and political avoidance by the John F. Kennedy administration. Nonetheless, by the spring of this momentous year, things would begin to rapidly shift in favor of the African-American people and their movement allies.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court had declared that “separate but equal” public school systems were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, by 1963 the majority of the African-American population, most of whom remained in the South, hardly noticed any compliance with this ruling.
Between 1955 and 1962, African Americans had been in motion, determined to end apartheid in the U.S. A civil rights bill passed in 1957 empowered the Justice Department to take action against county governments that refused to allow universal suffrage. This law led in part to the outbreak of the movement in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959-1960.
Viola McFerren and John McFerren led local activists in 1959 in organizing the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. In 1960, they set out to register African Americans to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
To stop this effort, the white landowners in this southwest Tennessee county drove hundreds of African-American tenant farmers off their land for daring to register. The movement then established a “tent city,” the first of its kind during this period, which drew national support.
In 1960, the student sit-in movement began. Thousands protested Jim Crow segregation, which led to hundreds of arrests. In April of that year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed and became the most militant organization within the Civil Rights Movement.
After the Freedom Rides of 1961, where scores of anti-racists challenged the apartheid laws despite arrests and beatings, the abolition of segregation in interstate travel was won in practice. Nevertheless, key centers of intransigence, such as Birmingham, Ala., were fiercely resistant to desegregation.
Birmingham sparks nationwide resistance
It was the eruption of the movement in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 that captured the attention of the nation and the world. Both SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been organizing in the city, one of the most industrialized in the South.
Several thousand people, mainly children, were arrested by the police and jailed. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were all arrested and beaten by the racist police.
The struggle came to a head on May 5, when thousands of mostly youth marched through the African-American community to the downtown area. Police Chief “Bull” Connor ordered fire hoses turned on the people.
In response to the repression on May 5, the first significant urban rebellion of the 1960s occurred. James Forman, executive secretary of SNCC, described the events that day, saying, “The police had cordoned off the intersections leading to downtown and started shooting water on people. Bricks and rocks started flying back at the police and the firemen.” (“The Making of Black Revolutionaries,” 1972, p. 315)
Forman went on to point out, “For over 45 minutes, there was a chase in and out of alleys and streets. Other Black people joined in the fight against the police. The ‘riots’ that day in Birmingham received wide public attention — they were a prelude to Harlem ’64, Watts ’65, Newark and Detroit ’67.”
Large demonstrations took place throughout the South that spring and summer. In Danville, Va., African Americans marched against racism and police brutality, meeting violent repression on June 10.
President Kennedy delivered a speech on civil rights on the evening of June 11, saying at the conclusion that he would introduce federal civil rights legislation. Just a few hours later, in Jackson, Miss., Medgar Evers, state field secretary of the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway by white racist Byron De La Beckwith. The killer avoided conviction for this crime for over three decades.
In response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and other issues, the Detroit Council for Human Rights, headed by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, organized on June 23 the largest march to that date for civil rights. Hundreds of thousands marched down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the support of the then United Auto Workers president, Walter Reuther.
King would deliver his first “I Have a Dream” speech at Cobo Hall following the Detroit march. It was the success of this demonstration which fueled the plans for the massive and historic March on Washington that was held on Aug. 28.
Despite this outpouring of mass sentiment in favor of civil rights, the racists struck back on Sept. 15, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a center of the movement. Four African-American girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair .
It would take until 1977 for the first of the Klansmen associated with the crime, Robert Chambliss, to be convicted. Two other Klansmen, Thomas E. Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were later convicted in 2001 and 2002 respectively for the bombing and murders.
Two months after the church bombing, on Nov. 22, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The murder was reflective of the atmosphere of violence and intolerance in the U.S. at the time.
On Dec. 1, Malcolm X, during the question and answer period after a speech at the Manhattan Center in New York City, described the assassination of Kennedy as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost,” meaning that the violence inflicted upon African Americans and other oppressed people throughout the world was now impacting the leaders of the U.S.
His comments, which received wide press coverage, led to his suspension and subsequent departure from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X would form the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) the following year and tour the Middle East and Africa.
These developments in 1963 would result in more militant actions in the following years of the decade. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not enough to stave off the urban rebellions which occurred in hundreds of cities throughout the country.