November 20, 1995
1963: The Hope that Stemmed from the Fight for Equality
There is a desire in every person's inner being to strive for equality. The fight for equalization has existed throughout time. Jews, Negroes, women, and homosexuals are examples of those who have been inspired to fight for equal rights, for justice, and for freedom. The struggle for black equality was the event that turned the United States of America upside down. For over two centuries, Negroes have struggled to work their way up the ladder to ultimate parity. Methods for obtaining this equality differed over the years. Escaping slaves, underground railroads, court cases, demonstrations, sit-ins, and marches all played into the ever-complicating history of this struggle.
The intense hatred of whites for Negroes grew out of the Civil War. One of the reasons for the war was the issue of slavery. When the Confederates lost the war, their position in the political world was taken away. Any position held by someone connected with the Confederacy was given to a northern man. In many cases, the new man was a Negro. The Negroes did not have the opportunity for equality long. After a few years relations between the north and the south were restored, and the position was taken away from the Negroes and given back to white men. In the time that the Negroes occupied these positions, southern whites developed a deep hatred and animosity for Negroes. From that day forward the strain between blacks and whites grew.
Racial discrimination appeared to be eternally present. Hope looked slim as the years wore on, and little progress was made toward freedom. Tension came to a head in 1963 as Negroes grew tired of silent acceptance of racial discrimination. Demonstrations, sit-ins, peace talks, and marches graced the front pages of the newspapers in major cities in the south and in the north. The hope of a future for African-American people in America was greatly affected by the struggles and persecution they endured during the year 1963.
The struggles started in the hearts of every black person alive. The feelings began with children as they were called "niggers", and as they were beat up upon by white children. The opportunity to fight back wasn't given, nor was it taught in Negro homes. As jobs were gained in the white world, discrimination grew. Striving for excellence and higher knowledge of the trade was forbidden and punishable by the loss of the job. Anger and bitterness grew in hearts until they knew it was time to act as a people.
In order to properly view the hope that resulted from 1963's events, the events themselves must be looked at. As the actions of the Negroes became more prominent, the white hatred for them increased steadily. Harrison and Salsbury portrayed it well. "Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police, and many branches of the state's apparatus." (275) The southern city in the greatest spotlight was Birmingham, Alabama. It provided a graphic view of the conditions common in cities all over the country. Staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters started off as the main form of demonstration. The police rushed in and tried to take control, but with the reoccurrence of this act came the withdrawal of the police forces on the scene. Lunch counters simply closed down.
The next form of battle was mass demonstration. In these mass demonstration marches thousands of people gathered in the churches where they were given instructions by prominent Negro leaders. From there they flooded the main streets of Birmingham singing, "We shall overcome" ("Tension Growing Over Race Issues" 37). Thousands were jailed, including men, women, teenagers, and children. This did not stop the Negroes. As the demonstration marches continued, police took to more drastic measures. The reports in the Life magazine read like this:
"With vicious guard dogs the police attacked the marchers -- and thus rewarded them with an outrage that would win support all over the world for Birmingham Negroes. If the Negroes themselves had written the script, they could hardly have asked for greater help for their cause than City Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor freely gave. Ordering his men to let white spectators come near, he said: "I want 'em to see the dogs work. Look at those niggers run." This extraordinary sequence -- Brutal as it is as a Negro gets his trousers ripped off by Conner's dogs -- is the attention-getting jack pot of the Negroes' provocation" (30). The pictures taken during this time are grotesque. Violence was out of hand. The Negroes persevered through it all. Of a similar march in Washington it was stated, "More significant than the immediate effect the Washington civil rights march would have on the Congress of the U.S., more remarkable than the spectacle itself, was the Negroes' orderly demonstration of their potential as a moral force" ("They come marching up Conscience Road").
Things in the city of Birmingham started looking up. Then, just as suddenly as peace was coming in, violence broke out again as black residences and hotels were bombed and rioted. There was a mass of people rioting in the streets. President Kennedy sent in federal troops against the governor's wishes.
