Ask Me About 1963

by Jenice L. View

Textbook mentions of the modern Civil Rights Movement highlight the year 1963 as the time when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom showcased Dr. King’s speech known as “I Have a Dream.” Occasionally, they will also reference the Children’s Crusade and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., or the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., as isolated acts of resistance and racism.

Yet, it was a pivotal year as direct action, voter registration, and important strategic shifts occurred nationwide after several years of active and public struggle. Writer James Baldwin referred to the events, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, as the “latest slave rebellion.” A deeper understanding of these events, their interconnectedness (domestically and internationally), and the antecedent and subsequent events helps students “read” history and their contemporary world with a keener eye toward coordinated action. (For a list of some of these events, see Teaching About 1963 in 2013: Civil Rights Movement History Resources).


To support teaching the modern Civil Rights Movement beyond “I Have a Dream,” Teaching for Change is raising awareness about the 1963 anniversaries that shed light on the everyday people who organized in their communities to struggle for freedom and justice.

For example, by 1963, thousands of people had participated in sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and other actions to desegregate the public facilities and to gain the fair employment for African Americans as had finally been guaranteed by federal laws and Supreme Court decisions. Still unaddressed and unprotected were African American voting rights and fair representation in government, so organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had begun to support local voter registration campaigns. Backlash from white supremacists accelerated the pace of job firings, imprisonments, beatings, lynchings, and other violent reprisals that African Americans had faced for decades, simply for being Black.

SCLC’s Birmingham Children’s Crusade was part of a strategic decision to protect the employment of parents by placing young people in the position of making a moral appeal for economic and political justice. It was successful in that it focused international attention on the lengths the power structure was willing to go to preserve the status quo. But it also attracted the disdain of the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X who said, “Real men don’t put their children on the firing line.”

Part of the success of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was that it was the largest (and largest nonviolent) such demonstration of its kind, bringing together workers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Urban League, as well as members of labor unions, inter-denominational organizations, and student groups. The turnout was a testament to the organizational savvy of the openly gay Bayard Rustin (a brilliant strategist who steered the event from idea to reality in a scant six weeks) and to the vision of Socialist labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, who had dreamt of such a march for years. In addition, the march is widely credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Yet, many civil rights activists opposed the march altogether, and the participating organizers did not agree on its purpose. A token tribute to "Negro Women Fighters for Freedom" incensed African American women, such as Ella Baker, who were otherwise excluded from formal speeches. Tensions grew between African American Christianity and the burgeoning Black Muslim movement.

A scant two weeks after the march, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair were murdered and 22 other people were injured when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, leaving many to question the continuing value of nonviolent demonstrations in changing the hearts, minds, and behaviors of white supremacists and their supporters. The 1962 book by former NAACP chapter president Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns, was beginning to resonate with many. So, too, was the separatist message of the Nation of Islam that placed more emphasis on economic uplift and self-sufficiency than on political activism and government action.

By fall 1963, the language and strategies for dismantling racism were shifting. The Free Southern Theater, a community theatre group founded at Tougaloo College, Miss., was touring poor, rural, Black communities in the South to introduce free theater both as a voice for social protest and to emphasize positive aspects of African American culture. The Wednesdays in Mississippi project, coordinated by Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women and Polly Cowan, began strategizing as a direct response to the exclusion of women from the March on Washington; their self-appointed task was to dismantle segregation and support civil rights workers and community empowerment, woman to woman, in secret interracial, interfaith settings. A head-on challenge to the Mississippi voting qualification rules led to 80,000 Freedom Ballots cast in November, and subsequently the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which transformed the national Democratic Party through its call for “One Man, One Vote.” Internationally, Kenya won independence from Britain on Dec. 12, 1963, more than a decade after the Mau Mau rebellion arose to resist white colonial rule and exploitation, and the 28th African nation to gain independence in 12 years. As Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan recorded in 1963 “a change [was] gonna come, the times they [were] a’changin'.”

To know the history of 1963 is to know that it was a complex, dynamic year where the violence of institutionalized racism was increasingly broadcast, exposed, challenged, and resisted worldwide. It was a year when African Americans, and a growing number of allies, had more than a dream of racial justice, but expressed several strategies for achieving it.


Additional Resources

Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching

Teaching About the Civil Rights Movement: Books for the Classroom



Other Movements for Civil and Human Rights in 1963

In addition to the struggle for African American political and economic rights, the year 1963 witnessed movements for civil and human rights for other Americans whose histories are often left out of textbooks. In the way that Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan refers to the Black Freedom Struggle as the “borning struggle,” or the movement that birthed all other social movements in the late 20th century America, the year 1963 sparked new struggles for the rights of women, Indigenous people, Latino/as, Asian Americans, poor whites, youth and LGBT people. In all cases, the struggles had origins in earlier decades or centuries of US history and the leadership included people from these populations that are regarded by textbooks as famous (and tokenized) as well as those unknown and hidden from K-12 children. The political and social ferment of this particular year set the tone for the next two decades as rights and opportunities expanded for more people, and as the conservative backlash to this expansion intensified.

The “river of purposeful anger” that describes the Modern Civil Rights Movement, has been populated by people from intertwining movements, much like those described below.

Women in 1960 played a limited role in American government. Although women comprised about half of the nation's voters, there were no female Supreme Court justices, federal appeals court justices, governors, cabinet officers, or ambassadors. Only two out of 100 U.S. senators and 15 out of 435 representatives were women. Of the 307 federal district judges, two were women. Of the 7,700 members of state legislatures, 234 were women. Nor were these figures atypical. Only two American women had ever been elected governor, only two had ever served in a president's cabinet, and only six had ever served as ambassador.

