In April, 1963, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he headed began “Operation C” in Birmingham. The “C” stood for confrontation that would prove more than prophetic in a city so plagued by racial violence that one section was dubbed “Dynamite Hill” because of the bombings there. Operation C’s objectives were desegregation of downtown lunch counters, fitting rooms of clothing stores,and restrooms, and improved job opportunities for black workers.
Demonstrators marched day after day. They were arrested peacefully at first, but then police tactics changed as school children began to take part in the demonstrations. On May 3, in sweltering afternoon heat, 50 black teenagers came out of a church and began to march two-by-two along a sidewalk. When they refused to disperse, Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered a high-pressure fire hose turned on the young marchers.
It was an incredible sight as the water struck, slamming the teenagers backward against a building. The force of the water tore one boy’s T-shirt. The marchers retreated. Then came a group of mostly teenage girls. They got the same treatment. Angry yells came from a crowd of black spectators in the park across the street. Suddenly, the fire hose was directed at the crowd, and Connor called for police dogs.
“Bring in the dogs,” he growled. “All you got to do is tell them you’re going to bring the dogs.” Suddenly, the German shepherds, snarling, baring fangs were on the scene, straining at their leashes, chasing the fleeing spectators, newsmen and passersby. Several people were bitten by the dogs in addition to injuries caused by the fire hose.
It was a climactic point in the movement. News reports and pictures of the water pummeling the teenagers and the police dogs lunging after spectators went around the world, triggering outrage and support for the movement. More demonstrations followed, punctuated by bombings of the home of King’s brother and the movement’s motel headquarters.
The jails filled and overflowed to nearby fairgrounds with nearly 2,600 demonstrators, most of them teenagers. Finally, business leaders agreed to the demands of “Operation C.” President John F. Kennedy went before the nation via radio and television to announce that he would ask Congress for a new law “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public.” This was the backdrop for the March on Washington.
King believed the time was ripe for a massive demonstration to put the pressure on Congress to enact the new civil rights bill facing certain filibuster from Southerners. He had honed the ideas for his speech at some of the mass meetings which I covered, and he hoped the Washington event would provide the largest audience ever to hear his message. He would not be disappointed.
Tens of thousands came on that clear, hot day, Aug. 28, 1963, a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln whose towering statue looked out over the masses. A questing sea of people, their number estimated at 250,000, cheered as King stepped before the microphones. It was the climactic moment of a long day.
King said the nation had not kept its promise that all men had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” He warned against anti-white attitudes and the use of violence. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Then he spoke of his dream. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal….’ I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
As the people were held in the spell of oratory and the man and the moment, he finished with these now-famous words: “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We’re free at last!’”
It was King’s finest hour. However, within the ranks of the movement already there was a push by young black leaders for stronger action. A youthful John R. Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been persuaded to delete from his speech that day the assertion that the Kennedy bill was “too little and too late.”
The pressure stayed on in Birmingham and on Sept. 4 black students registered at some of the white schools. Whites protested, and that night a bomb damaged the home of attorney Arthur D. Shores, who had handled desegregation lawsuits for the movement. He was not hurt but angry crowds of blacks gathered. They were dispersed by police firing guns into the air, and one black man was shot to death. Birmingham was boiling again.
The summer of unrest presaged worse yet to come. The American civil rights movement met new obstacles in the months ahead as the nation was shaken to its foundation by violence but the movement could not be stopped. The dream lived on.
Don McKee covered the civil rights movement first as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser and then for the Associated Press, assigned to major stories including the Montgomery bus boycott, demonstrations in Savannah, Albany and Atlanta, in Birmingham and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, St. Augustine, two Mississippi marches, riots in Newark, Chicago and Detroit, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. McKee wrote the biography, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1969. He has been a columnist for the Marietta Daily Journal since 1998. firstname.lastname@example.org