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1963 - Civil Rights

Civil Rights Movement a pivotal year in the campaign for black rights, which saw hundreds of thousands take part in the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, as well as acts of violence, political theater and direct action across the USA 

On 28 August, in the shadow of Lincoln's monument, Martin Luther King announced to the March on Washington during his famous "I have a dream" speech that "1963 is not an end, but a beginning". For legal segregation, it would turn out to be the beginning of the end. The year started with Alabama governor George Wallace standing on the steps of the state capitol in hickory-striped trousers and a cutaway coat declaring: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever." The civil rights leadership was ambivalent about the suggestion of a national march and President John F Kennedy was focused on foreign affairs. Within a few months Alabama would become internationally renowned as policemen turned dogs and high-pressure water hoses on children as young as six in Birmingham. Civil rights leaders were running to catch up with the militancy of their grassroots activists and the Democratic House majority leader told Kennedy: "[Civil rights] is overwhelming the whole programme".

in 1963 the number who were prepared to commit such resistance reached a critical mass.  Int he south particularly, the struggle had grown from a modest group of black students demonstrating at one lunch-counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century.

In May, events in Birmingham, Alabama, were transformative. The New York Times published more stories about civil rights in those two weeks than it had in the previous two years. Televised scenes of children campaigning against rigid segregation, being bitten by Alsatians and knocked off their feet by water fired with enough power to rip bark off a tree caused international outrage. Before, only 4% of Americans thought civil rights was the country's most pressing issue; afterwards it was 52%.


According to the Justice Department, in the 10 weeks before King's "I have a dream" speech there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests. "Birmingham became the moment of truth," argued Bayard Rustin, who organised the March on Washington. "Birmingham meant that tokenism is finished. The Negro masses are no longer prepared to wait for anybody … They are going to move. Nothing can stop them."

The march for jobs and freedom in Washington, which had aroused precious little interest just months before, now became the order of the day. It was a bold initiative. At the time marches in the capital were rare and this one was not particularly popular. A  poll just a few weeks before the march revealed that 71% of Americans knew about it and of those only 23% were favourable while 42% were unfavourable, 18% thought it wouldn't accomplish anything and 7% thought it would end in violence. Kennedy, who was trying to get civil rights legislation through Congress, tried to talk them out of it. "We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the capitol," he said. Union organiser A Philip Randolph, who had called the march, told him: "The Negroes are already in the streets. It is very likely impossible to get them off."

Still, the march drew 250,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom were white and was deemed a great success by many. King's speech – which received no mention in the Washington Post the following day – would eventually become its most celebrated articulation of the period. "That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height," wrote James Baldwin in No Name in the Street. "And could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."

It did not take long for the realities of southern bigotry to deflate the mood. "There was no way we could have known then that that afternoon would represent the peak of such feelings, that the hope and optimism contained in King's words would dwindle in the coming years," wrote Congressman John Lewis; "that in a matter of mere days after he stepped down from that stage a bomb blast in Birmingham would kill four little girls and usher in a season of darkness for the movement and for me."


Further Reading


Civil Rights Teaching - 1963: Civil Rights Movement History

The Guardian - Civil Rights Conflict in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 - Revisiting Martin Luther King's 1963 Dream speech

The Atlantic - 1964 Civil Rights Battles

1963 - Assassination JFK

Assassination of JFK - the US President is shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas during a campaign visit. Lee Harvey Oswald was quickly arrested for JFK's assassination, but himself was murdered by Jack Ruby live on tv

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy rarely accompanied her husband on political outings, but she was beside him, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, for a 10-mile motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas on November 22. Sitting in a Lincoln convertible, the Kennedys and Connallys waved at the large and enthusiastic crowds gathered along the parade route. As their vehicle passed the Texas School Book Depository Building at 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired three shots from the sixth floor, fatally wounding President Kennedy and seriously injuring Governor Connally. Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital. He was 46.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was three cars behind President Kennedy in the motorcade, was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States at 2:39 p.m. He took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One as it sat on the runway at Dallas Love Field airport. The swearing in was witnessed by some 30 people, including Jacqueline Kennedy, who was still wearing clothes stained with her husband’s blood. 

The next day, November 23, President Johnson issued his first proclamation, declaring November 25 to be a day of national mourning for the slain president. On that Monday, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Washington to watch a horse-drawn caisson bear Kennedy’s body from the Capitol Rotunda to St. Matthew’s Catholic Cathedral for a requiem Mass. The solemn procession then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery, where leaders of 99 nations gathered for the state funeral. Kennedy was buried with full military honors on a slope below Arlington House, where an eternal flame was lit by his widow to forever mark the grave.

