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.
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.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Washington, D.C. - August 28, 1963
July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 goes into effect.
Forty-nine years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to:
… enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.
This landmark piece of civil rights legislation had been a goal of Johnson’s predecessor John F. Kennedy, who, months before his assassination in November 1963, addressed the nation in order to underscore the nation’s need for a comprehensive civil rights bill and to urge the public to support a bill that would “[give] all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” Until 1963, Kennedy had shown much reservedness in pursuing his civil rights agenda, knowing it would antagonize southern Democrats, whose support was vital to his re-election, but the events of 1963 (the Birmingham campaign, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the integration of the University of Alabama) demanded the government take immediate action. Five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, a bold and experienced promoter of legislation, addressed Congress itself and urged them to pass the bill as quickly as possible, saying “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long”. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 289-126, garnering most of its support from northern states and emerging mostly intact and uncompromised.
The situation in the Senate was more complicated. Claiming that the bill was unconstitutional (not an uncommon accusation) and comparing it to Reconstruction-era policies, Senator Strom Thurmond actually switched to the Republican party, and the longtime Democratic-voting states of the South voted Republican in the 1964 election. The bill finally passed over intense Southern opposition after a seventy-five-day-long filibuster, which was ended by the second cloture invoked by the Senate in nearly forty years; the final vote was 73-27, and President Johnson signed the bill into law two weeks later.
President Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964
June 28, 1969: The Stonewall riots begin.
The Stonewall riots, though not the first protest of its kind, is commonly regarded as the beginning of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s and the modern LGBT rights movement. It erupted in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The Stonewall Inn opened in 1967 as a Mafia-funded gay establishment, attracting and serving patrons of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as transgender patrons, who were often barred from other establishments, while technically lacking a valid liquor license to do so; at the time, many such establishments were closed down or refused licenses by the New York State Liquor Authority for promoting “indecent conduct”, forcing many (such as the popular Stonewall Inn) to operate illegally. The owners of Stonewall utilized bribes and other underhanded tactics to keep the establishments open, and the bar was also prepared for regular police raids - even to relocate, if such measures were necessary.
One of these police raids took place on the evening of June 27 to the morning of June 28 resulting in thirteen arrests, but more importantly, an event that triggered America’s LGBTQ community to public action. In accordance with “standard procedure”, the policemen barred the doors and began checking the identifications of the patrons, in some cases leading select customers to bathrooms to verify their sex. As the policemen assembled the patrons in line and transported the seized alcohol to police cars, a crowd began to form outside Stonewall to watch the events unfold. What finally sparked a full-scale riot was, reportedly, the cry of one woman, who yelled “Why don’t you guys do something?” to the crowd of bystanders, and then was shoved into a police wagon. Hundreds of people then broke into a riot, scuffling with the police, smashing windows, and hurtling items. These were not spontaneous, random acts of destruction, but rather the culmination of pent-up anger and frustration over the continued silencing and suppression of the communities; said one demonstrator:
We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place…
A lull interrupted the rioting before an even larger demonstration began over the next few days, collectively making up the country’s first major, highly-publicized gay rights demonstration.