While the struggle with the FCC dragged on, we continued producing programs.
The civil rights movement, particularly in the South could not be stopped, red-baited or intimidated. You think today’s demonstrators face daunting odds and that our society is beset by violence? Read on.
In 1963 nine hundred and thirty civil rights demonstrations took place in 115 cities in 11 southern states. Southern police arrested 20,000 people. Birmingham jailed Martin Luther King & Reverend Ralph Abernathy in May for marching in defiance of an injunction. A few days later Birmingham Chief of Police “Bull” Connor turned fire houses & dogs on children marching out of the 16th St Baptist Church to keep them from leaving the “Negro section.” Police threw almost a thousand children into jail. In June assassins killed Medgar Evers, a NAACP field secretary.
That August, one of the largest demonstrations in American history took place in Washington DC. Pacifica was there when 300,000 people converged on the capitol to demonstrate for Jobs and Freedom for African-Americans. This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
What’s interesting to me is the broad range of liberal and radical organizations brought together in a common progressive cause. Leaders included a traditional union leader, A. Phillip Randolph and young radicals such as James Farmer (president of the Congress of Racial Equality) and John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP) and Whitney Young (president of the National Urban League) objected to the inclusion of Bayard Rustin on the grounds that he was a homosexual, a former Communist and a draft resistor. Martin Luther King was instrumental in changing their minds. Only Malcolm X stayed away.
The August demonstration didn’t change anything in the South. In September, Klan members bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The bombs killed four young girls and injured twenty-two others. Martin Luther King returned to Birmingham to contain the rioting that broke out after the bombing. We sent Dale Minor with him. The result was an intense documentary from the pool halls and streets of Birmingham called Freedom Now!
For those of us living in New York City, the demolition of Pennsylvania station that began in October of 1963 was heart rendering, the loss of one of America’s great architectural masterpieces to make way for an ugly box. WBAI started a series on historic preservation as an invigorated campaign to save historic buildings began to mobilize in New York City.
On November 22nd, bullets struck and killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Whether we like or dislike a president, an assassination of a national leader is traumatic. Two days later Jack Ruby killed Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas city hall basement. Cameras captured both events on film and the networks broadcast the clips endlessly for three days, through Kennedy’s funeral on November 25th.
Less well-remembered but much talked about at the time was a comment by Malcolm X. Shortly after Kennedy’s funeral, on December 1st, he gave a long speech in New York City called God’s Judgment of White America, essentially a statement of the Nation of Islam’s policies. In the question period following, someone asked Malcolm about Kennedy’s assassination. He replied that it was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Reporters were present and the New York Times published an article about the remark the next day, adding that the audience applauded. Mainstream media commentators said they were shocked by Malcom’s comment and a huge hullabaloo followed. The Nation of Islam forced Malcolm to resign. Reporters ignored Malcolm’s explanation for the crack. He pointed out that two weeks before Kennedy was killed, the President had authorized the killing of South Vietnam Premier Ngo Dinh Diem who Kennedy viewed as an impediment to U.S. aspirations in the area. Malcolm’s comment was the equivalent of “if you live the sword you may die by the sword.”
Kennedy’s death put his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, in office. In Johnson’s first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, the new President declared a “War on Poverty.” We were dubious about his sincerity, but Johnson quickly prioritized the ambitions of Roosevelt’s New Deal. With this commitment to justice, the administration urged the civil rights movement to avoid confrontations that brought on violence. Liberals agreed and urged demonstrators to work through the political process. In the summer of 1964, COFO and SNCC put that suggestion to the test, when they launched Mississippi Freedom Summer.
I produced 12 1/2 hour radio documentaries on Freedom Summer. Listening to them in 2015, I am struck by the length of some of the sound bites, as much as four uninterrupted minutes. For me, the cadence of the voices reveal the deep thoughts and feelings behind them. I intrude as little as possible. Taken together, they offer a much more comprehensive look at Freedom Summer than I can provide in these posts.
This Little Light (1st program in a 12 part series on Mississippi in the summer of 1964).
- Part 1 – The New Negro. SNCC Executive Director James Foreman explains that Freedom Summer is about bringing students from across the United States to Mississippi to empower its young people to take control of their lives.