Economically, women workers were concentrated in low-paying service and factory jobs. The overwhelming majority of white women worked as secretaries, waitresses, beauticians, teachers, nurses, and librarians. Women of color typically performed domestic, agricultural, or manual labor. Only 3.5 percent of the nation's lawyers were women, 10 percent of the nation's scientists, and less than 2 percent of the nation's leading business executives.

In many parts of the country, the law discriminated against women. In three states—Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina—women could not sit on juries. Many states restricted married women's right to make contracts, sell property, engage in business, control their own earnings, and make wills. Six states gave fathers preference in the custody of young children after a divorce. In practically every state, men had a legal right to have intercourse with their wives and to administer an unspecified amount of physical punishment.

In 1963 Betty Friedan wrote the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique in which she explicitly objected to the mainstream media image of women; the book is widely credited with sparking second-wave feminism. In that same year, President John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women released its report on gender inequality. The report found discrimination against women in every aspect of American life and outlined plans to achieve equality. Specific recommendations for women in the workplace included fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare.

The women’s movement grew with legal victories such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the first federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, which established equality of pay for men and women performing equal work. However, it did not originally cover executives, administrators, outside salespeople, or professionals.

Source: Feminism Reborn

American Indians
By the late 1950s, a new spirit of Indian nationalism arose. In 1959, the Tuscarora tribe in upstate New York successfully resisted efforts by the state power authority to convert reservation land into a reservoir. In 1961, a militant new Indian organization, the National Indian Youth Council, appeared and began to use the phrase "Red Power." They sponsored demonstrations, marches, and "fish-ins" to protest state efforts to abolish Indian fishing rights guaranteed by federal treaties. In 1963, Native Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area were planning the Indian Historical Society to present history from the Indian point-of-view. In South Dakota, through the use of public referendum, the United Sioux Tribes successfully overturned a law that gave the state jurisdiction over reservation land.

When Alcatraz penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco closed in March 1963, Red Power activists felt the island qualified for reclamation in accordance with the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), between the U.S. and the Sioux, which returned all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal land to the Native people from whom it was acquired. The 1960s also marked the beginning of an "Indian Renaissance" in literature beginning with the classic Black Elk Speaks (1961), reprinted from the 1930s, reaching millions of readers inside and outside Indian communities.

Source: The Native American Power Movement


Latina/o Americans
On Election Day 1963, hundreds of Mexican Americans in Crystal City, Texas, gathered to do something that most had never done before: vote. Although Mexican Americans outnumbered Anglos by two to one, Anglos controlled all five seats on the city council. When the election was over, Mexican Americans had won control of the city council. "We have done the impossible," declared Albert Fuentes, who led the three-year voter registration campaign. "If we can do it in Crystal City, we can do it all over Texas. We can awaken the sleeping giant."

A year earlier, in California, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta co-founded what became the United Farm Workers (UFW), the largest and most powerful union for low-wage farmworkers. In 1963, Dolores Huerta also lobbied successfully for legislation to extend Aid to Families with Dependent Children to California farmworkers.

In Houston, the League of United Latin American Citizens gathering on November 21, 1963, was the last public meeting of President John F. Kennedy before his assassination the next day.

Sources: Viva La Raza!, President Kennedy at LULAC Conference, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century


Asian Americans
For a variety of reasons, Asian Americans did not become as publicly active in civil rights activities until the latter part of the decade. However, a contingent of 35 members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, over the objections of the more cautious members of the organization. In addition, a growing opposition to the Vietnam War included Asian Americans who perceived the war to be both unjust and racist, which helped to unify an Asian American movement.

Sources: The Asian American Movement, DISCovering Multicultural America: African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans

Young People
In 1963, 18-year-old young men were drafted to fight in Vietnam, but were not permitted to vote. A year earlier, the Port Huron Statement was issued by the Students for a Democratic Society as a call to action for young people to reclaim American democracy by resisting the Vietnam War, supporting African American civil rights, eliminating poverty, supporting labor unions, and other progressive positions. The statement became the manifesto of campus-based, affluent whites of the New Left throughout the rest of the decade.

Sources: The Port Huron Statement issued in 1962, Final statement


Poor Whites
Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) exposed the poverty in America, particularly among whites in Appalachia and, by 1963, was making an impact on the federal government’s response to poverty and economic conditions nationwide. President Johnson’s War on Poverty was said to be inspired by the book.

Source: The Other America Then and Now



A gay rights demonstration occurred at the Whitehall Induction Center in New York City, NY. Discrimination in the military was protested. This was the first significant gay rights demonstration in the U.S.

Source: Timeline of the Gay Liberation Movement: During the 1960s



Jenice L. View is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. For more than 20 years, View has worked with a variety of educational and nongovernmental organizations, including a public charter school, the Just Transition Alliance, Rural Coalition, the Association for Community Based Education, and LISTEN Inc., to create space for the voices that are often excluded from public policy considerations: women, people of color, poor urban and rural community residents, and especially youth. She has a BA from Syracuse University, an MPA-URP from Princeton, and a PhD from the Union Institute and University.

View, a native of one of the last U.S. colonies (Washington, D.C.), is the proud mother of two daughters, Ava and Leah. She hopes to pass on her inheritance of being a politically aware and socially active woman that she received from many, including her paternal grandparents (among the first organizers in the Nation of Islam in the 1940s) and her parents (who have helped form and sustain many local D.C. community institutions).

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