January 1963 ushered in a year that I define in my forthcoming book as one of hope and hostility. It was particularly evident in the area of civil rights.
Jan. 1 of that year marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The significance of the anniversary, and the work left undone, was not lost on the civil rights community. Martin Luther King Jr. urged President John F. Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation.
But the president, who had won a close election in 1960, did not want to risk further alienating Southern voters, with re-election on the horizon in 1964.
Kennedy viewed civil rights to be a second-term issue. Protected by the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to two terms, from Kennedy's perspective any substantive civil rights legislation after 1964 would carry little political price.
But this was 1963 and Kennedy's desires to remain within the safety of plausible neutrality would be short lived due to the unbridled political ambition of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
On Jan. 14, 1963, Wallace would give the first of what would be a year of memorable oratory, when he stated at his inaugural address: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny ... and I say ... segregation now ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever."
Wallace used the bulk of his approximate 4,500-word address, invoking God, the spirit of self-determination, and the memory of the Founding Fathers, thereby making Alabama the unofficial citadel of segregation.
Later that evening, Kennedy gave his State of the Union address. While Wallace left no doubt with the segregationist faithful as to where he stood, Kennedy took a more measured approach. In his approximate 5,400-word address, which covered tax cuts, Social Security, mental health, West Berlin, Cuba and Vietnam, Kennedy dedicated a mere 65 words on the topic of race and the anniversary of the proclamation.
The president stated:
"And the most precious and powerful right in the world, the right to vote in a free American election, must not be denied to any citizen on grounds of his race or color. I wish that all qualified Americans permitted to vote were willing to vote, but surely in this centennial year of Emancipation all those who are willing to vote should always be permitted."
But Kennedy's lukewarm response could not temper the situation. On Jan. 14, the roles of the three men pivotal to civil rights in 1963 were defined. King and Wallace would prod from the left and right, respectively, while Kennedy would use all of his political skill to remain in the amorphous middle.
January 1963 would lay the foundation for civil rights for the remainder of the year. Birmingham would be symbolized by police dogs and fire hoses, Wallace would make good on a campaign promise by physically attempting to block two black students from entering the University of Alabama, prompting Kennedy to give the greatest speech on civil rights since Abraham Lincoln, and Medgar Evers would be the movement's first high-profile martyr.
King would electrify the nation with his "dream," but three weeks later he would eulogize three of the four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Beyond civil rights, 1963 was the year that cemented our current Cuban policy and shaped future events in Vietnam. It was a year that also saw a young president gunned down in Dallas.
The Kennedy assassination has managed to engulf the collective impact of 1963 -- a year that has remained hidden in plain sight for a half-century. But the troika of Kennedy, King and Wallace, beginning in January, would define civil rights in the year of hope and hostility.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.