The year 1963 was a momentous one for the fight against discrimination and events were moving quickly. By that year, many leaders in the civil rights movement had begun to question the sincerity of President Kennedy’s commitment to racial equality.
A Great Change is at HandIn terms of social unrest, it had been a very hot summer. In June, the president had been forced to take a bold step, to federalize the Alabama National Guard when George Wallace, the segregationist governor of the state, refused to allow two black students to attend the state university in Tuscaloosa. Peaceful protests throughout the south had been met with police brutality which, in turn, ignited violence and rioting in many cities.
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 a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or cast system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.
Kennedy gave the nation this warning:
A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.
Civil rights organizations were looking not for speeches but for concrete action from the administration. beginning with the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the south had seen eight years of activism. From those years of protests and dissatisfaction, a charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King began to emerge as a leader and spokesperson for the cause.
On August 28, on the eve of a Freedom March on Washington, Martin Luther King, along with and other civil rights leaders had met with the president at the White House. They assured the administration that marchers could be kept under control. The last thing anybody wanted was a full scale riot in the nation’s capital.
It was at that march that King made his famous” I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. King told the enormous crowd of protesting marchers:
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
On Sunday, September 15, when four girls were killed in a bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the subsequent rioting led to the shooting deaths of two more black people. Dr. King was fierce in his condemnation and pointed the finger directly at the governor.
"the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."
There were, of course, some important political considerations. Strategists saw clearly Kennedy’s problem and cautioned the administration to proceed carefully. To come out and openly approve of the fight against discrimination would almost certainly cost him the South in his re-election bid. (One reason for his last journey to Texas was to shore up his declining popularity in the South.) Southern Democrats already felt betrayed by the administration and the Republicans had managed to profit politically. (the formerly Democratic South has remained in Republican hands ever since.)
* * * *
Months earlier, on June 23, Martin Luther King had come to Detroit Michigan to lead a peaceful march against inequality. Twenty years earlier, Detroit had been the scene of race riots and King had come to preach strength through non-violent protest.
The Unexpected AllyDetroit was an important point in the struggle. Blacks made up 30% of the city's population. The problems of racial inequality were not confined to only the South. Such discrimination was more subtle.
In spite of the sizable increase in the black middle class, segregation in housing practices continued, and many prosperous black families were unable to obtain house outside the ghettos. The general prosperity of the nation by the early sixties made poverty which was especially prevalent within the black community seem more galling.
On that Sunday, a column of nearly 125,000 people filled Woodward Avenue for some two miles as it marched down to Cobo Hall in the city's riverfront Civic Center. The former governor and the mayor of Detroit marched together with King.
King had found an unexpected ally when he arrived. The governor of the state had declared the event Freedom March Day in Michigan. That man was George Romney, father of the 2012 Republican candidate.
Despite what Mitt claimed (and seems to remember) his father did not march with Martin Luther King.
Romney did not make public appearances on Sundays because of his Mormon beliefs, but he led about 450 demonstrators on a "freedom march" through the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe June 29.
George Romney was, in so many ways, the opposite of his son. The Mexican-born construction worker, high school graduate had come to America and, through hard work, had become the head of a big automotive manufacturer and ultimately the governor. And one of the things that shaped the man was his experience both with wealth and with poverty.
I've been poor. I worked from the time I was 12. My parents were driven out of old Mexico when I was only 5. My people were revolutionary refugees. They had to be fed by the United States government and housed by the United States government . I know what poverty is. I've been up through it.
It was that experience, no doubt, that made George Romney able to share his sympathy with the oppressed and the poor. Back in January 1963, in his first State of the State speech as governor, George Romney said,
"Michigan's most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination -in housing, public accommodation, education, administration of justice and employment."
In a private conversation with journalist Theodore White, he spoke openly and bluntly.
"It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to be able to evaluate them, and I began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites.
Governor George Romney shared King’s commitment to civil rights, despite his own Mormon Church’s racist policies. (The Book of Mormon declares the black skin of Negro race to be a sign of God’s cursed. Blacks were not allowed to become clergy in the Mormon church until 1978.) While not publicly condemning the Church’s discriminatory policies, Romney left little doubt where he stood.
On October 18 1963, as part of a fund-raiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King spoke before an audience of Notre Dame faculty, students, and community members. To a packed audience, King spoke of the growing civil rights movement and the problem of discrimination. He told the crowd:
“The world has shrunk into a neighborhood — now we must make it a brotherhood or we will die together as fools.”
