The civil rights movement reached a peak with the massive demonstration in Washington.
All year, the revolution scattered across thousands of communities. Hundreds of thousands of people got involved in store pickets and downtown boycotts, restaurant sit-ins and church kneel-ins and pool wade-ins, town-square rallies and construction-site blockades.
Now, for the first time ever, everyone was coming together, in one place. The Mississippi sharecropper would meet the Philadelphia tenant organizer, the Ohio student would meet the North Carolina street fighter.
So much was happening in 1963—easily the busiest year of the movement—that the Justice Department posted a massive grid of civil rights activities across the country. The color-coded poster highlighted the most dangerous, violent cities and towns.
The Battle of Birmingham
The pivotal moment of 1963 came when Martin Luther King took on segregation in Birmingham in the spring. In two decades, more than fifty explosions ripped the city’s homes and churches, earning the city the nickname “Bombingham.” If segregation could be beaten there, it could be beaten anywhere. King and his team started with a campaign of sit-ins, which fizzled. On Good Friday, King marched downtown with hundreds. By the time King walked out of jail, 750 people had been arrested, drawing international attention to the city’s brutality.
Then children marched. On the first day of the “children’s crusade,” 600 were arrested; the next day, 250 more were arrested. Frustrated, Police Chief Bull Connor ordered his men to attack children with police dogs and fire hoses and nightsticks. Spontaneously, children broke away from the organized marches and dashed into the downtown, where they unfurled banners and signs. The symbolic takeover of downtown scared businessmen, who pressured the mayor to negotiate an end to the conflict.
In the ten weeks after Birmingham, 758 demonstrations took place in 186 cities, with 14,733 arrests. Demonstrations sometimes turned violent. The violence started when blacks marched and sang and chanted and sat down and asked to be served along with whites. Sometimes instantly, usually after a few terse warnings, white cops and thugs attacked the blacks. Sometimes—too often for a movement dedicated to nonviolence—blacks struck back, throwing rocks and bottles and even homemade bombs.
Battles All Over
Whites battled efforts to integrate public facilities. Albany police arrested six people attempting to use the town pool, now privately owned and reserved for white people. Six blacks were turned away from Memorial Park swimming pool. Baton Rouge police fought fifty blacks seeking to use a public swimming pool, arresting five were for disturbing the peace and battery. To keep blacks out of a recently integrated pool in Lexington, N.C., segregationists threw two buckets of used motor oil into the pool.
In early June, other demonstrations took place in Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, California; Miami and Winter Haven, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Cambridge, Maryland: Greensboro, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee; Danville, Virginia; and St. John’s, Michigan.
In Oklahoma, police arrested fifty demonstrators during a picket of an amusement park in July. The owner of the park integrated the facility and then charged demonstrators with threatening that he would be murdered or his park blown up—a charge local activists denied.
Angry residents of Rosman, North Carolina, shot, kicked, and committed arson against Camp Summerlane, an alternative camp that invited children of all backgrounds.
Nationwide, the movement exposed the violent foundations of segregation. Vigilantes in Clarksdale threw a firebomb into the home of Aaron Henry, the head of Mississippi’s NAACP. After a gas bomb went off in an Itta Bena church, mobs threw bottles and rocks at activists spilling onto the streets. Vigilantes shot into the home of college professors helping the movement in Jackson. A civil rights worker traveling from Itta Bena to Jackson was shot in the neck and shoulder. A bomb destroyed a two-family home in Jackson.
Whites in the North Carolina town of Goldsboro ran down demonstrators in a car and threw bottles and rocks. Whites in Pine Bluff attacked civil rights workers with ammonia and bottles. Someone shot into the home of a NAACP board member in St. Augustine. When nine activists prayed in a county courthouse in Somerville, Tennessee, police allowed hoodlums in the building to beat them up.
The police chief of Selma, Alabama, Jim Clark, arrested a sixteen-year-old civil rights activist on a charge of “false identity.” The arrest came two days before the teenager, Alexander Brown, was scheduled to testify against Clark in Mobile in a case involving Selma officials’ intimidation of black voting registration.
The Movement Moves North
Jobs moved to the center of protests in the North. In New York, activists picketed construction sites for new hospitals in Harlem and Queens and took over the mayor’s office, demanding that blacks get a fair share of those jobs. Protesters in Elizabeth, New Jersey, linked arms and sat in front of a construction site for a new apartment complex, demanding fairness in hiring.
Segregated schools were also targeted in the North. In Chicago, protesters rallied against the use of temporary trailers for schools in black neighborhoods.
In Harlem on May 14, violence broke out between Muslims and police. Other demonstrations broke out that week in Jackson, Mississippi; Cambridge, Maryland; Raleigh, North Carolina, New Rochelle and Syracuse, New York; Philadelphia; and Chicago.
In Baltimore, protesters picketed the Norwood Theater to end the separation of the races. Other protesters took over the Glen Echo Amusement Park, demanding the admission of blacks as well as whites.
