06/11/2013 08:46 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

A Day That Shook the World

Some days stand out from almost all others in their significance. Most of the dates we remember, such as Dec. 7, 1941, Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, are notorious for a single event. On rare occasions, there is a concurrence of two major events on a single day. One thinks, for example, of Darwin and Lincoln being born on the same day in 1809.

But 50 years ago this week, June 11, 1963, is historically unique in having four major events that shaped the tumultuous decade of the '60s happen on a single date.

On that eventful day, the bouncing ball of national media attention to civil rights shifted in rapid succession from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Washington, and then to Jackson, Miss.

In the morning, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace "stood in the schoolhouse door" in Tuscaloosa to block the integration of the University of Alabama. Once he had milked all the publicity he could from the photo-op and President John F. Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard in the afternoon, Wallace stood aside.

As Wallace backed down, Kennedy turned to his assistant Ted Sorensen and said, "I think we'd better give that speech tonight." The speechwriter was flabbergasted because the president was referring to a call for a civil rights bill, but there was as yet no specific plan for such a bill and certainly not for a presidential speech on the subject.

Fresh off his widely hailed address at American University on easing Cold War tensions and the nuclear threat the night before, Kennedy made an impulsive decision in the late afternoon to go on national television that evening to talk to the American people about race and to call for the passage of a civil rights bill. Twenty-four hours after he had called for making "the world safe for diversity," he would now call for making the United States a place where its diverse citizens could enjoy safety and equality. Apart from the Cuban missile crisis, these two inspiring speeches on June 10 and 11, 1963, were the finest moments in JFK's presidency.

The civil rights address was a stirring speech in which Kennedy went much further to identify with the cause of freedom for all Americans than he ever had before. He spoke of a "moral crisis" facing the nation. "We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?"

Among those impressed with Kennedy's words that night was Martin Luther King Jr., who turned to the Rev. Walter Fauntroy when the president finished and said, "Walter, can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!"

Within hours of the end of the speech, a white American who was not prepared to accept black Americans as part of "us" shot Medgar Evers in the back as the Mississippi NAACP leader got out of his car at his home in Jackson. Evers was dead within an hour.

The civil rights triple play, from Tuscaloosa to Washington to Jackson, extraordinary though it was, does not encompass the full extent of what happened on that astonishing day a half-century ago. Before the first of the American events had occurred in the Western Hemisphere, June 11 was well along on the other side of the International Date Line. In South Vietnam, where troops had opened fire on Buddhist crowds in Hue during the period of the Birmingham protests a month before, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself before a large crowd of horrified people at a major intersection in downtown Saigon.

"Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring," wrote one witness, journalist David Halberstam. "In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly." And the line was direct from the monk's fiery protest -- to which Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, infamously responded, "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands" and offered to supply gasoline and matches for more such "barbeques" -- to the U.S. supported coup in November and the tragedy of ever-deepening American involvement in the war.

Photos of this ultimate act of protest appeared on front pages around the world. "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one," said JFK, who saw the photo of the burning monk on the morning of the day that would conclude for him with his momentous civil rights speech.

June 11, 1963, was a day that began and ended with horrible deaths of protesters on opposite sides of the globe, in Saigon and Jackson, sandwiched around a staged confrontation with the federal government by a politically motivated segregationist and the joining of the leader of the free world with the cause of freedom.

Love and hate, hope and death, doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, race and war -- and all of it in one way or another about freedom. June 11, 1963, was much of the '60s in microcosm -- a day in the the life and death of the '60s. And the events of that day were to be major milestones in the two mega-issues that largely defined the decade: race relations and the American war in Vietnam.

It was that extraordinary decade's most extraordinary day.

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He is completing a book on the early 1960s.

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