Light a firecracker, and the fuse ignites with a burst of sparks. 1963 was like that.
Month after month, all sorts of people lit fuses: black citizens, suburban women, even folk singers.
1963 changed our lives in consequential ways: Minorities marched on Washington, Betty Friedan asked “Is this all?” and Beatlemania began. Yet however these events altered the world, their embers still stubbornly smolder. Young black men are urged to mind their surroundings. Career women are exhorted to “lean in.” And we’ll always have the Beatles.
But no one knew that in 1963. They only heard a low sizzle growing louder.
“It’s crazy how much was going on,” said Sara Evans, a University of Minnesota professor who remembers sitting with college classmates to watch the funeral for President John F. Kennedy on her dorm’s single TV.
Today and for the next two Sundays, we look back at 1963 as the year when the fuses of change began to spark.
What many people don’t know about the March on Washington, which grabbed the nation’s attention 50 years ago this week, is that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech almost never happened.
They don’t know that he was the last speaker, there not to bring the event to a rousing climax, but to an orderly close.
They may not realize that the crowd of more than 200,000 — twice the number expected — marching in their Sunday best with businesslike deliberation proved a transitional moment in the civil rights movement: a shift from seeking freedom at the lunch counter to demanding economic standing in the marketplace. (The event was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.)
Barely eight months before the massive march, Gov. George Wallace had taken the oath of office on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In June, prominent black leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his Mississippi driveway. An all-white jury proved deadlocked over his alleged assassin’s guilt.
Hundreds of miles to the north in Minnesota, the black community struggled to re-establish itself as bulldozers rumbled away, building Interstate 94 through what had been the Rondo neighborhood. The racially integrated corridor between St. Paul and Minneapolis had been considered a nurturing place in which to raise a family. But the throes of relocation exposed a latent racism. Black families faced discrimination when looking for new houses, spurring the St. Paul National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to organize hearings and protests.
Everywhere, the cultural landscape was shifting. What would be called the generation gap was opening in the areas of music, fashion, politics — and in civil rights, as the March on Washington began to reveal.
“It’s always made more sense to talk about this as a transgenerational freedom struggle,” said John S. Wright, a professor of English and African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. King’s dream about racial harmony would become one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century. However, “the next five years of his life, up until his assassination, basically involved a descent into turmoil and contention within the African-American community,” Wright said.
King became more radical as younger activists (who would later become the Black Panthers) challenged the principles of nonviolent action “because of a sense that it had accomplished little beyond desegregating lunch counters,” Wright said.
The 1963 March on Washington was not the first one planned. In 1943, black leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized a march to pressure the U.S. government to desegregate the armed forces and defense industries, and equalize hiring in defense industries. The march was a week away when President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to those demands and the march was canceled.
Twenty years later, Randolph again organized a march. In 1963, he was in many ways more radical than the younger leaders, Wright said. His belief that the real battles were specific and economic — fair hiring practices, decent housing, better schools, a higher minimum wage — was widely perceived as more challenging, perhaps more threatening, than King’s dream about people being judged not by their skin color, but by their character.
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