January 23, 1964: The Twenty-fourth Amendment is passed, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections.
On this day fifty years ago, South Dakota became the thirty-eighth state to ratify the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the denial or abridgment of a U.S. citizen’s right to vote “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax”.
In many states, the poll tax emerged after the end of Reconstruction as part of Southern states’ systems of Jim Crow laws, which maintained de jure racial segregation in those states over a period of eighty years. Because of voting restrictions like poll taxes, the “grandfather clause”, and literacy tests, the black population in the South was largely disenfranchised after the end of Reconstruction despite the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment, until efforts to reverse this gained traction in the mid-20th century. In 1940, three percent of voting-age black voters were registered to vote in the South. Much of the high-profile civil rights activism that took place during the 1950s-60s involved voting rights and registration, including the 1964 Freedom Summer and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
Poll taxes for state elections were ruled unconstitutional under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1966 Supreme Court case Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
Novemer 22, 1963: John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
I turned around and said to him, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” And there was a second or two, and I heard this noise.
October 14, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis begins.
One of the defining and tensest moments of the Cold War, “the ultimate exercise in nuclear brinkmanship”, began on this day in 1962, when an American U-2 aircraft obtained images of Soviet nuclear missile installations in Cuba. By placing missiles a mere hundred miles or so off the shores of the United States, the Soviets hoped to counter any American attempts to oust the communist regime in Cuba and play out its role as a leader against Western imperialism; however, the move was also one that Khrushchev stated “would equalize what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power’”. Some - including President Kennedy - interpreted Khrushchev’s challenge as a prelude to a planned Soviet takeover of West Berlin.
After much deliberation and considering options ranging from nothing to full-scale invasion, the U.S. decided to “quarantine" Cuba through a naval blockade, also warning that it would "regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union". At the same time, an ExComm memorandum noted that the presence of these missiles on Cuba did not significantly upset the pre-existing balance of power. In an interview conducted 25 years later, Robert McNamara stated that U.S. demands that the missiles be removed were politically, not militarily, motivated. The crisis and diplomatic stalemate continued over the following weeks. On October 26, the Strategic Air Command was ordered to DEFCON-2: the alert state signifying a hyper-alert state of military readiness preceding possible nuclear war. DEFCON-2 had never before been ordered, and was thereafter never ordered again, reflecting the widely-held belief that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the highest point of tension between the United States and the Soviet during the Cold War, and that for two weeks, the world sat on the brink of nuclear war.
That situation of worldwide catastrophe was avoided through accords that involved the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, the removal of American missiles from Turkey and Italy, and an American guarantee to respect Cuba’s territorial sovereignty.
Title: Season of the Witch
"Season of the Witch" (1966), Donovan
September 15, 1963: Ku Klux Klan members bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church.
At 10 AM on a Sunday morning, a box of dynamite planted in the basement of a Birmingham church exploded. The ensuing blast injured twenty-two people and killed four - all black girls, three of them 14 years old and one of them only 11. During the riots that followed, two more black youths, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Wade, were shot to death by police attempting to disperse crowds.
The year 1963 was an eventful year for the American civil rights movement: President Kennedy announced to the nation his intention to get passed a civil rights bill; activist Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home in Mississippi; the University of Alabama was desegregated under the pressure of the National Guard; hundreds of thousands gathered at the National Mall for the March on Washington; and numerous protests, demonstrations, and boycotts were organized across the South. Birmingham, Alabama, was a particularly divided - and violent, when it came to issues of race - part of the country. Images and news of the Birmingham campaign made national headlines.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the senseless killing of young and innocent bystanders, and the violent clashes that resulted in reaction to the bombing were highly-publicized stories that alerted Americans to the struggles of the civil rights movement, although bomb threats and violence were not uncommon occurrences in Birmingham. The men responsible, later identified as members of a KKK splinter group, were not tried for the crime until 1977 (in the case of the group’s leader) and 2000.
August 28, 1963: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom begins.
Fifty years ago, between 200,000 and 300,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. for a historic march that, 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, sought to bring national attention to the persistent problems faced by black Americans. Most were related to economic inequality, and others to disenfranchisement and segregation, and so the march was dubbed the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. At the time, the Kennedy Administration was taking steps to pass a civil rights bill, for which the march was also meant to show support, that was originally proposed to the American public by the president earlier that summer. This bill was eventually signed into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The demonstration was primarily led and coordinated by a coalition of different organizations and leaders: A. Philip Randolph, longtime civil rights activist and labor leader; James Farmer of CORE; John Lewis of SNCC; Martin Luther King, Jr. of the SCLC; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. Bayard Rustin, whose homosexuality was often attacked by other civil rights leaders and perceived as damaging to their cause, was the march’s chief organizer. Other influences perceived as too radical (communists, and anything that might have drawn demonstrators away from non-violent protest) were excluded as well. Phrases criticizing the federal government’s inaction, criticisms of the president’s civil rights bill, and mentions of revolution and “scorched earth” were cut from John Lewis’ speech, deemed too inflammatory.
Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream" speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, remains the defining moment of the march and a defining moment of the era.