It was that breathless, vertiginous moment before a collision. Nearing a crossroads, the civil rights train barreled in on the building steam of justice. Stuck on the rails in its path lumbered America’s convoy of racial injustices. Standing proud at the junction, black Americans laid tracks for their future. It was 1963, and history was accelerating before our eyes.
It was accelerating after a long, slow, painful reign of racism and fomenting response. So that by 1963, we reached this crossroads—this tipping point, and there was a sudden expansion of race into our national consciousness. The events of the year spilled across the land dynamically and tragically: In January, President Kennedy requests new civil rights legislation. In April, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) mount anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, live on national TV for the first time; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested and writes his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; and Mailman William Moore marches for racial justice and is murdered for his efforts. May brings mass marches, Kelly Ingram Park, the Children’s Crusade, and Sheriff Bull Connor’s dog and fire-hose response. Kennedy deploys 3,000 troops to Birmingham. Protestors in Durham, Greensboro, Jackson, Danville, St. Augustine, Savannah, and Orangeburg sit in, sing out, march, and picket for equality. Governor George Wallace blocks the University of Alabama door, promising segregation “today, tomorrow, and forever” until Kennedy forces the admission of two black students. Kennedy gives a belated but bold civil rights speech (“Are we to say to the world . . . that this is a land of the free except for Negroes?”), followed in four hours by the murder of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers, shot in the back in front of his home. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy testifies on the Civil Rights Act. James Meredith graduates from the University of Mississippi. In August, 250,000 march on Washington and Dr. King dreams. In September, Klansmen bomb Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls. In October, 200,000 Chicago students boycott school for Freedom Day. In November, President Kennedy is assassinated. Malcolm X says the “chickens came home to roost.” President Johnson calls for passage of the civil rights bill: “No . . . eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory.” Congress finally relents and schedules hearings in 1964.
Today, fifty years down the tracks, civil rights and voting rights acts have been passed, the gap between the white and black poverty rates is half what it was then, and a black man is in the White House. But progress on civil rights since slavery has been dialectical, almost Hegelian, in its slow two-steps-forward-one-back pace (King studied Hegel en route to his doctorate). The movement’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are real events with real people and real costs. Each paring of progress and plight has left suffering and a parade of martyrs in its path.
The high of 1963, the March on Washington, was followed days later by the sickening low of Birmingham’s bomb. On August 28, the booming baritone of the King of Love lifted the nation, ad-libbing a miraculous jazz-poem from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Psalms, the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare, black spirituals, the Declaration of Independence, and Samuel Francis Smith’s “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (sung stunningly by Marian Anderson on that very spot, Easter Sunday twenty-four years before). Less a speech than a song, a physicalization of love, it gave the movement a musical score born of suffering, heart, church, theater, and grit. But on September 15, a Klan bomb killed Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The morning’s sermon had been “The Love That Forgives.” The Klansman timed the bombing for the church’s annual Youth Sunday. The physicalization of hate. The Reverend Connie Lynch said: “[I]f there’s four less niggers tonight, then I say, ‘Good for whoever planted the bomb.’”
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act illegitimatized segregation in public accommodations. Even a boy born in Stonewall, Texas, then suddenly our president, told us, “Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome,” words that moved King to tears. But there were also the Freedom Summer tragedies. The Mississippi Summer Project to register black voters faced harassment from white supremacists, locals, and police. Freedom School buildings and the volunteers’ homes were targets: Thirty-seven black churches and thirty black homes and businesses were firebombed or burned. More than 1,000 black and white volunteers were arrested, at least eighty were beaten by white mobs or police, and three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were murdered. Terrorism, home-grown and bred.
In 1965, King, leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, said, “How long? Not long.” And the Voting Rights Act passed. But Malcolm X was murdered, and the Watts riot left thirty-four more dead.
In 1966, James Meredith was shot during the March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, mounted to encourage black voting after passage of the Voting Rights Act. Ten days later, while completing the march Meredith began, Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase Black Power: “. . . any white man in this country knows about power. He knows what white power is and he ought to know what black power is.’’ Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court justice. At the Arena Stage, also in our nation’s capital, a black boxer kissed his white wife and the celebrated play scandalized audiences maybe more than Jack Johnson had in 1910. In Natchez, Mississippi, local NAACP Treasurer Wharlest Jackson, just promoted in his job to a position previously reserved for whites only, was murdered by a car bomb. Across the country, seventy separate riots blazed.
