The best and worst of the civil rights era

The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, convinced America's most virulent racists that they must step up their intimidation of black people to end the civil rights movement.

Having already murdered Medgar Evers, ambushing the NAACP leader outside his Jackson, Miss., home, on June 12, they looked to send a message to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that they intended to turn the dream of racial harmony he spoke of in Washington into a nightmare. Almost three weeks later, Ku Klux Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little girls. Rather than dousing the movement's fire, however, martyring the children stoked it into a roaring blaze.

The bombing came at the end of a turbulent week in which Gov. George Wallace sent National Guardsmen to three Birmingham schools to prevent five black students from enrolling. He failed after President John F. Kennedy federalized the guard troops and ordered them to withdraw. Meanwhile, white students staged a sit-in at Mayor Albert Boutwell's office in City Hall to protest against integration.

All of this had the Klan fit to be tied. It hadn't gotten over King's successful marches in Birmingham the previous spring. The demonstrations garnered national attention when the police responded with vicious dogs and water cannons aimed at black children, all broadcast on national newscasts. The city capitulated, agreeing to what seems modest in retrospect - integrated store dressing rooms and the hiring of black clerks - but it enraged the Klan.

News of the Washington march ratcheted that rage to the next level. The marchers, hundreds of thousands of them, had come from across the country. A delegation of 250 from Birmingham left from Kelly Ingram Park, an expanse I remember well from walks across it four years later on my way to high school. They joyously boarded buses for the 20-hour ride.

In Washington, they listened to folksingers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary, while trying to catch glimpses of Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Marlon Brando, and other celebrities who supported the civil rights movement. Then came the speakers, among them John Lewis, the young Alabamian who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis, who had been beaten as a Freedom Rider and would be beaten again during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, was reported to have given one of the best speeches of the day. "By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy," he said.

Remarks by James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, were read because he was still being held in a Louisiana jail for demonstrating. "We will not stop our marching feet until our kids have enough to eat and their minds can study and range wide without being cramped in Jim Crow schools," Farmer wrote. "We will not stop till the dogs stop biting us in the South, and the rats stop biting us in the North."

After speeches by the Urban League's Whitney Young Jr., the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, and others, and a song, "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned," by Mahalia Jackson, it was time for King, who left his prepared remarks to return to a familiar theme - his dream. "I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers," he said.

King wasn't necessarily trying to get the attention of Alabama's racists. He already had that. But his comments were treated as additional fuel for their firestorm. The subsequent bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist, as its children prepared for Sunday school, was one of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated in this country. I have written before about hearing the blast from my home several miles away.

Now, 50 years later, we can reflect on those two events, which occurred only weeks apart, and perhaps represented the best and worst times of the civil rights era - the Washington march and Birmingham bombing - and ask what has been the result. To say there has been no progress would be to deny the very visible truth of an integrated society that has not only produced a viable black middle class but an African American president.

But has the dream been achieved? Most black people don't think so, especially not after the Trayvon Martin trial, in which many believe George Zimmerman got away with murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll after the trial showed 54 percent of African Americans "strongly disagree" and an additional 25 percent "somewhat disagree" with the idea that Americans now judge people by their character, not their skin color.

The racial divide has been exacerbated by a political divide fostered by the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Political scientist David Bositis points out that Republicans never controlled any Southern state legislature from Reconstruction to the 1990s (except for Tennessee's, briefly after the 1968 election). But, today, every Southern state's legislature is controlled by Republicans.

Safe seats for black Democrats have been carved out to preserve GOP hegemony in others. But with Democrats relegated to minority-party status in Southern legislatures, as well as in the U.S. House, the clout of African American representatives has been greatly diminished. Their ability to pass bills to address the poverty, health, education, and crime issues that disproportionately affect their constituents has been greatly diminished.

Having a black president hasn't changed that dynamic, which is likely at least part of the reason why that same poll showed the number of blacks optimistic about race relations dropping from 64 percent to 38 percent since 2009. White optimism also dropped dramatically, from 79 percent to 52 percent. We're not all getting along. Consider the reaction to Eagles football player Riley Cooper's using the N-word outside a country-music concert. The best we can say, 50 years after the Washington march, is that we aren't where we were, but we're not where we want to be.

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