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September 17, 2013

'Birmingham Sunday' was civil

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.

And people all over the earth turned around.

For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.

And the choir kept singing of Freedom.

— From “Birmingham Sunday” by Joan Baez

The year 1963 was tumultuous, to say the least. It is remembered primarily, however, for the exclamation point added to it on Nov. 22, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

For the civil rights movement, it was a year of struggle, of defeats, of violence and of attention-grabbing television footage. And it was the year that much of the nation tuned in to see the March on Washington and hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.

Throughout the South, there had been scattered progress during recent years in overcoming the segregation of blacks and whites, which I had witnessed personally during trips through southern states as a child. 

I remember stopping at drive-in eateries in the Carolinas and Georgia and seeing separate windows and tables out back for blacks to place their orders and eat. I went to a movie theater in Florida and was surprised to learn that blacks got the best seats — in the balcony.

By 1963, however, from lunch counters to schools, integration was occurring, albeit at a snail’s pace. In Alabama, though, even that pace was too rapid for white leaders and many citizens. On Jan. 14, Gov. George Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation forever’’ in his first inaugural speech.

Many observers considered Birmingham, Ala., to be the most segregated and racist city in America, and much of the civil rights struggles were centered there in 1963. Black leaders had begun pushing for integration, and white supremacists vowed to not let their city become like Montgomery to the south, where desegregation had made some inroads.

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