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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Civil Rights and Wrongs

While civil rights had been seeded at the turn of the Twentieth Century with the Niagara movement and WEB Dubois’s novel Up From Slavery, and had begun in earnest in the 1950s with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1960s was a time of powerful transformation for civil rights, much of it extremely painful. Landmark legislation was passed, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington in August 1963 reached not only the over 250,000 in attendance, but a worldwide audience as well via television and satellite, as one of the first events to be televised live internationally. Dr. King, a gifted orator invoked America as the nation could and should be, instead of citing a myriad of injustices, as he might have done. Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was in attendance that day, said: If I had to pick one day in my public life when I was most encouraged democracy would work, when my spirit soared on the wings of the American dream, it was that day” (Jennings & Brewster, 1998, p. 382). In 1964, King would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, even today, over 40 years later, King’s dream has not yet been realized.

Southern cities were spotlighted and the glare was harsh indeed. Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, all were etched in the national imagination as television and print pictures captured the senseless brutality unleashed against peaceful protestors. In 1962, James Meredith was the first African-American to enroll at University of Mississippi, although federal troops had to be present to ensure this. Birmingham, Alabama, which actually boasted that it was the “most segregated city in America,” became a battleground for civil rights. Jennings and Brewster (1998) said of Birmingham: “There were 220,000 whites in Birmingham and 140,000 blacks, two populations living side by side, equal only in the brimming reserves of rage each carried for each other…this was a city made for racial drama” (p. 381). King made his stand in Birmingham, as he led peaceful demonstrators, including children, into the streets to face arrest. The image of a police dog attacking a black woman so stunned, saddened, and sickened President Kennedy that he thereafter increased the scope and pace of civil rights legislation.


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