I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe white racial violence in response to the desegregation of "Ole Miss" and in Birmingham, Alabama, towards the end of the Kennedy administration.
John Kennedy’s inaugural speech deeply moved an African American veteran of the Air Force, James Meredith, who attempted to register at the all-white University of Mississippi at Oxford. In spite of his excellent grades and his service in the military, the university’s admissions office turned down his application. Meredith filed a lawsuit and a federal court ruled that the university had to admit him as a student. On September 20, 1962, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett personally blocked Meredith’s way as he attempted to register at the admissions office. Angry over Barnett’s obstruction of a federal order, Robert Kennedy sent 500 federal marshals to “Ole Miss,” as the campus was known. Meredith registered and checked into his dorm room without violence.
However, on September 30, an agitated mob of students and non-students from across the South gathered to chant, “Two, four, one, three, we all hate Kennedy.” The mob began throwing rocks at the federal marshals, and the marshals responded by firing tear gas canisters into the crowd. The crowed grew into the thousands. Many in the mob were brought to Mississippi by former Gen. Edwin Walker, who had been relieved of his command of the Army’s 24th Infantry Division in Germany for distributing to his troops literature from the John Birch Society, an extremist anti-communist organization. Walker, who ironically commanded National Guard units occupying Little Rock’s Central High School during that school’s desegregation, also accused former President Harry Truman and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt of being communist sympathizers. Walker stirred the crowds by blasting “the conspiracy of the crucifixion by anti-Christ conspirators of the Supreme Court” that had ordered school desegregation.
Soon a riot broke out with the white mob throwing not just rocks, but acid, bricks, Molotov cocktails and buckshot fired from rifles. As a result of the mêlée, 160 marshals were wounded, with 28 hit by bullets. Two men were killed, a jukebox repairman who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and a French news cameraman. Monitoring events through the night, Kennedy ordered 5,000 army troops to the campus before dawn. In the end, Meredith attended Ole Miss for two semesters, enduring anger, threats and harassment from fellow students.
Events at Mississippi deeply shaped John and Robert Kennedy. “[President Kennedy] looked, first, with greater skepticism at the notion that moral suasion alone could effect major changes in race relations in the Deep South,” wrote historian Robert Weisbrot. “. . . The President also found that bolder action on race issues would not necessarily destroy his political base in the South. Although leaders in Mississippi and neighboring Alabama harked back to dark images of Reconstruction, in other Southern states the reaction to the president’s use of troops was milder. Many officials recognized that Kennedy had responded patiently to [Gov.] Barnett’s provocations and ordered Army units only as a last resort in the face of unrelieved mob violence.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders knew it would take more dramatic direct actions to keep the administration focused on the issue. They planned a series of boycotts aimed at department stores in downtown Birmingham, the Alabama capital where the Freedom Riders had received their worst beatings and where city officials shut down all parks rather than comply with a Department of the Interior order to desegregate them. King deliberately started the campaign during Easter time, knowing that the city’s African American community spent a substantial sum every year buying holiday clothes at the city’s segregated department stores. These stores would not allow black customers to try on clothes and made them buy any product they touched. When activists began their sit-ins and picketing on April 3, 1963, Sheriff Connor showed surprising restraint, ordering his officers not to use billy clubs or any other violent techniques to break up the protests. He did, however, ominously place growling and snapping police dogs within sight of the civil rights demonstrators.
After eight days of protests, a state court ordered King to stop the campaign. King was arrested and held for three days – symbolically, as it turned out – from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Eight Southern ministers and rabbis issued a statement praising Birmingham officials for enforcing the law, criticizing King and other civil rights leaders for increasing racial tensions and calling their boycott “unwise and untimely,” and urging black leaders to wait until Southern society was ready to accept the type of changes the freedom movement demanded. The statement provoked King to write his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” a masterpiece of American literature that would later be included in his book, "Why We Can’t Wait". A black trusty lent him a pen and scraps of paper, and King composed his letter in a dimly lit cell. In the April 16, 1963 letter, King explained to Southern moderates why the movement could afford no more patience:
"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky . . . when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored" . . . when . . . you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
King’s letter was published and quoted in newspapers and church bulletins across the country. He was finally released on April 20. By the time King stepped outside the jail, the boycott had lost steam. “We have scraped the bottom of the barrel of adults who would [risk going to jail],” one protestor explained to King. King and his top lieutenants then agreed to recruit high school students to participate in the protests. By May 2, more than 900 children had gone to jail for participating in the protest. Connor reverted to form. On May 3, officers stormed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where more than 1, 000 boycotters had gathered. As the protestors left the church, police aimed fire hoses at the congregants with sufficient force to knock both children and adults to the ground and tear skin from their bodies. Police began to wildly swing their billy clubs even as they released police dogs that began biting old and young alike. White attacks continued for four days, and some of the younger African Americans lost patience with non-violence and began throwing rocks and soda bottles at the police.
Sales at downtown Birmingham stores dropped to almost nothing during what traditionally had been a profitable season. Local merchants were also facing pressure from Northern suppliers who were appalled by the televised violence and the possibility that the boycott movement might spread to affect their businesses. The downtown merchants hammered out a compromise with King on May 10: In return for desegregation of the stores, the protestors would end the boycott. The agreement angered some in the Civil Rights Movement who felt that King had compromised too quickly and that more concessions could have been forced on the city’s white leadership. Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Sheriff Connor also attacked the agreement, with Connor urging whites to boycott stores that had integrated.
In the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign, two dynamite explosions blasted the home of King’s brother, a Birmingham minister, while another dynamite blast destroyed part of the Gaston Motel where the movement leadership had set up headquarters. African Americans again took to the streets and hurled rocks and other weapons at police who responded by again clubbing the protestors. Birmingham became known as “Bombingham.”
RACIAL TENSIONS AND THE FINAL MONTHS OF THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION
Even as the administration wished the civil rights issue would fade from public attention, protests against segregation broke out across the country. In 1963, civil rights activists marched not just for desegregation, but also for better jobs and better schools, not just in Southern cities like Jackson, Mississippi and Raleigh, North Carolina, but also in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Approximately 75,000 Americans participated in civil rights marches in May 1963 alone.
Alabama Governor George Wallace stood blocking the entrance to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama as two African American students, Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, armed with a court order mandating their admission, attempted to enter the building. Wallace won election the previous year promising to resist integration. During his inaugural speech on January 14, 1963, he declared, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" The Kennedys negotiated with Wallace, who agreed he would step aside to let the students inside the building once he had finished making a speech. President Kennedy nationalized the Alabama National Guard to guarantee Wallace’s compliance.
That night in a national broadcast, the president made his strongest statement ever in support of civil rights. The speech, written by aide Ted Sorenson, was not finished until minutes before airtime. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” Kennedy told his audience.
It’s as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution . . . If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? . . . Are we to say to the world, and much more importantly to each other that this is a land of the free except for Negroes; that we have no second class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
The same evening as this dramatic speech, the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, was shot to death in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home. On June 19, 1963, the president submitted to Congress a sweeping civil rights bill which strengthened voting rights laws, empowered the attorney general to file school desegregation lawsuits, gave the president the power to end federal funding of state programs that racially discriminated, and outlawed segregation in public accommodations such as restaurants, movie theaters, hotels and motels, stores, and stadiums. Civil rights leaders wanted more, such as a ban on job discrimination, but Kennedy told movement leaders that the bill went as far as it could if it were to have any chances to pass the Congress. Because of the opposition of most Southern Democrats, Kennedy would have to rely on support from liberal Republicans.
Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations,” edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.