A 50th anniversary: a time to celebrate, reflect and recommit
I grew up reading the Green Sheet, the section of my daily newspaper that reported on what had happened on that date 10, 20 and 50 years ago. It helped me connect my reality to history. On a good day, that connection helped me understand the present and respect those who went before. It inspired both caution and hope.
This year, Taylor Branch, the author of an exhaustive history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement—more than 2,300 pages written over 24 years—condensed that history into 180 pages, hoping people would use the 50th anniversary of the movement to pay attention, understand our history, honor the courageous fight and become prepared to continue the unfinished work of democracy.
According to Branch, “Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together, despite every hardship and against great odds.”
We again face an era of great odds. It’s an appropriate time to remember where we have been and how ordinary people stood up for their rights and, despite the wrath of entrenched power, caused a revolution.
Looking back 50 years, 1963 was a watershed year in the Civil Rights Movement. It was a roller coaster of progress and agony, but it was a turning point that led to profound change.
May 2, 1963, was the first day of the emotionally jolting children’s crusade in Birmingham where Bull Connor, the racist safety commissioner, ordered the use of water cannons and dogs to break up a peaceful children’s march to end segregation.
The graphic images of that event made it absolutely clear for the media, the public and national leaders what legally sanctioned hatred looked like. It was impossible to ignore any longer the evils of discrimination and segregation.
June 11, 1963, is the day that President John F. Kennedy finally spoke up and called for full citizenship for all Americans. In an impromptu televised speech, he made civil rights a moral issue worthy of national attention and legal protection—an issue relevant to our democracy. That was also the day that civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway.
The roller coaster continued on Aug. 28, 1963, the day when more than 250,000 people from across the country joined the transformative March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful call for full citizenship, and the day Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Branch describes this moment as the event that elevated King’s contribution to democracy. The speech, Branch stated, “projected King across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.”
Later that year, on Sept. 15, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four innocent African-American girls, and then, on Nov. 22, President Kennedy was shot to death. Within a week, President Lyndon Johnson called for legislation to guarantee equal citizenship for all Americans—the goal of this protracted and courageous struggle against 200 years of inhumanity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed within six months.
As we look back from 2013, the 50th anniversary of a year of extremes that revealed courage and remarkable strength in the face of incredible violence, we have much to honor. As we recognize these milestones in the long march of progress, it is clear that we cannot be complacent. We must not go back.
Celebrations are opportunities for rededication. The 50th anniversary of a watershed year in the Civil Rights Movement is an opportunity to remember a transformative period in our history and rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work of equality. Remember, “Citizens and leaders can work miracles together, despite every hardship and against great odds.”
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.