1963: 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 forever.”

  • 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 Association.

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.