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A New Civil Rights Movement

54e. Gains and Pains

March on Washington
Over 250,000 individuals flooded Washington, D.C., in August 1963 to protest the treatment of African American citizens throughout the United States.

Civil rights activists in the early 1960s teemed with enthusiasm. The courts and the federal government seemed to be on their side, and the movement was winning the battle for public opinion. Under the protection of federal troops, in 1962 James Meredith became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi.

As sit-ins and freedom rides spread across the South, African American leaders set a new, ambitious goal: a federal law banning racial discrimination in all public accommodations and in employment. In the summer of 1963, President Kennedy indicated he would support such a measure, and thousands marched on Washington to support the bill.

Blacks and whites sang "We Shall Overcome" and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. The Civil Rights Movement seemed on the brink of triumph.

As equality advocates notched more and more successes, the forces against change grew more active as well. Groups such the Ku Klux Klan increased hate crimes.

Earlier in 1963, the nation watched the Birmingham police force under the direction of Bull Connor unleash dogs, tear gas, and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators.

16th Street Baptist Church
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, served as a meeting place for many participants of the civil rights movement. Tragedy struck the church in 1963 when a bomb exploded there, killing four young girls and injuring 22 others.

NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in cold blood that summer in Mississippi as he tried to enter his home.

Church burnings and bombings increased. Four young girls were killed in one such bombing in Birmingham as they attended Sunday school lessons.

Many who had looked to John F. Kennedy as a sympathetic leader were crushed when he fell victim to assassination in November 1963. But Kennedy's death did not derail the Civil Rights Act.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law in July 1964. As of that day, it became illegal to refuse employment to an individual on the basis of race. Segregation at any public facility in America was now against the law.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. began his address at the March on Washington by saying "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."

The passage of that act led to a new focus. Many African Americans had been robbed of the right to vote since southern states enacted discriminatory poll taxes and literacy tests. Only five percent of African Americans eligible to vote were registered in Mississippi in 1965. The 24th Amendment banned the poll tax in 1964. A new landmark law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banned the literacy test and other such measures designed to keep blacks from voting. It also placed federal registrars in the South to ensure black suffrage. By 1965, few legal barriers to racial equality remained.

But centuries of racism could not be erased with the pen. Many African Americans continued to languish in the bottom economic strata. Civil rights activists fought on to achieve economic as well as legal equality. It is a fight that continues to this day.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four 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. I have a dream today.

Full text of "I Have a Dream"

On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC hoping to turn the nation's eyes to the problems of racial injustice and inequality. It was at this massive rally that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his best-known address. It has become known as the "I Have a Dream" speech.

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.

Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?"

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "for whites only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day "every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

On the Web
Martin Luther King Jr.: "I Have a Dream"
Delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is hailed as one of the greatest orations of the 20th century. Read the memorable language here, then explore the rest of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.
James Meredith
James Meredith was the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, and that wasn't an easy process. The riots touched off by his admission left two students dead. This biography on the Mississippi Writers website provides some interesting facts and links to other articles.
Twenty-Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
The repeal of all poll taxes seems like a very basic change, but it had a profound effect on voting habits in the country. Check out the wording of the 24th amendment along with the voting record for its ratification.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act: A Case History
Who actually wrote the Civil Rights Act? How was it introduced in Congress? What happened before it was finally passed? This extraordinary CongressLink website will answer those questions and hundreds more. The social conditions of the mid-sixties, the history of civil rights legislative action, the highlights of the bill, and the strategizing of politicians are all covered in detail. A few pictures and links to more onsite information help break up the lengthy text.
John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement
John F. Kennedy received a large part of the African American vote when he was elected president in 1960, but he could not afford to alienate southern Democrats. Civil rights leaders continued to call on Kennedy for a stronger stand in support of racial equality. Profiles on those leaders and their correspondence with the President are on this webpage from the JFK Library.
The Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 to assure that the citizens were not denied the vote due to race or color. But the act is not indefinite; it must be renewed in 2007, as this South Carolina Bar website points out.
Six Dead After Church Bombing
Four young girls attending Sunday School died when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed on September 16, 1963. Two boys, aged 16 and 13, were killed in the violence that followed. On the Washingtonpost.com website, read the UPI article that reported the tragedy.
Singing Together for Social Change
Folk legend Pete Seeger helped adapt and popularize the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome." In an interview for this article about his long history of singing protest songs, Seeger tells the history of the song and when he first sang it for Martin Luther King Jr.
I will sincerely plead with my people to remain non violent in the face of this terrible provocation however I am convinced that unless some steps are taken by the federal government ... we shall see the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen. -Martin Luther King Jr. to President Kennedy, after the Birmingham bombing killed four children.
Learn More...
In May 2000, nearly 40 years after the bombing, two former Ku Klux Klan members were charged with the murder of the four young girls who died when a bomb exploded at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.
Learn More...
Four Little Girls
Director Spike Lee took on the racially motivated church bombings of the 1960s with his documentary Four Little Girls.
There was the Negro woman, pinned to the ground by cops, one of them with his knee dug into her throat. There was the white man who watched hymn-singing Negroes burst from a sweltering church and growled: 'We ought to shoot every damned one of them'. -from Time Magazine's coverage of the Birmingham riots, 1963
Learn More...
When three civil rights workers went missing in rural Mississippi during the summer of 1964, people feared the worst. They were right.
Learn More...
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