The Dead Woman
In October of 1963, there was a tragedy on the perimeters of the Romney family, but, because of the personal nature of the events, it was not something any family would have widely discussed. On October 7, the sister of Mitt Romney’s brother-in-law had died at Wyandotte General Hospital. The cause of the twenty-one-year-old woman’s death was listed as “criminal recent abortion.” In the age before Roe vs. Wade, such incidents were not unusual. But they were also not talked about.
Complications following the procedure often led to lethal infections and according to one source, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions. (the current death rate from abortion at all stages of gestation is 0.6 per 100,000 procedures.)
Throughout history, abortions had always carried the threat of death for women. It was never considered a first option and during those years, women counted themselves lucky to have survived the procedure. As one source puts it:
The specter of women dying as a result of illegal abortions propelled activists for legal change.
Reform of the laws criminalizing abortion began in California in 1963. Two early supporters of the state's movement for reform, a physician at UCLA, Jerome M. Kummer, and Zad Leavy, an attorney and former prosecutor, had observed in 1961,
"We are confronted with a sea of heartache and confusion and the tragic wastage of more than 5,000 deaths per year. . . How many women must be sacrificed to needless suffering and death."
The bland but sad truth is that the premature and needless death of this young woman would have had very little historical significant except for one fact. The details of her death were skillfully employed by Mitt Romney in his 1994 Senate race against Edward Kennedy.
“I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.. I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion.It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”
Doubts have been raised about Mitt Romney's claim on abortion. The new biography, The Real Romney “provides evidence that Mitt Romney has repeatedly mischaracterized his mother’s position on abortion rights.“ That much is debatable, of course. But for Mitt Romney, the story of the death of a woman apparently meant nothing more than a means to his own political aims to win the Senate race in a highly liberal state.
In 2012, Candidate Romney was selected as the nominee of his party. The 2012 Republican platform, which Romney presumably stands by and has sworn to uphold, states:
"the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed...We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it..At its core abortion is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life. Women deserve better than abortion."
Back in October of 1963, many people also felt women deserved better and many felt that in a civilized nation women deserved better than to die from a potentially lethal and illegal abortion. Many felt- and still feel- that women deserve the right to control their own bodies and make their own decisions.
Only a couple of weeks ago, while speaking to reporters in Ohio, Romney made it clear how much he has wavered on this issue, despite what he promised in 1994.
“I think I’ve said time and again that I’m a pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president. The actions I’ll take immediately is to remove funding for Planned Parenthood. It will not be part of my budget.
Planned Parenthood has been a target of conservative groups for decades. Its national network of clinics has long provided women with a range of health and reproductive services, including legal and safe abortions.
However, federal funding cannot be spent on those services. The $75 million a year is given by federal funding must go for other Planned Parenthood services, like cancer screening, breast exams and other care to lower income women. More importantly, the organization provides reliable information on birth control option, which, when used, reduce the necessity of abortions.
In 1963, with abortion being illegal, Planned Parenthood was strictly not allowed to offer women anything but preventative birth control options. In one pamphlet produced by the organization, Planned Parenthood makes its position clear.
An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health. It may make you sterile so that when you want a child you cannot have it. Birth control merely postpones the beginning of life.
Cutting Planned Parenthood and making abortion illegal will not stop abortions. It certainly didn't back in 1963. Making abortion a criminal act simply drove desperate women into taking dangerous risks with their bodies. Like the twenty-one-year-old woman who died filled in undeserved shame in that Michigan hospital in October of 1963.
Sympathy, Understanding, and CompassionThis brings us to the date, October 26, 1963, exactly forty-nine years ago on this day.
It was a Saturday and the weather was unseasonably warm. On that morning, three Marine helicopters landed on Memorial Field at Amherst College in Boston. They were carrying President Kennedy. his official entourage, the press, the security and all of the other accouterments of the office.
On that October day the president of the United States had been invited to attend a ceremony for the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library and to receive an honorary degree from the university. In some respects, it was to be a very non-political speech, more of a salute to Kennedy’s favorite poet, a man who poem Kennedy had often quoted in his campaign. The elderly Frost had in fact attended Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony but had died earlier in the year.
