by Ryan M. Jones
Tuesday, June 11, 1963 was a sweaty and humid day. The weather fit the climate of tension around Tuscaloosa, Alabama and throughout the state. For months, the University of Alabama was on edge and judgment had finally arrived. Two African-American students were going to be enrolled at the University under a Federal Court order.
The last time that happened, President John F. Kennedy was forced to send in 500 Federal Marshals to ensure the protection of James Meredith, who was attempting to integrate the University of Mississippi. Twenty-eight marshals received gunshot wounds. Two men were killed. Governor Ross Barnett attempted to deny Meredith admittance. Kennedy overruled and Meredith was enrolled.
The eyes of the nation were now on Tuscaloosa and Alabama Governor, George Wallace. Wallace had just been inaugurated on January 14, where he declared the intolerable proclamation: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”
This was Alabama 1963, where months later, the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King calling out for morality of man from a Birmingham jail and children are senselessly attacked by the order of Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs. The two students, James Hood and Vivian Malone arrived at Foster’s Auditorium. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was met in the doorway by Governor Wallace, who claimed he was there to uphold the heritage of the South and the state of Alabama.
JFK got word of Wallace’s best response of brinkmanship and federalized the Alabama National Guard. The two enrolled and Tuscaloosa remained quiet. Kennedy could relax for a few hours. He too, was about to change history.
The President ignored his closest advisors on when to go public about Civil Rights. He and his brother Bobby, the Attorney General shared a moderate view on Civil Rights. Eliminate the violence, avoid open support. The violent images of Birmingham resonated with him. He was going on national television for 15 minutes. The nation listened as the 35th president of the United States spoke out on peaking civil rights movement and race relations, itself as a moral issue. He also announced he would ask Congress to pass a Civil Rights bill that would entirely end the era of Jim Crow. This speech came exactly one century after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
One thousand miles south, a man is driving home to his wife and three small children after a civil rights rally and hears the President’s speech on his radio. It is almost midnight.
It had been nine years since Medgar Evers accepted the position of field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. Organizing boycotts and investigating murders throughout the state made him a target of white segregationists overnight. He reached his driveway shortly after midnight after feeling overjoyed by the President’s speech. He was physically tired. Because of so many death threats, he trained himself to get out of the car on the passenger side door. He forgot on this night. Carrying t-shirts that said “Jim Crow Must Go,” a missile tore into his back and exited out of his chest, going through the front window, landing on the kitchen counter. The World War II veteran pulled his way up into his garage. His young wife Myrlie and children found him lying in a pool of blood. His eyes met hers and stated “Sit me up, turn me loose.” He was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.
June 11, 1963, was the height of the American civil rights movement. The next night, people woke up to the news of the first political assassination of the decade. The President’s courage might have caused him the election of 1964 (which he never saw because of his tragic assassination in Dallas that November) and George Wallace, the most outspoken Governor of his time was neutralized to the entire globe.
The iconic March on Washington picked up where June 11 left off. Two hundred fifty thousand Americans of all races celebrated the proposed Civil Rights bill and mourned the death of a civil rights hero. Sixty-two years later, we reflect to that pastime and remember those historical giants as the story for freedom, justice and equality continues.