In the modern civil rights era, no year stands out in my memory more than 1963. I was a sophomore at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and living in McKenzie Court, the all-Black housing project on the west side of town. After a life of second-class citizenship, I finally saw the walls of segregation crumbling.
Tuscaloosa provided me with a front-row seat. My stepfather, William H. Polk, drove a dump truck at the University of Alabama. Although our taxes went to support what was even then a football factory, African Americans were barred from attending the state-supported school.
On Feb. 3, 1956, Autherine Lucy gained admission to the University of Alabama under a U.S. Supreme Court order. But a mob gathered on campus three days later. Instead defending the Black graduate student, the university suspended Lucy, saying officials could not protect her. When she sued to gain readmission, Alabama officials used that suit to claim she had slandered the university and therefore could not continue as a student.
But things would be different on June 11, 1963, which is not to say there wouldn’t be resistance.
Vivian Malone and James Hood, armed with a federal court order that the university admit them and segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace not interfere, sought to enter Foster Auditorium on campus to register for classes. They were accompanied by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
Instead of complying with the federal order, Gov. Wallace, who had pledged “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address, staged his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” to block to the two students from entering.
Katzenbach left with the students and placed a call to President John F. Kennedy. The president nationalized the Alabama National Guard. When Malone, Hood and Katzenbach returned to Foster Auditorium that afternoon, Gen. Henry Graham told Wallace, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under orders of the president of the United States.”
After uttering a few words, Wallace stepped to the side and Malone and Hood walked inside and registered.
It was exciting to see the drama being played out on our black and white TV. At last, I thought, the walls of segregation would be forever shattered.
President Kennedy gave an eloquent televised speech to the nation that night. He said, “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.”
The euphoria of a victory in my hometown was short lived. Within hours of Kennedy’s speech, Medgar Evers, who headed NAACP field operations in Mississippi, was shot to death in Jackson, Miss. after parking his car in his driveway and exiting to enter his home. Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for the crime. However, he was acquitted by an all-White, all male jury. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when new evidence surfaced, that Beckwith was finally convicted for murdering Evers.
Of course, 250,000 gathered Aug. 28, 1963 for the March on Washington. Much has been written about the March as part of the 50th anniversary celebration, so I won’t devote much space here except to note that the news media was fixated on the possibility of the March turning violent. But, as the Baltimore Sun noted, only three people were arrested that day and “not one was a Negro.”
Like the desegregation of the University of Alabama, White racists were eager to “send a message” that the March on Washington would not change their world.
In the wee hours of Sunday, Sept. 15, four Klansmen – Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank and Robert Chambliss, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., a rallying point in the city for civil rights activities. At 10:22 a.m., the bomb went off, killing four young girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair – and injuring 22 others.
Although the violent message was supposed to remind Blacks that there were no safe places for them, not even church, Blacks sent a more lasting message by continuing to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham and across the South.
The enormous sacrifices of 1963 were not in vain. They provided the groundwork for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It was a year worth remembering.