Late one evening in April 1963, Dick Gregory came crashing through the door of his Chicago apartment – drunk – and was informed by his wife that the president of the United States was looking for him. As Diane McWhorter related in her 2001 book, Carry Me Home, about the drive to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the comedian returned the phone call to the White House and spoke with John F. Kennedy, who reportedly told him, “Please, don’t go to Birmingham. We’ve got it all solved. Dr. King is wrong, what he’s doing.” Gregory, a celebrity at 30 years old, replied – “Man, I will be there in the morning.”

Kennedy and his aides were hardly the only ones pleading for racial calm in that place, 50 years ago. Birmingham’s liberal white clergy and even its black newspaper had urged Martin Luther King Jr. (who died 45 years ago, on April 4) to jettison plans for a campaign of nonviolent direct action. They feared that an escalation of tactics would only make the segregationists angrier.

It’s not that the city’s men of the cloth were devoted to milder tactics. Christian pastors had looked upon civil rights not as a moral problem, which would rightly claim their attention, but as a political one, which would not; Jewish leaders, opting to sit out the battle of Birmingham, viewed segregation as a “Christian problem” between whites and Negroes, McWhorter notes. The campaign was foundering in early May when King, desperate, resorted to letting schoolchildren join in the civil disobedience (which essentially involved marching without permission).

A month later, Kennedy – who had said publicly that he was “sickened” by televised images of police dogs and fire hoses mowing down children – sent a civil rights bill to Congress. A year after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time? These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.

How?

I’ll let that question float for now. And I’ll listen in on conversations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign.


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