A Coalition of Conscience in the Civil Rights Movement
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Time
magazine interview said of 1963, “It was the most decisive year
in the Negro fight for equality. Never before had there been such
a coalition of conscience on this issue.” The state is Alabama.
In the larger cities of Montgomery and Birmingham as well as small
towns throughout the state, freedom makes its way into conversation,
actions and public events.
January 1963, on the capitol steps, new governor George Wallace
delivers his inaugural address:
“Today I have stood where Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath
to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle
of the Confederacy, this very heart of the Anglo-Saxon southland,
that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generation
of forebears before us time and again down through history.
“Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us
and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the
South. In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this 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
- Who are “my people”?
- What is George Wallace’s idea of freedom?
- How is tyranny clanking “its chains upon the South”?
- Is his figurative language effective?
By the end of 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. had been stabbed in the
chest and physically attacked three times, jailed 14 times and his
home bombed three times, yet he spoke of nonviolence. At Morehouse
College, King had discovered Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience”
and, after a lecture on Gandhi at Crozer Theological Seminary, he
bought and studied every book on nonviolence and Gandhi he could
find. He believed the love ethic of Jesus and Gandhi’s love force
(satyagraha) combined for a nonviolent answer to conflicts of racial
groups and nations. King was only 26 years old in 1955 when the
Montgomery bus boycott took place and the young pastor of the Dexter
Avenue Baptist Church was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement
It is two years after the Freedom
Rides of 1961 organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Birmingham is known
as “Bombingham” because of the Mother’s Day 1961 mob attack on black
and white Freedom Riders and 18 unsolved bombings of homes, churches
and businesses in black neighborhoods. Birmingham is also called
the “most segregated city in the South.” Swimming pools, parks,
restaurants, theaters and hotels are separated by race. There are
no black policemen or firemen or black clerks in white-owned stores.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in January invites the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference to Birmingham. On April 3, 1963, the SCLC
stages sit-ins to begin Project C (for Confrontation). On April
6, police arrest 45 protesters, and on Palm Sunday more are arrested.
King and others are arrested on Good Friday, April 12. In his cell,
King sees in the newspaper an advertisement signed by eight clergymen.
On the margins of this publication, King begins to write his response.
While King sits in jail for eight days, SCLC leaders plan Project
D. Unlike earlier demonstrations, children will be the participants
in this demonstration. On May 2, children, ranging from six to 18,
leave the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church at intervals in groups
of 50; within three hours, 959 children are in jail. The next day,
more than 1,000 children go to Kelly Ingram Park instead of school.
The jails are full. Police commissioner Bull Connor orders firefighters
to turn the hoses on the children full force. K-9 forces attack
protesters trying to enter the church.
Demonstrations will escalate and business owners will relent. Lunch
counters open to all races and blacks are promised employment. This
does not stop what civil rights leader John Lewis calls “one of
the darkest hours of the civil rights movement.” On September 15,
1963, four black girls in white dresses are killed as a timed-explosive
ripped massive holes into their Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.