The stories of those who were betrayed by their fellow man, cornered by corrupt institutions and executed without cause nor crime in the name of "justice". These are our stories.

January 1, 2010

The Fight Against Fear: Establishing Equality in America

The Birmingham Church bombing killed four girls all under the age of 14 in 1963.
The September 15th 1963 Birmingham church bombing killed four girls - the oldest was fourteen.

When man made injustice is done in the name of man's justice, in any age, it renders the man to whom that injustice happens helpless. This was the case in 1960's America as a growing population of black Americans became educated enough to realize that laws were a creation of a multi-cultural society not the immutable, unchangable commandments from a paper god.

Many black American leaders fought for these changes in law and society but did not live to see them take place. These mens' rebuke, their punishment for seeking equal status, came for generations in the guise of official policy. Their consolation came in the form of official lies that stripped them of hard-earned dignity. Their shelter was the bitter cold. All the while, an inequitable society expected a smile on the wronged mens' faces. When these man continued to question official hypocrisy - they were quickly answered with fear-mongering, violence and death.

When these men asked why injustice was official policy they were often told: "This is the way of the world". This inequitable answer was meant to be the final and unquestionable answer.

Although, in 1776, the American Constitution guaranteed all men equal status this was not the legal status for black Americans up to the mid-1960's.

March for Jobs and Freedom
The March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC. on August 28th 1963.

In the first part of the 20th Century, the "answer" to race relations in America came in the form of Jim Crow laws, poll "taxes" and segregation. This policy came not as the result of history but rather of hatred and ignorance.

These wide spread local policies were actually illegal laws that nullified the Bill of Rights. This hypocrisy disregarded the blood and tears spilled during the Civil War and WWII and unofficially, these practices re-wrote the American Constitution. The final "answer" to race relations from 1865 to 1963 only inspired more questions.

Religious and educational organizations began to form within churches and schools to counteract the brutally enforced policies of hatred and ignorance.

By Danny Lyon, from Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery
1962 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Photo by Danny Lyon, from Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Why did hundreds of thousands of strong, young men die bravely, right up to the early 1960's, fighting for the civil rights of only one race of people when they come from a country of many races? The question would not go away. Why?


"All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"
- The American Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776

Two centuries after the American Revolution, finding the answer made the world of 1960's America one of social upheaval. Students, preachers, film makers, writers and musicians kept shouting a one word question: Why?

As a group of many groups (SNCC, Freedom Riders, SBLC), they collectively challenged the long standing second class citizenship of black Americans. 100 years after the end of slavery in the United States, racial tension, mostly between fat cat politicians, apathetic "leaders", embittered racists and uneducated fearmongers, came to an inevitable boil. Riots and protests. demonstrations and peacefull marches began to crowd the streets of New York, Birmingham, Washington DC and Los Angeles.

Drinking fountains in the County Courthouse in Albany, Georgia in 1962. Photo by Daniel Lyon.

Drinking fountains in the County Courthouse in Albany, Georgia in 1962. Photo by Daniel Lyon.

Young people and respected elders took up a national fight to guarantee equality to all men and women in the United States. Their goal was to ensure that the promise of the American Constitution was lived up to the last letter. They modeled their goals around higher education and civil disobedience.

Many of the civil rights leaders were from educational or religious backgrounds like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X but were inspired by another document: The American Declaration of Independence. Written while the nation was a dominion of a foreign empire, it boldly stated: "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". For black and minority Americans, who forefathers had created a nation and each with a long history in America, it was time for social reform to include all Americans. The US Army and then US baseball teams had used integrated soldiery and players for decades. Members of minority groups had contributed to an American culture by 1963 but would not enjoy equal rights until 1967.

By Danny Lyon, from Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery
A 1962 meeting in Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Photo by Danny Lyon.

The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were Southern Baptists, Irish-Catholics, African Americans and student volunteers. These men and women were determinded to see the promise of America's founding document fufilled, or, see the government admit that it was, in fact, a 20th Century empire.

These leaders came from the far North, from way out West, and brought their fight for equality to the deep South and the steps of Capitol Building in Washington DC. They were each united in their sense of social justice, courageous willingness to speak and act, and driven to change their world by a deep sense of morality.

By Danny Lyon, from Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery
A student volunteer at a 1962 meeting in Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia Photo by Danny Lyon.

Their names were often as unknown as their deaths. There were attacks and assassinations that made the nation weep bitter tears. Rome was not re-made in in a day. The fight was not never an easy one. In the end, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made good on the promise of a equal American populated undivided by legal status or hobbled by segregation.

This equality of status was earned by soldiers and immigrants who fought for America no mmater there race or religion for 200 years. Equality of status was campaigned for by non-violent professionals and masses of people who wanted to live in just county. These people faced vicious and violent punishments for breaking with a world of irrational bigotry.

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth leading marchers in prayer just before they are arrested in early April 1963 in Birmingham Alabama.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth leading marchers in prayer just before they are arrested in early April of 1963 in Birmingham Alabama.

Today, every American enjoys the independence that was won in the 18th century. This struggle for equality was re-newed repeated in the 20th century. Democracy, fought for, bled for and taken from a loose concept and made into a firm reality is the core principle that defines America and America alone.

This modern age will always owe thanks to those who refused to accept the answer "This is the way of the world" - those who bravely replied, through their actions: "This is the way of the world that should be."

Notes:
0 = A 11-year-old future Secretary of State Condelezza Rice was a friend and classmate of the youngest of the girls who were killed in the attack in '63, Carol McNair, 11. The other girls were Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14 and Addie Mae Collins, 14.
1 = No one was convicted of the bombing until 1985. Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was convicted in 1985 of four counts of Murder. His accomplices Bobby Cherry, Thomas Blanton Jr., Herman Cash, and Troy Ingram were primary suspects but never convicted. Each of these men have each died since - Chambliss and Cherry both died in prison.


References:
Wikipedia, 16th Street Church Bombing '63
Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Photographers of a Movement
Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Albany, Georgia 1962
Avalon Project, The Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776
Black Past.org, Washington August 28th 1963