On January 20th-22nd 1964 Martin Luther King Jr and his Civil Rights organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, visited Black Mountain, N.C., taking refuge in the sprawling historic mansion called Intheoaks. Built around 1920, the 24,400 square foot house that included a swimming pool and bowling lanes was the perfect retreat to discuss the accomplishments of 1963, and plan for 1964.
1963 had been a big turning point in the fight for civil rights in the United States.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr became known as a leader of the Civil Rights movement after he successful led the Montgomery Improvement Association in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Bus Boycott began December 5th, 1955, the day after Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a segregated bus, and ended on December 20th, 1956, after a ruling by the Supreme Court that segregation on buses and public transportation was against the law.
After the bus boycott King went on to lead many non-violent protests as the President of the newly formed Civil Rights organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But by 1963 not a lot of improvements had been made as far as equality was concerned: schools were still segregated 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Jim Crow Laws still stood in the South, Interracial marriage was illegal in many states, and voters rights were not protected at all.
Civil Rights in 1963 – a brief timeline:
On January 14th, George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capital and proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
King declared Birmingham, Alabama the most segregated city in the United States, and SCLC and the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) organized multiple protests to challenge segregation in that city. The Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Conner called for fire hoses and police dogs to be used against peaceful protestors as young as six years old. The nation-wide broadcast of these tactics lead to a rise in public interest in civil rights as a major issue.
On April 12th King was arrested for protesting without a permit, and while in jail he penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he stated: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
On June 11th President John F Kennedy addressed the nation on Civil Rights, deploying the Alabama National Guard to protect two black students enrolling at the University of Alabama, and calling for Congress to pass a civil rights bill.
On June 12th Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot and killed on his front porch. Byron De La Beckwith was arrested, but found not guilty after the jury was dead-locked. (He was re-tried in 1994 and found guilty, imprisoned for murder until his death in 2001.)
On August 28th King gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington. In that speech King references Wallace’s inaugural address from earlier in the year, stating: “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.” 250,000 people attended the rally in Washington and King noted “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.”
On September 15th the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. 22 others were injured in the attack. Riots broke out following the bombing, and 500 National Guard and 300 State Troopers joined 500 police officers and 150 sheriff deputies deployed throughout the city. Suspects didn’t emerge in the bombing until 1965, and they were not tried until the late 70s. Two young black boys, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, were killed in the subsequent racial violence that followed the bombing – Ware was shot by two white boys while riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike, and Robinson was shot by a police officer who claimed his gun went off accidentally.
On November 22nd President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
King was very shaken by Kennedy’s assassination, feeling like the violence wasn’t solely one man’s deed but reflected the climate of society in the US as a whole. King’s wife Coretta remembered King saying he wished Kennedy lived through the shooting, thinking it would help him better understand what those withstanding violence in the fight for Civil Rights were going through, but when Kennedy died King said, “This is what is going to happen to me. This is such a sick society.”
King attended Kennedy’s funeral on November 25th, disheartened to lose the leader who had showed the promise of supporting Civil Rights after his speech on June 11th. But when he met with the new President, Lyndon B Johnson on December 3rd King was ”impressed by the Presdient’s awareness and depth of understanding,” showing commitment to Civil Rights and black voter registration. Johnson did push the Civil Rights bill through Congress and signed into law the next year.
Martin Luther King Jr. was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1963 – the first African-American recipient of that honor.
King and many other members of the SCLC ended the year exhausted both physically and emotionally, and King decided they could use a retreat in the mountains to refresh. Their three-day retreat in Black Mountain, NC began January 20th, 1964. Although a lot of business for the upcoming year was discussed, they also relaxed playing ping pong and softball.
A bomb threat grounded King’s plane from the Asheville airport to Atlanta. As the passengers disembarked King said “I’ve told you all that I don’t expect to survive this revolution; this society’s too sick.”
Quotes from Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. by David J. Garrow.