June 11, 1963: A Decade in One Day

56 years ago today, June 11, 1963 was a monumental one in the American civil rights movement.  It is the type of day that entire novels are written about, as it personifies the triumph and the tragedy of the 1960’s.

That morning, two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, arrived at the University of Alabama to become the first ever African American students to attend the school.

When they arrived, they were met by the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. He was fulfilling his promise to personally block the entrance of the students, and live up to his motto of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”  Wallace was joined in the doorway by members of the Alabama National Guard, assisting him in making his famous “stand at the schoolhouse door.”

Photo Credit: Associated Press

However, the Deputy District Attorney of the United States arrived with an order from President Kennedy for the federal government to take control of the Alabama National Guard. Wallace stepped aside, and allowed the students to enter.

Later that night, President Kennedy addressed the country to propose a civil rights bill be passed by congress.

He said:
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”


Photo Credit: Associated Press

After Kennedy spoke, N.A.A.C.P. field secretary Medgar Evers was passing out flyers encouraging African Americans to register to vote. In 1943, Evers had volunteered for the United States Army.   He did this in spite of a childhood filled with bigotry, including having to watch an African American man being dragged to death when he was only 13 years old.  He was one of the brave soldiers who participated in the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule after D Day.

Beginning in the 1950’s, Evers dedicated his life to civil rights leadership and helping register African Americans in the south to vote.

When Evers returned late that night to his home in Jackson, Mississippi, he was shot and killed by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith escaped two trials, even though he had bragged about killing Evers. He was not convicted until a third trial in 1994. Evers is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

I was fortunate enough to be able to place a rose on his headstone this past Memorial Day, but wish I could have just handed it to him.


Photo Credit: Bob Hammitt

It is important to understand that the civil rights movement is not only part of our past, but our present.

The war for civil rights is still being fought. Whether or not it will be won is up to the living.

That same day, Thic Quang Duc lit himself on fire in front of the United States embassy in Vietnam.  He did so to protest the U.S. support of the government of Vietnam which was forcing Buddhists to live by Catholic law.
This famous picture would serve as an ominous foreshadowing of the turbulence ahead in southeast Asia.

Photo Credit: Malcolm Browne

In 2019, it is easy to think that we live in trying times…….but remember, we have been here before.



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