Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fifty Years Ago

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Those of us old enough to remember the 1950’s and 1960’s know that it was a far more socially turbulent era than can ever be conveyed through the media of documentaries or printed matter.    Even though America’s tragic Civil War had ended a full century before – and along with that the necessary ending of slavery and the granting of citizenship to the former slaves – America in the 1950’s and 1960’s was still a place in which racial discrimination was practiced openly and defiantly. 

The Supreme Court (an admittedly far more progressive institution than today’s assemblage of toads in robes) had fanned the fires of equal rights in 1954 with its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling which said that the old practice of educating children in segregated schools was permissible as long as the schools were “equal,” was unconstitutional because separate schools were inherently unequal.  That ruling gave President Eisenhower the impetus and the legal footing to send the National Guard into Little Rock in 1957 to integrate Central High School.

A seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks became a civil rights icon on December 1st, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man.  Mrs. Parks was arrested for her insolence, an event which brought on the Montgomery Bus Boycott in which America was forced to acknowledge the economic power of its minority citizens of color.

The 1950’s also witnessed the particularly brutal killing of Chicago teenager Emmett Till while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi, an incident which received national press coverage.  Mr. Till was brought to swift southern justice after a white woman accused him of making a pass at her.

Then came the 1960’s and things began to really heat up.   Several different military units were on hand in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 to keep the peace as James Meredith became the first black person to enroll at Ole Miss.  Early following year, 1963, George Wallace gave his famous “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech as he was being inaugurated as the Governor of Alabama.  The remainder of that year saw the March on Washington and Martin’s Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August  – and the very next month four young black girls were killed when the all-black 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.   The nation’s young President, John F. Kennedy, was killed by an assassin over the Thanksgiving holiday of 1963.

Three young civil rights workers – James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwemer -  were murdered by the Klan in the summer of 1964 in an incident later chronicled in the movie Mississippi Burning.  Then there were the famous civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) in the hot summer of 1965.   

Major civil rights legislation was finessed through Congress during the 1960’s by Lyndon Johnson, a former Senate leader who became President upon the death of John Kennedy:  the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  While both of these laws served to eventually make life better for minorities, at the time they also heightened tensions between the races.

1967 brought about the thing most feared by segregationists when the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia invalidated state laws that forbid interracial marriage.  And, a sort of angry capping of the decade of struggle, happened in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King and protests which followed that crime.   Robert Kennedy was also assassinated in1968.

It was a scary and often bloody time, but if there was a pinnacle date for the racial strife of the period, it might possibly be fifty years ago today – June 11th, 1963.  That was the day that Governor Wallace of Alabama stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to physically deny entry to Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, two black students who had already secured a court order allowing them to enroll.  (That event was one of several things for which Wallace apologized later in life.)    Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told the governor to stand aside, and when he refused, Katzenbach telephoned President Kennedy who promptly nationalized the Alabama National Guard and forced the governor to move.

That afternoon Kennedy got on the phone to the three television networks and asked for time to address the nation.  He spoke to the country and promised major civil rights legislation, a promise that ultimately had to be fulfilled by his successor.   Kennedy’s positioning himself so strongly on the side of the civil rights’ movement signaled the inevitable end to overt southern resistance and defiance of basic Constitutional guarantees.  If the crackers with the hoods and guns wanted a confrontation, Kennedy was ready to oblige.

A third incident of note on June 11th, 1963, occurred when the NAACP overtly challenged the Chairman of the Boston School Committee, Louise Day Hicks, over segregation in the Boston Public School System.  That battle would eventually spill over into the 1970’s and often turned violent and bloody.

And the very next day, June 12th, 1963, civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, was gunned down in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.  It would take more than thirty years for his killer to be brought to justice.

That was what America looked like a half-a-century ago.    Obviously all of the racists aren’t gone –  in fact, several are on the public payroll right here in Arizona – but, by and large, the world has become a better place over the past five decades.  There will always be haters, but now, thanks in good measure to an enlightened younger generation who grew up learning the lessons of a cadre of courageous civil rights leaders,  the haters can hold their meetings in smaller and smaller venues. 

Thank you Abraham, and Martin, and John – and Rosa, and the countless others who sacrificed so much for so many.  America will always be in your debt.

1 comment:

Xobekim said...

The Supreme Court underwent a dramatic shift in 1953 when Chief Justic Fred Vinson died suddenly. President Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren to replace Vinson.

The Court had already heard the Brown v. Board of Education Case, and the outcome would have been radically different, but for the death of Vinson.

The case had been argued in the Spring term, and the Court could not come to an opinion. Justice Frankfurter is credited with getting the case a rehearing.

After the Senate confirmed Warren he gathered the Court and began with the premise that the only reason not to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Brown was a belief that the Negro was fundamentally inferior to whites.

Having put the issue so clearly Warren began to build a unanimous opinion that set its target as the overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson and its separate but equal standard.

Perhaps only a jurist with Warren's background in state politics [as Attorney General and as Governor] could have set about to build the kind of consensus that needed to restore the Supreme Court as a respected institution of Liberty.