THE BLOG
06/06/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

For 50 Years, the Events of June 11, 1963 have Remained Hidden in Plain Sight

In the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi, Medgar Wiley Evers, pulled into his driveway, having just met with NAACP attorneys developing strategies to deconstruct the state's Jim Crow laws.

As he emerged from his car, carrying t-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go," white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith fired a bullet from an Enfield 1917 rifle into Evers back that ricocheted into the house.

Evers died 50 minutes later at a local hospital. This tragic event culminated what was one of the most event-filled 24 hours in American history.

For President John F. Kennedy, June 11 began as he was handed the morning paper as he sat in bed talking to Attorney General, Robert Kennedy about their approach to the upcoming events at the University of Alabama, the president reportedly interrupted their discussion with an emphatic, "Jesus Christ!"

What altered Kennedy's focus was the photo of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who sat stoically in a busy intersection of Saigon, protesting against the persecution of Buddhist by South Vietnam President, Ngo Dinh Diem.

Kennedy would later remark, "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one."

David Halberstam, writing for the New York Times, whose coverage of Vietnam was becoming a constant irritant for the Kennedy administration, would write the following about this unforgettable image:

"Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think."

The Buddhist monk's self-immolation and the assassination of Evers served as public notices that the United States did not understand Vietnam and martyrdom would be the price that some would have to pay for the cause of civil rights. But there would be two other memorable events that would shape the public's consciousness.

The purpose of JFK's conversation with the attorney general, prior to his being interrupted by the shock and awe of events in Saigon, was to discuss the administration's strategy against the impending standoff in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Alabama Governor George Wallace, making good on a campaign promise to physically block any attempt by Negro students, Vivian Malone and James Hood to be admitted to the University of Alabama.

As Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, standing at the entrance, appealed to the governor not to do anything to impede the entrance of Malone and Hood. Wallace responded with a four-page statement that included language appealing to the state's "sovereignty" and the federal government's "illegal usurpation of power."

But Wallace, more concerned with the political theater, than any legal standing he possessed to prohibit Malone and Hood from being admitted to the university, acquiesced after Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard.

The final outcome, which was televised nationally, was a win-win for both sides. The Kennedy administration protected the civil rights of Malone and Hood without violence. Wallace became a national political figure and the face of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

As Wallace stepped aside, Kennedy watching on television in the Oval Office, turned to his speechwriter Ted Sorenson and said, "I think we better give that speech tonight."

"That speech" was the yet-to-be-written nationally televised address on civil rights that the leadership within the movement had been imploring the president to give for nearly a year.
What Sorenson hastily put together was the greatest speech on civil rights by a U.S. president since Lincoln. In a single sentence Kennedy eloquently and succinctly summed up the issue:
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

Long before Kennedy uttered those words, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were aware of the public morality of their quest for full citizenship. But it was nevertheless affirming to hear the president tell the nation.

It was a particularly poignant moment for Evers' wife, Myrlie, who watched the speech with hope and optimism as she heard the president articulate the reasons why her husband was still at a meeting that night that would cause him not to return home until the early morning hours of June 12, 1963.

Since I began writing about 1963, it has been my contention that many of the groundbreaking events that shaped the nation have remained hidden in plain sight, engulfed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22. But the events beginning on June 11 are clearly among the most transformative of the 20th century.

Byron Williams is a columnist, author, and pastor, his forthcoming book "1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility" will be released July 16.