Matthew Countryman is an associate professor of history, American culture, and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. As a historian of African American social and political movements, such as the Black Power Movement and Civil Rights Movement, Countryman has studied the importance of the events of 1963 in the long struggle for racial justice.
As part of LSA’s three-part Q&A series highlighting 1963, Countryman reflects on why that year served as a turning point in the racial history of the United States. He also points out the immense pain that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, which is now reflected in modern-day America.
LSA: What about 1963 made it a monumental year when we think about the impact of the Civil Rights Movement?
Matthew Countryman: Martin Luther King Jr. called 1963 the year of “Negro Revolution,” using the terminology of the time. I think this was his reflection that the protest movement that had started in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision a decade earlier and had been spurred by the Montgomery bus boycott, had reached its peak of national impact. 1963 was the year when the Civil Rights Movement became a true political force at the national level, and in which issues of racial equality and justice became issues of national political import. This happened in a number of different ways. We rightly focus on Dr. King’s role in these developments, particularly his leadership of the Birmingham Campaign in the spring and of the March on Washington at the end of the summer. But in many ways Birmingham and the March on Washington were simply the tip of the iceberg of all the mobilizations that were happening across the country. Civil rights organizing was happening in so many different communities in both the North and South, and it’s because of that grassroots organizing that Dr. King’s work had as much impact as it did.
LSA: How do you see the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and events of 1963 on social and political movements today?
MC: This is a crucial question, and the answer is, in my view, paradoxical. As in the summer of 2020, 1963 was a year with tremendous national impact. Questions of racial equality and African American rights became the dominant political question in the country. President Kennedy, who was primarily concerned with the Cold War and foreign policy issues, was forced to change his agenda and put civil rights at the forefront, dedicating his presidency to equal rights across racial lines. No president had done this before and it was in that moment that JFK became a political legend, even if he only made that shift because of the political pressure that the Civil Rights Movement had built among Black communities and other key Democratic constituencies, particularly in the North.
On the flipside, the side we often pay less attention to, this political achievement came at a great cost in terms of the violence perpetrated against Civil Rights Movement activists. The fire hoses in Birmingham, the violent attacks on civil rights workers in Mississippi, the arrest and beating of Fannie Lou Hamer, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church where four Black schoolgirls were killed. The price that was paid in Black lives and the inability and unwillingness of the federal government to protect those who were working to fulfill the promise of a democratic nation, was devastating, both emotionally and politically. It led to voices like Malcolm X who had long been critical of nonviolence to gain increasing traction in Black communities across the country. Despite all the political achievements of 1963, there was this deepening sense of disillusionment at the impossibility of achieving full racial justice. In the moment where support for civil rights seemed broadest, there was also disappointment in the nation. This cycle of promise and disappointment has been repeated many times. We see it again and we definitely see that now, with the 2020 uprisings in response to police violence, followed by disappointment that promises made haven’t been kept.
LSA: What do you hope the reader takes away from your interview?
MC: I hope we can recognize that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded because it became a national movement. That’s what the March on Washington symbolizes: here’s a march on the nation’s capital, drawing supporters from all races from all over the country. And again, so many events get overshadowed when discussing the Civil Rights Movement and 1963. Some of those events were taking place in the North, many at the same time as the Birmingham protests. In Philadelphia, there was a major protest movement led by the local NAACP seeking equal employment opportunities particularly in the local building trades. In the fall of 1963, 20,000 students marched out of schools in Chicago to protest segregated schools in the city. For a long time, Civil Rights Movement historians have been trying to say that we misunderstand the Civil Rights Movement and the racial history of our country when we see this movement as only a Southern movement.
Secondly, when people take part in social movements, they have the capacity to change the nation. We’ve come to forget how extraordinary the movement’s successes were, in part because racism remains a fundamental problem in our society. We forget, though, the people who made the Civil Rights Movement happen were the least politically and economically powerful people in the country. They were domestic workers, day laborers, people who lacked the right to vote and didn’t benefit from the rule of law in their communities. They believed so deeply in the promise of American democracy and risked everything to obtain it by putting pressure from outside of the political system. We have a lot to learn about why they were successful and why they came up short. But we also need to understand what about the political system made it responsive to their nonviolent protests. There are many political situations in which nonviolent protests aren’t able to overcome state violence. So, it’s important to study the Civil Rights Movement in order to see how people without power can make a change, as well as under what conditions they are able to succeed.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.