Then, 1968. April 4. The King of Love, as Nina Simone sang, was dead. Murdered on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel the day after he went to the mountaintop. More riots across the land—125 by week’s end. Chicago’s was the biggest. Our apostle of nonviolence had been assassinated and Chicago’s Mayor Daley ordered his police to “shoot to kill.” Then? Bobby. “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But where was the justice? It was on the Supreme Court in the person of Mr. Justice Marshall. It was in the 1968 Civil Rights Act banning housing discrimination. It was at that summer’s Olympics, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists. It was on Capitol Hill, where Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. It was even on television, where Diahann Carroll became the first black actress to star in her own series and Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner shared the first interracial kiss on American television. It is in the legacy left to us by the leaders of 1963, known and unknown, who by sheer force of courage and will bent the long, slow arc of the moral universe further toward justice.
But in 1968 there was cause to wonder how far we had really come as a nation. Four straight summers of violence and a casualty list long and deep. And today, fifty years out from the crossroads of 1963, cause for concern continues. There is justice in the reelection of our forty-fourth president. But there is also the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, eviscerating the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Eighty-five percent of black and Latino households have a net worth below the median for white households. Only 45 percent of the black population own a home, compared with 70 percent of the white population. Black Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated. Segregation prevails in the University of Alabama’s Greek system, perpetuating Wallace’s legacy. “Obamacare’s” effort to extend health coverage to millions will miss two-thirds of the people it was designed to help, poor black families and single mothers without insurance, because they live in red states that have refused to participate in the expansion of Medicaid. And even our forty-fourth president cannot cross the street without car doors locking.
There was a time in America when race ran the table. Maybe now, at the 100-yard line from the Emancipation Proclamation and fifty yards out from 1963, at least that is no longer true. It can even be said that it is widely viewed as “un-American” to be discriminatory. But, as King wrote from jail, black people in this country “have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God Given rights.” Now, it is 400 years, and yet our country seems to feel the entrenched effects of four centuries of majority privilege and minority oppression have been magically eradicated, perhaps by the election of a black president. The racism virus has mutated, ever cleverer at escaping detection. A recent Tufts University/Harvard Business School study found: “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.” Reality tells us differently, showing black unemployment twice that of white unemployment, black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, 40 percent of white Americans surrounded by friends of their own race, and schools more segregated than they were in the late 1960s.
Malcom X said: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there is no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made, and they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, much less trying to heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Malcolm X was in good company. Aristotle knew 2,000 years ago that treating unequals equally is not equality. Distributive justice demands we treat equals equally and unequals unequally.
On August 28, 1963, King listened—he listened to history, to the crowd, to Mahalia Jackson, who broke into his speech saying, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” He heard the truth and acted on conscience; he cast aside his text, grabbed the lectern, shed fear for courage, went with his heart, and told us of his dream. He was the musician of a movement that bent the arc of the moral universe dramatically toward justice, and we are in his and its debt. Fifty years later, on August 28, 2013, Barack Obama told another crowd gathered on that same mall stretching out from the Lincoln Memorial, “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance. . . .” It requires vigilance, and it requires a moral courage and commitment that now seem in short supply.
Looking back through the gauzy patina of history, we see the glory but don’t feel the gritty, sweat-stained valor of then. These were warriors for justice. Five months before the march, King violated an injunction forbidding him to pray, sing, or march in public in Birmingham and led a march from the same Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombed six months later. He had been advised—by his lawyer, counselors, even his father—not to march, to comply with the order and go home. He replied that though there might be no money for bail, “I have to make a faith act.” He wrote his letter from jail: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over. . . .” Five months later he told the nation, “[w]e have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” The boy from Sweet Auburn, born Michael King Jr. (his father changed their names to Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. when he was five), and bequeathed an innate moral imagination, had summoned the great moral courage to march, speak, live, and die for the realization of a dream.
Fifty years later the black preacher’s words from that white podium in Lincoln’s shadow still roll down our cheeks. But we need to do more than cry. We need to find the moral courage he and Malcolm X and many others taught us. A century after “emancipation” and half a century after the civil rights movement, many sacrifices seem to have been in vain and too much of the dream remains unfulfilled. John Kennedy said Americans do things “not because they are easy but because they are hard.” He was talking about going to the moon. But his words surely apply to reaching the promised land on earth. The arc of the universe over the last fifty years shows we have come far down the tracks. But we have yet to do all the hard work to requite the sacrament these three martyred men and so many others made of their lives, and to see the wounds finally healed and the dream finally realized.