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Birmingham church bombed, 1963
Despite Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring words at the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington in August 1963, violence against blacks in the segregated South continued to indicate the strength of white resistance to the ideals of justice and racial harmony King espoused. In mid-September, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during Sunday services; four young African-American girls were killed in the explosion. The church bombing was the third in 11 days, after the federal government had ordered the integration of Alabama's school system. Governor George Wallace was a leading foe of desegregation, and Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Birmingham had become a leading focus of the civil rights movement by the spring of 1963, when Martin Luther King was arrested there while leading supporters of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in a nonviolent campaign of demonstrations against segregation. While in jail, King wrote a letter to local white ministers justifying his decision not to call off the demonstrations in the face of continued bloodshed at the hands of local law enforcement officials, led by Birmingham's police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was published in the national press even as images of police brutality against protesters in Birmingham--including children being attacked by police dogs and knocked off their feet by fire hoses--sent shock waves around the world, helping to build crucial support for the civil rights movement.
"I Have a Dream", 1963
On August 28, 1963, some 250,000 people—both black and white—participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest demonstration in the history of the nation's capital and the most significant display of the civil rights movement's growing strength. After marching from the Washington Monument, the demonstrators gathered near the Lincoln Memorial, where a number of civil rights leaders addressed the crowd, calling for voting rights, equal employment opportunities for blacks and an end to racial segregation. The last leader to appear was the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who spoke eloquently of the struggle facing black Americans and the need for continued action and nonviolent resistance. "I have a dream," King intoned, expressing his faith that one day whites and blacks would stand together as equals, and there would be harmony between the races: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." King's improvised sermon continued for nine minutes after the end of his prepared remarks, and his stirring words would be remembered as undoubtedly one of the greatest speeches in American history. At its conclusion, King quoted an "old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'" King's speech served as a defining moment for the civil rights movement, and he soon emerged as its most prominent figure.
Civil Rights Act of 1964, July 1964
Thanks to the campaign of nonviolent resistance championed by Martin Luther King Jr. beginning in the late 1950s, the civil rights movement had begun to gain serious momentum in the United States by 1960. That year, John F. Kennedy made passage of new civil rights legislation part of his presidential campaign platform; he won more than 70 percent of the African-American vote. Congress was debating Kennedy's civil rights reform bill when he was killed by an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. It was left to Lyndon Johnson (not previously known for his support of civil rights) to push the Civil Rights Act--the most far-reaching act of legislation supporting racial equality in American history--through Congress in June 1964. At its most basic level, the act gave the federal government more power to protect citizens against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. It mandated the desegregation of most public accommodations, including lunch counters, bus depots, parks and swimming pools, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to ensure equal treatment of minorities in the workplace. The act also guaranteed equal voting rights by removing biased registration requirements and procedures, and authorized the U.S. Office of Education to provide aid to assist with school desegregation. In a televised ceremony on July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law using 75 pens; he presented one of them to King, who counted it among his most prized possessions.
Freedom Summer and the "Mississippi Burning" murders, June 1964
In the summer of 1964, civil rights organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) urged white students from the North to travel to Mississippi, where they helped register black voters and build schools for black children. The organizations believed the participation of white students in the so–called "Freedom Summer" would bring increased visibility to their efforts. The summer had barely begun, however, when three volunteers—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian—disappeared on their way back from investigating the burning of an African–American church by the Ku Klux Klan. After a massive FBI investigation (code–named "Mississippi Burning") their bodies were discovered on August 4 buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
Although the culprits in the case—white supremacists who included the county's deputy sheriff—were soon identified, the state made no arrests. The Justice Department eventually indicted 19 men for violating the three volunteers' civil rights (the only charge that would give the federal government jurisdiction over the case) and after a three–year–long legal battle, the men finally went on trial in Jackson, Mississippi. In October 1967, an all–white jury found seven of the defendants guilty and acquitted the other nine. Though the verdict was hailed as a major civil rights victory—it was the first time anyone in Mississippi had been convicted for a crime against a civil rights worker—the judge in the case gave out relatively light sentences, and none of the convicted men served more than six years behind bars.
Selma to Montgomery march, March 1965
In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Selma, Alabama, the focus of its efforts to register black voters in the South. Alabama's governor, George Wallace, was a notorious opponent of desegregation, and the local county sheriff had led a steadfast opposition to black voter registration drives: Only 2 percent of Selma's eligible black voters had managed to register. In February, an Alabama state trooper shot a young African–American demonstrator in nearby Marion, and the SCLC announced a massive protest march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. On March 7, 600 marchers got as far as the Edmund Pettis Bridge outside Selma when they were attacked by state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas. The brutal scene was captured on television, enraging many Americans and drawing civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest. King himself led another attempt on March 9, but turned the marchers around when state troopers again blocked the road; that night, a group of segregationists fatally beat a protester, the young white minister James Reeb. On March 21, after a U.S. district court ordered Alabama to permit the Selma–Montgomery march, some 2,000 marchers set out on the three–day journey, this time protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces under federal control. "No tide of racism can stop us," King proclaimed from the steps of the state capitol building, addressing the nearly 50,000 supporters—black and white—who met the marchers in Montgomery.
Malcolm X shot to death, February 1965
In 1952, the former Malcolm Little was released from prison after serving six years on a robbery charge; while incarcerated, he had joined the Nation of Islam (NOI, commonly known as the Black Muslims), given up drinking and drugs and replaced his surname with an X to signify his rejection of his "slave" name. Charismatic and eloquent, Malcolm soon became an influential leader of the NOI, which combined Islam with black nationalism and sought to encourage disadvantaged young blacks searching for confidence in segregated America. As the outspoken public voice of the Black Muslim faith, Malcolm challenged the mainstream civil rights movement and the nonviolent pursuit of integration championed by Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, he urged followers to defend themselves against white aggression "by any means necessary." Mounting tensions between Malcolm and NOI founder Elijah Muhammad led Malcolm to form his own mosque in 1964. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca that same year and underwent a second conversion, this time to Sunni Islam. Calling himself el–Hajj Malik el–Shabazz, he renounced NOI's philosophy of separatism and advocated a more inclusive approach to the struggle for black rights. On February 21, 1965, during a speaking engagement in Harlem, three members of the NOI rushed the stage and shot Malcolm some 15 times at close range. After Malcolm's death, his bestselling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X popularized his ideas, particularly among black youth, and laid the foundation for the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
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