However, the president opened his remarks with a special message to the students:
Many years ago, Woodrow Wilson said, what good is a political party unless it is serving a great national purpose? And what good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national purpose? The Library being constructed today, this college, itself--all of this, of course, was not done merely to give this school's graduates an advantage, an economic advantage, in the life struggle. It does do that. But in return for that, in return for the great opportunity which society gives the graduates of this and related schools, it seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools' graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility. ...There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty. And unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life--unless they are willing to put back into our society, those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion--unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.The problems which this country now faces are staggering,.. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.
The Dead Poet
Certainly to some who had gathered that day to hear the president’s words, subject of poetry must have seemed a rather odd choice, with all of the unrest and turmoil in the nation. But the president’s view of the role of the poet was somewhat unique.
When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
The poet as an artist must be a critical observer of a nation and of human culture and human nature.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.
In less than a month, the president would be dead.
Yet, what echoed on after his death was his call to the youth for action and yes, even to the children of the most prosperous and entitled Americans.
Essayist Pete Hamill, in an 1988 New York Magazine article, put it this way:
(T)he truth was that thousands of young people responded to the call. The best and the brightest streamed into Washington, looking for place in this shiny new administration. They came to Kennedy’s Justice Department and began to transform it, using the power of the law to accelerate social change, particularly in the South. They were all over the regulatory agencies. and after Kennedy started the Peace Corps, they signed up by the tens of thousands to go to the desperate places of the world to help strangers. It’s hard to explain to today’s young Americans that not so long ago, many people their age believed that the world could be transformed through politics. Yes, they were naive. Yes, they were idealists. But we watched all this and many of us thought, This is some god-damned country.
For those young Americans who had heard Kennedy’s call, this was not about a selfish agenda. It wasn’t about rising to the top, making a quick fortune. Protest and demonstrating for change was just a demonstration of their faith in the country, their patriotism. In short, for them, it was a re-affirmation of what made the nation great.
The TroubadourOn that same evening of October 26, at 8:40 pm, a folk guitarist Bob Zimmerman, known more widely by his professional name, Bob Dylan, stepped on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Only a year before that, Dylan had released his first album with protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
The album had not been a great success. Critics, used to hearing the pop tunes like the girl groups or the surfer music, didn't quite know what to make of this very unmarketable character. Dylan was no Elvis or Frankie Avalon. His music did not have a good beat and it wasn't easy to dance to.
As a folk musician in the manner of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s songs dealt with social issues, specifically on civil rights subjects of that time. And his performance went beyond a quest for either fame or fortune.
For example, in Greenwood, Mississippi, on July 2, 1963, Dylan visited a small group of civil rights workers who had initiated a voter registration drive in various communities, one of many such activities in the Deep South.
For the gathering he played his newly-written song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” which dealt with the June 12th murder in Jackson, Mississippi of black activist and first field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP) Medgar Evers.
Although Kennedy in his speech earlier that day in Boston, referred to Robert Frost when he talked about the artist as a critic of society and a champion of the individual against authority, he could very well have been speaking about Dylan.
On that October evening, Dylan opened his concert with what was to become an anthem for a movement, The Times They Are A-Changin'. The verses of the song were more than a protest but a kind of warning to those committed to the status quo.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
* * * *
And so it began.
That was forty-nine years ago today.
And yet, recently the echoes from that Dylan song were heard - most unexpectedly -from of all people, the vice-president, Joseph Biden in his debate with his Republican challenger, Paul Ryan.
If they would get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class and make it permanent. If they would get out of the way and pass the jobs bill. If they would get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down but they never missed a mortgage payment.”
“Just get out of the way. Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility."
In the end, the words of the Dylan song proved to be accurate. The times did change and for most people, those changes brought better conditions and in many ways, a more just society for women and minorities. But it was never perfect. There has always been more work to do, more progress to make.
However, some Americans- a small but powerful minority to be sure- did not welcome those changes. Equality for all, in their eyes, meant a loss of prestige and entitlement that had always been unquestioned before.
To allow women to choose for themselves how they wished to live, according to their thinking, meant a loss of control over society generally.
Where would it lead?
Where would it lead?
The whole subject of gay rights shook them to the core. After all, hadn’t their holy books forbidden it?
And to question one aspect meant the possibility of questioning everything. All and all, they looked at the times that were a-changing and saw them as a breakdown of the order of things.
And they mean to put things to right again, by hook or by crook.
So the next time you heard the phrase, “Let’s take America back” you can be certain they are thinking about taking America and American culture back to sometime before October 1963.