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DANIELS: 1963 — The Civil Rights Movement's Watershed Year

Lee A. Daniels | 6/19/2013, 3 p.m.
Fifty years ago this month, two of the chief characteristics of the modern Civil Rights Movement were dramatically, tragically illuminated ...
Lee A. Daniels

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 N.A.A.C.P. 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.

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.

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.