Not only did the struggle effect black people, it also effected white people. Stores in downtown Birmingham suffered as sales dropped fifty percent. Women no longer felt safe enough to go out on the streets and to the stores. Negroes in the south were making progress, as slow and unrecognizable as it may have been.
In the north, demonstrations contained less violence but just as much force. Rather than protesting over segregated lunch counters and restrooms, northern Negroes protested against the discriminating hiring policy at local restaurants, desegregated schools, and equal housing and employment opportunities. In New York, this demonstration was against a White Castle Hamburgers restaurant which had all but refused to hire Negroes. Teenage demonstrators showed their disapproval by carrying signs stating what they wanted. "Equal Opportunity, Now", the signs read. White gangsters who ate regularly at the White Castle responded by throwing chairs and rocks at the Negroes. It erupted into chaos. It required three hundred police officers to regain peace ("As militancy rises in ranks of the Negroes in the North" ).
The Negroes' bitterness and hatred was not aimed only at white people. In the north, Negroes gave black political leaders grief for their suggestion for patience and caution in their fight for parity. Patience and caution were not the virtues it took to make a change ("As militancy rises in ranks of the Negroes in the North" ). Students staged numerous sit-ins challenging the school systems. They were seeking acceptance into these predominately white schools. The goal of Negroes in the North was not integration, but desegregation. Similar circumstances occurred in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and more.
The Negroes hard work paid off as opportunities for equality began slowly opening up. In Birmingham, Alabama black and white leaders came to an agreement on May 8, 1963. The demonstrations were to cease while peace talks were in effect. On May 9th, Negroes were granted three of their requests for equality. A couple of stores in downtown Birmingham opened their counters to Negroes. There was a promise for better, although not equal, job opportunities. A board was to be set up to look at the possibility of integrating the school system. Finally, on May 10th, the jails began releasing Negro demonstrators. Negroes saw these three promises as a gigantic step towards victory. Martin Luther King's victory statement attributed the victory to the mass demonstrations. He believed that the use of teenagers and children was a deciding factor in white leaders' decisions. When one Negro teenager was asked to comment on his involvement, he said, "I marched for freedom -- freedom to eat and work and go to school with whites. It's no sin to be born black" ("Tension Growing Over Race Issue" 38). Other victories included being allowed to try on clothes in a store, being addressed as Mr. or Mrs., desegregation of beaches, hotels, and housing subdivisions, and many increased job opportunities. Opinions of white people varied. Many people agreed with the segregation, hatred, and racial discrimination that was already established. To them, Negroes weren't even fully human. They were content with Negroes subordinate place in society. There were others who outright disagreed with the events taking place. A few, such as President Kennedy, fought for the Negroes equality. President Kennedy hoped "that the turmoil would remind every state, every community, and every citizen how urgent it is that all bars to equal opportunity and treatment be removed as promptly as possible" ("Tension Growing Over Race Issues" 38). An unknown amount of people also disagreed with the discrimination, but these people could not speak out. They feared for their jobs, their homes, and their lives. Perhaps this white high-school teacher summed the entire struggle for black equality up best. "To me the solution is very simple: just treat human beings as human beings. But to many of these people Negroes are not human beings" ("They fought a fight that won't go out" 36).
Behrens, Laurence, ed. "Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham" The American Experience :
"After Birmingham Riots -- trouble lingers on" US News and World Report 27 May 1963: 40-42.
"Arlington Receives a Murdered Hero" Life 28 June 1963: 34.
"Assasin kills a Negro leader" Life 21 June 1963: 28.
"What the African Negro Wants" US News and World Report 29 April 1963: 47-52.
"A Negro Revolt Brewing in the North" US News and World Report 10 June 1963: 35- 36.
"Tension Growing Over Race Issue" US News and World Report 20 May 1963: 37-39.
"The Negro's Future in the South" US News and World Report 3 June 1963: 60-65.
"They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out" Life 17 May 1963: 27-36.
"To Break Color Bars at School" Richmond Afro-American 11 May 1963.
"What Negroes in the North are Really After" US News and World Report 11 May 1963.