The date: Aug. 28, 1963.
The time: 3:01 p.m. Eastern.
The length: 16 minutes.
The description: A grand slam of a speech.
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The date is when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his game-changing “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He started speaking at 3:01 that afternoon for 16 minutes.
The year 1963 was a landmark time during the era of the civil rights movement. Here we are, remarkably, 50 years later.
In hindsight, 2013 represents a virtual tome of pivotal 50-year anniversaries from ‘63.
In January 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace delivered his infamous pro-segregation speech:
“… In the name of the greatest people that ever trod the earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny … and I say segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”
Wallace’s speech only served to embolden and galvanize the efforts of civil rights leaders and marchers.
In May 1963, peaceful civil rights marchers took to the streets of Birmingham, Ala. The situation quickly turned ugly as the notorious Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, ordered his police force to repel the marchers. That meant high-powered fire hoses and police attack dogs became the images that a horrified nation saw on the national television newscasts.
The photos and video put a raw face on what civil rights workers encountered in the Deep South.
In June 1963, Wallace implemented his own form of interposition and nullification by defying a federal order to desegregate the University of Alabama. Wallace defiantly took his infamous “Stand in the School House Door” position at the registrar’s office. President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to force Wallace to step aside.
After Wallace finally relented, James Hood and Vivian Malone became the first black students at the University of Alabama.
That same night, President Kennedy took to the national television airwaves. In an unprecedented speech, Kennedy announced to the American people his sweeping civil rights bill that he intended to send to Congress.
Kennedy, in part, said, “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.”
Late that night after Kennedy’s speech, prominent NAACP civil rights worker Medgar Evers, age 43, was murdered, shot in the back with a high-powered rifle in his driveway in Mississippi by Ku Klux Klansman Byron de la Beckwith, who finally was brought to justice in 1994. That 31-year struggle to convict de la Beckwith spawned the movie, “Ghosts of Mississippi,” in 1996. Alec Baldwin played the role of the irrepressible prosecuting attorney in the case, Bobby DeLaughter, Whoopi Goldberg played Medgar’s widow, Myrlie Evers, and James Woods played the role of Bryon de la Beckwith, who defiantly wore his Confederate flag pin during the trial.
In honor of Evers the martyr, Medgar Evers College was founded in 1970 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, N.Y.
In August 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we witnessed the most impactful march in the history of the United States. We’ve all seen that panoramic photo of that massive sea of humanity on the National Mall. We’ve heard the audio and seen the video of Dr. King’s transformative “I Have a Dream” speech.
On that day, Dr. King said, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
He was right to this day.
In September 1963, Addie Mae Collins, (14 years old), Carole Robertson (14) Cynthia Wesley (14) and Denise McNair (11) were in the basement preparing for the Sunday sermon at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. But they didn’t know that Robert Chambliss, Herman Frank Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, all Ku Klux Klansmen, had planted a dynamite bomb under a set of steps near that basement.
All four girls died, and 22 others were injured. If the haters kill children, nothing is sacred. It was another traumatic scene from the Deep South. Again, Hollywood captured the moment in Spike Lee’s documentary film, “4 Little Girls,” released in 1997.
Said former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the “King” History Channel documentary narrated by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, “And one of those little girls was my kindergarten classmate. For me, one of the saddest memories was that Dr. King gave the eulogies.”
Rice’s classmate was Denise McNair.
A week before the bombing, Gov. Wallace may have added fuel to the fire when he told the New York Times in his staunch pro-segregation stance, “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals, too.”
Then came November 1963. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It occurred on a Friday, undoubtedly the saddest Friday in the history of this country. The United States wept, while the rest of the world was in utter disbelief.
When Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the Oval Office after Kennedy’s death, the new president said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
Also in November 1963, this nation’s official artist of the common person, Norman Rockwell, produced a much-admired oil-on-canvas painting titled, “The Problem We All Live With.” It features a poignant scene representing Ruby Bridges, all of 6 years old and wearing pigtails, a white dress with white socks and white shoes. Bridges, a black girl, is walking with the protective escort of federal marshals — two in front of her and two behind her. It was her first day at William J. Frantz Elementary School in the 9th Ward of New Orleans from 1960.
Yes, Ruby Bridges desegregated that school — and yes, at age 6. The word “nigger” is scrawled on the wall near a splotch dripping in red as she walks with a book and 12-inch ruler in hand. That wall symbolized the angry white mobs that Bridges faced. What’s conspicuous about the painting is that Rockwell, known for his advocacy of tolerance and equality, only shows the four marshals from the shoulders down to the ground. No face shots of them as anonymity was Rockwell’s objective.
This painting can be viewed at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
When they say a picture is worth a thousand words, believe it.
In fact, the same can be said for one unparalleled March on Washington, too.
Email Mr. Clay at email@example.com.