Segregationist judges distorted the legal process all over the South. A jury in Marion decided that the murder of a seventeen-year-old in an Arkansas bean field was “justifiable homicide.”
Georgia officials sought the extradition of a seventy-seven year old black man living in Philadelphia. The man was found scavenging for junk and arrested. In the course of processing his case, police found that he still needed to serve seventeen more years of a twenty-year sentence on a chain gang for stealing twenty-seven cents, a hacksaw, and a hatchet in 1943.
Only the readiness of federal troops avoided violence at the University of Alabama, when Governor Wallace symbolically blocked the door to two black students.
Just hours after President Kennedy delivered a historic address on civil rights—declaring that that civil rights was a “moral issue . . . as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution”—a racist named Byron de la Beckweth murdered NAACP leader Medger Evers outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers’s murder sparked demonstrations in thirty-nine cities, some of them violent. After Evers’s funeral in Jackson, police confronted mourners parading past the state capitol, and young people attacked police with rocks and bottles. When President Kennedy pleaded for a cooling off period, more than 100,000 people promptly protested in thirty cities.
The NAACP—which had long disdained direct action in favor of legal action—announced a direct action campaign in twenty-five states for school integration. On May 31, police arrested 500 demonstrators in Jackson—and took them, in garbage trucks, to a vast hog-wire enclosure at the state fairgrounds. The next day, another 100—including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins—got herded into the compound.
The CORE convention in Dayton, in late June, telegraphed a dramatic shift in mood. “It is not easy to tell a man who is being beaten not to reach for his gun or knife,” one delegate said. Another confessed that, after the murder of Medgar Evers, he grabbed his rifle and vowed to “get myself two white men”; even though he decided not to use weapons, he still beat up two white men as revenge. The CORE delegates passed a resolution affirming the importance of nonviolence, but also warned of “the immediacy of the impending retaliation and mass violence on the part of the Negro community ... as evidenced by the fact that Negroes are increasingly arming themselves for the purpose of self-defense against continued oppression and violence.”
In early August, just when conflict seemed to slow down—and as the date of the March on Washington approached—seventy-nine new protests broke out. The Maryland governor declared martial law for the second time in Cambridge. A Justice Department official reported: “The Negro community does not follow the leadership in terms of nonviolence or in demonstrations. … There is a very serious chance of violence, [which could be] very severe, since everyone also agrees there are a good many firearm[s] in the possession of both Negroes and whites in this area.”
In some ways, 1963 was a year of triumph. More districts desegregated than ever before. Hundreds of cities created biracial commissions to solve the race problem. In some cities—
Occasionally, an authority figure spoke clearly, without reservation, for basic civil rights. When police brought Judge Andrew Doyle a “disorderly conduct” case against the two mixed couples that police arrested for making out in a parked car, he dismissed the charges. “If a white girl wants to love a colored boy, that’s her business,” he said. “And if a colored boy wants to love a white girl, that’s his business.”
Even if whites resisted integration until the last court order, the results were sometimes surprisingly positive. The Wall Street Journal, while editorializing for states’ rights, reported that hotels and restaurants did better convention business after integration in Atlanta and Dallas. In Memphis, the 126-room Downtowner Hotel filled more than 95 percent of its rooms, an improvement from previous years. When he opened doors of the Wit’s End to blacks, Paul Stickney, the Atlanta nightclub’s manager, feared losing white business. “We were scared to death,” he said. “We could see all our white customers walking out the first moment any Negro customers walked in. But things couldn’t have been smoother. We know of only one white couple that walked out … and they came back within two weeks.” At Harvey’s Department Store in Nashville, only thirteen out of 60,000 customers canceled their charge accounts when lunch counters were desegregated.
But even though progress was historic, it was also slow. Spread out, painstakingly bargained in thousands of towns and districts, desegregation and jobs came out like a dribble. Even though a historic number of districts announced plans to desegregate—1,000—there were more than 60,000 districts in the country. Desegregation often meant allowing a token number of blacks go to white schools.
Sometimes, it seemed like it would take generations to achieve real integration. The Council on Community Affairs in Little Rock estimated that, at the current pace, integrating schools would take . . . 450 years.
At the time of the March on Washington, Justice Department officials compiled data on success stories, like this tally of the number of cities with integrated public facilities by Labor Day:
- Theaters: 245
- Restaurants: 268
- Hotels: 209
- Lunch counters: 303
Those numbers could be considered to be either trivial concessions offered by local power elites desperate to avoid confrontation—or the crest of a massive wave of reform, which would inevitably reaching a point of no return.
Onward . . .
No one knew how his story was going to end. Anyone could look at the civil rights movement in 1963 and see Jim Crow dying, the violent reprisals against blacks just the last jerks of a body in rigor mortis. Looking at the same movement, you could see a new age of racial separation aborning. Maybe the “White Only” signs would come down and blacks might register to vote, but a more tenacious system of separation was taking hold.