A look back at 1963 and the civil rights movement

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. made a plea for freedom, equality and hope that our great nation could rise above the lines of color that were tearing it apart.

What King may not have known at the time was that this, and several other important moments in the civil rights movement, would create snapshots of history that are still coveted in the hearts of people everywhere today.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the March on Washington itself, the Birmingham demonstrations and the 16th Street Baptist church bombing. ASU English professor Keith Miller has dedicated his career to studying King’s speeches and the civil rights movement, and says it is events such as these that made a significant impact to launch the efforts of the movement.

The March on Washington brought together many great speakers in support of jobs and freedom. Miller says that this was one the largest political rallies in history for civil rights. The famous “I Have A Dream” speech lasted 18 minutes and, in typical King fashion, referenced not just his own ideas, but song verses and parts of other speeches he greatly admired to reiterate his point. Specifically, the Dream speech borrows from a speech made by Archibald Carey, an African-American politician.

“King says, ‘let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire,” Miller explained. “He borrowed that from Carey’s 1952 speech at the Republican National Convention.”

Miller included that it was common for people to reference other speeches in their own, and also use words from gospels, spirituals and hymns.

Soon after the March on Washington, tragedy struck when the 16th street Baptist church bombing occurred and claimed the lives of four children. The church was a local hotspot in Alabama for civil rights gatherings.

“People were so elated after the march and felt this great sense of accomplishment, then the bombing happened and everyone was devastated,” Miller said.

The event made national headlines and contributed to the passage of the Civil Right’s Act of 1964.

During the same time, the Birmingham demonstrations, which consisted of sit-ins and protests of segregated facilities in department stores were taking place. The protests also called for an end to employment discrimination. The ripples of these demonstrations were felt in Washington where the federal government was pressured into enforcing the rights of black individuals.

Miller says that in addition to these events, there were also many people who contributed to the success of the movement, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Moses, James Meredith and Ralph Abernathy.

“The civil rights movement was a mass movement that involved thousands of people and dozens of leaders," Miller says. "Many of these folks were women who rarely received news coverage because the reporters were men. There was just a lot of segregation happening."

So while we may not remember all of the courageous men and women who fought in the civil rights movement, we feel their presence every day as people of various racial backgrounds and genders live and work together in unity. 

The Department of English is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.