Fiftieth anniversary adds a human face

It’ll be half a century this year. 50 years have passed since 200,000 people stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. 50 years since an explosion killed four little girls in their Sunday best. 50 years since George C. Wallace promised, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 50 years since the governor stood in the schoolhouse door.

George Wallace schoolhouse doorNeedless to say, 2013 is a big year.

The Dirksen Congressional Center has a great timeline for civil rights in 1963.

Born and raised in Birmingham, I grew up surrounded by rich, dark history. I learned the word “demagogue” studying a portrait of George Wallace. I thought the name Bull Connor was a synonym for fire hose. I watched Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, Four Little Girls, sitting on the floor of a decade’s worth of classrooms. I had nightmares about the white robe and hood encased in plexiglass at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

And, in 1963, my race might have associated me with the bad guys. hosts a page called Alabama Civil Rights, 1963: How Birmingham changed America and the world. The multimedia experience touts the impact of that year, and the importance of this anniversary. It is a celebration.

Earlier this month, the site ran an article reflecting on George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address. The one whose words, written by Ku Klux Klan leader Asa Carter, would define Alabamian ideals of segregation and prompt civil rights violence. The sources in the article are diverse, one is an author, one a historian, and one is Alabama’s first African American federal judge. All agree that Wallace did not realize the impact his speech would have or the violence it would incite.

I’d read a similar article in Rick Bragg’s collection of newspaper stories Somebody Told Me. The article, A Symbol of Alabama’s Past, Indelible to Black and White, ran in a 1998 edition of the New York Times. The man who ran on a platform of hate and violence, the one who had blocked Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama with his own body, the one who was shot at a mall in Maryland and confined to a wheelchair, had died.

Some of the article’s sources had been hurt by Wallace and his deep-south ideologies. They had all forgiven him. One man even believed that Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door was beneficial for the cause–it gained the civil rights movement national attention. Then 65-year-old James Harper worshipped the governor, and his ideals. Some of the younger ones didn’t know who he was at all.

I have heard the stories a million times. I’m sure I’ll hear them a million more. But the personal, in-depth stories about the civil rights movement that 2013 brings are exciting. They are the stories of people, of flesh and bone. Fingers crossed that they continue past January.


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