Lee Harvey Oswald, born in New Orleans in 1939, joined the U.S. Marines in 1956. He was discharged in 1959 and nine days later left for the Soviet Union, where he tried unsuccessfully to become a citizen. He worked in Minsk and married a Soviet woman and in 1962 was allowed to return to the United States with his wife and infant daughter. In early 1963, he bought a .38 revolver and rifle with a telescopic sight by mail order, and on April 10 in Dallas he allegedly shot at and missed former U.S. Army general Edwin Walker, a figure known for his extreme right-wing views. Later that month, Oswald went to New Orleans and founded a branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro organization. In September 1963, he went to Mexico City, where investigators allege that he attempted to secure a visa to travel to Cuba or return to the USSR. In October, he returned to Dallas and took a job at the Texas School Book Depository Building.

Less than an hour after Kennedy was shot, Oswald killed a policeman who questioned him on the street near his rooming house in Dallas. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater by police responding to reports of a suspect. He was formally arraigned on November 23 for the murders of President Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit.

On November 24, Oswald was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded him with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver. Ruby, who was immediately detained, claimed that rage at Kennedy’s murder was the motive for his action. Some called him a hero, but he was nonetheless charged with first-degree murder.

Jack Ruby, originally known as Jacob Rubenstein, operated strip joints and dance halls in Dallas and had minor connections to organized crime. He features prominently in Kennedy-assassination theories, and many believe he killed Oswald to keep him from revealing a larger conspiracy. In his trial, Ruby denied the allegation and pleaded innocent on the grounds that his great grief over Kennedy’s murder had caused him to suffer “psychomotor epilepsy” and shoot Oswald unconsciously. The jury found Ruby guilty of “murder with malice” and sentenced him to die.


Further Reading


CNN - The Assassination of John F Kennedy

JFK Library - Death of the President

Quartz - JFK’s Final Hour, in the Words of his Widow and Other Eyewitnesses

Politico - The Kennedy Assassination in Photos

1963 - Burning Monk

The Burning Monk - sixty-six year-old Buddhist monk  Thich Quang Duc sets himself on fire to protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngô Đình Diệm

burning monk-min.jpg

To understand Quang Duc’s story it is essential to know the story of Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed president of South Vietnam. He came to power in 1955 in the aftermath of the Geneva Accords, which ended French colonial rule and split Vietnam along the 17th parallel, but he was hardly the ideal choice to lead the new South Vietnam. He was a French-educated Catholic in a Buddhist majority country, and he had spent much of the decade after World War II living in the United States rather than building a political organization in South Vietnam. And he was hardly a democrat. When he ran in a “national” referendum in October 1955, he arranged it so that he won more than 98 percent of the vote.

Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese public’s support for Diem soon faded. He repressed his opponents and favored his friends and family. His policies to counter the growing strength of the Viet Cong had the opposite effect; they alienated many South Vietnamese against his government. By the spring of 1963, public unrest reached a crisis point. On May 8, residents of Hue, the imperial capital of old Vietnam, organized a rally to protest a ban on flying the Buddhist flag. Police fired on the crowd, killing nine and wounding fourteen. Hunger strikes and more protests followed.

On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc and more than 300 other monks and nuns marched in a procession down one of Saigon’s major boulevards. Wearing a saffron robe, he sat down in the lotus position on a cushion in the middle of the street. Two other monks emptied a five-gallon can of gasoline on him. Quang Duc then took a match, struck it, and dropped it on himself. The journalist David Halberstam, who was present, described what happened next:

Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think. . . . As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

A fire engine raced to extinguish the blaze, but several monks blocked its path. The flames eventually burned out, and the monks placed Quang Duc’s body in a coffin and carried him away.

Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, caught the self-immolation on film. His photograph won the award for World Press Photo of the Year, and it remains among the most famous (and haunting) images from the Vietnam War. It certainly stunned millions of people around the world who saw it in June 1963. As a U.S. embassy official put it, the photo “had a shock effect of incalculable value to the Buddhist cause, becoming a symbol of the state of things in Vietnam.”

Seven other monks soon followed Quang Duc’s example and set themselves afire to protest Diem’s rule. Convinced of his own rectitude, Diem did nothing to appease the growing anger being directed his way. His sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, however, added to it. She likened Quang Duc’s suicide to a “barbecue.” “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.”

The so-called Buddhist Crisis incident certainly helped sour Kennedy on Diem. Five months later, Kennedy looked the other way as a group of South Vietnamese Army generals overthrew and executed Diem. Kennedy himself was assassinated three weeks later in Dallas.

The political crisis that Quang Duc’s self-immolation highlighted did not, however, prompt either Kennedy or his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to rethink the wisdom of the American involvement in South Vietnam. In late 1963, the United States had fewer than 16,000 troops in South Vietnam. Four years later, it had half a million.


Further Reading


AP - The Burning MonkA Defining Moment Photographed by AP’s Malcolm Browne

All That's Interesting - The Burning Monk Who Changed The World

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