Despite the gains made by civil rights activists across the state of Alabama, the Black Belt city of Selma remained a bastion of racial discrimination. In particular, the city’s segregationist leadership excelled at disenfranchising the African American community. By 1964 whites made up less than half of the population of Dallas County but constituted 99 percent of the registered voters. Between 1962 and 1964, despite increased federal pressure, county registrars rejected seven of every eight blacks who attempted to join voter rolls. Applicants were required to pass a lengthy “literacy test,” which included questions on the Constitution and American governmental structure, a reading test, and a dictation exercise. To make matters worse, the registrar’s office only opened two days each month.
In the winter of 1965, supporters of civil rights in Alabama mourned the untimely passing of a strong voice for equality. On Sunday, February 21, Malcolm X took the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, preparing to address a rally of the newly formed Organization for Afro-American Unity, a group formed by the speaker to fight for civil and economic equality for African Americans. Just a week earlier, Malcolm X’s home had been firebombed, and many believed that the crime was perpetrated by the Black Muslims, a revolutionary quasi-religious group known for advocating militant self-defense, and whose leader, Elijah Muhammad, had recently expelled Malcolm X as part of a larger power and identity struggle within the group. Malcolm X feared for his life, telling his autobiographer, Alex Haley, that he would not survive to read the finished product and applying to local authorities for a permit to carry a pistol.
In the fall of 1964, citizens in Tuskegee and Macon County prepared for one of the most important elections in a century. Thanks to the efforts of a strong local organization, the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA), and its leader, Charles Gomillion, a federal judge ordered white officials to make positive efforts to register African American voters. Combined with local registration efforts, the ruling opened Tuskegee and Macon County to “a great concentration of assertive Negroes entirely qualified under the laws of Alabama to vote.”
In his first State of the Union address, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson confronted a nation still mourning the loss of John F. Kennedy. He asked Congress and the American people to support Kennedy’s agenda, specifically a civil rights bill then stalled in the House of Representatives. Johnson argued that continued racial discrimination “is not merely an economic issue, or a social, political, or international issue. It is a moral issue.” For those who thought Johnson might
seek compromises that would dilute the provisions of the bill in order to secure passage, the president soon proved his dedication to equal rights.
In the spring of 1964, Alabamians eagerly watched the Supreme Court as the justices prepared to hear arguments in a case involving school desegregation. The case, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, emerged out of Virginia and featured one of the school systems in the original Brown v. Board of Education ruling. After the landmark decision rejected “separate but equal” education in 1954, Prince Edward County was ordered to admit black students to previously all-white schools. Yet instead of integrating, the county board refused to approve public school funds. A “foundation” opened private schools for white students, and the county provided tuition grants for white pupils. Between 1959 and 1963, no schools in Prince Edward County served the African American community.
On March 29, 1960, the New York Times ran an advertisement, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” for the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. Civil rights veteran A. Philip Randolph chaired the organization, which was staff ed by a number of well-known black entertainers, including Harry Belafonte, Sydney Poitier, and Nat King Cole, and endorsed by ministers in many southern states. The ad praised activists in the South, trying to uphold the “right to live in human dignity” protected by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and decried the “unprecedented wave of terror” that met the movement in the streets of southern cities.
At 10:22 on the morning of September 15, 1963, an explosion ripped through the lower floor of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The bomb tossed parked cars across the street and scattered rubble for an entire block, but as the smoke dissipated, the heaviest cost became clear. Four young girls —Carol Robertson, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed in the blast. The children were the first bomb-related fatalities in a city that had witnessed nearly fifty other incidents stretching back to the 1950s. Days before the church bombing, the FBI announced that it would investigate explosions at the homes of attorney Arthur Shores and Rev. A. D. King, both outspoken African Americans, as well as an attack on the A. G. Gaston Motel, owned by one of “Bombingham’s” most prominent black businessmen. Confronted with a wave of violence, the Birmingham City Council called for the creation of a “bombing fund” to help victims and obtain convictions; even Gov. George Wallace, on record implying that the bombs were set by civil rights activists looking for attention, contributed to the $57,000 raised by mid-September.
The integration of the University of Georgia and the University of Mississippi placed added pressure on the remaining hold-outs among southern segregated universities. The University of Alabama and its extension campuses at Birmingham and Huntsville remained all-white, despite the enrollment of Autherine Lucy in 1957. When Lucy was suspended on grounds of personal safety, Alabama officials hoped that the action would stall further attempts to integrate. The state’s experience with university desegregation followed divergent paths. In Tuscaloosa, the “schoolhouse stand” of Gov. George Wallace exhibited the demagoguery that marked Massive Resistance to desegregation; however, in Huntsville, the quiet integration of the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) demonstrated that federal economic pressure, combined with a moderate racial climate, could result in limited gains with broader community acceptance.
In 1963 one city, more than any other, represented the limited nature of civil rights victories and the continued impact of segregation. Despite an active local movement, led by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and his Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and peopled by community members and students from Miles College, Birmingham was marked by a visible color line. The city’s laws were enforced by one of the most notorious segregationists in the country, Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s police commissioner, who used his considerable manpower to arrest, imprison, and intimidate activists who tested municipal segregation laws. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “[W]hile a campaign in Birmingham would surely be the toughest fight of our civil-rights careers, it could, if successful, break the back of segregation all over the nation. A victory there might well set forces in motion to change the entire course of the drive for freedom and justice.”
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, calling for the abolition of slavery in the unoccupied Confederate states that remained in rebellion against the United States government. Lincoln concluded the document by stating his belief that emancipation would be “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” One hundred years later, African Americans across the nation continued to await the full realization of that “act of justice,” a sentiment reinforced by the tenor of national and local remembrances of the centennial.