June is a month traditionally known for graduation, weddings and Father’s Day. However, this June marks several significant historical dates, anniversaries, events and celebrations.
This month, I have attended five milestone graduations: kindergarten, eighth grade, high school, college and graduate school. The celebrations were joyous, but in one of my pensive moods, I found myself reflecting on all the challenges African-American students had suffered in pursuit of an education.
Today in Chicago, parents and students are facing an unprecedented number of school closings, educational inequality and concern for their safety. In light of that, 50 years ago, a historic battle was waged which impacted the education of students nationwide.
On June 11, 1963, Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who had declared in January, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama (UA) to block the entry of two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, who had enrolled in response to the national mandate of the school’s desegregation.
President John F. Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to remove Gov. Wallace and escort the students safely into the building. The students went on to pursue their education at UA with few incidents and safety threats.
Interestingly enough, in 1965, Vivian Malone became the first African American to graduate from the UA with a B-plus average and Bachelor of Arts in business management. In addition, Vivian, one of seven college-educated siblings, is the sister-in-law of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Wallace’s attempt failed and President Kennedy was prompted to bring civil rights to the forefront of social change.
I have always admired President Kennedy, in spite of what I know about his reluctance in moving on the civil right legislation, but now I have renewed admiration in learning Wallace’s action moved Kennedy to propose the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In a speech delivered on radio and TV on June 11, 1963, the same evening Wallace moved to block the students, Kennedy said, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. … One hundred years of delay has passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs … are not fully free.”
The very next day, civil rights activist and field secretary of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, Medgar Evers, was gunned down by a white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith, in front of his two children as he walked up to his home in Jackson, Miss. It took two trials with all-white hung juries and 30 years before De La Beckwith was tried and convicted of Edgar’s murder in 1994.
On a musical note, this June also marks the 50th anniversary of America’s Beatlemania. Americans didn’t know the iconic London group, which actually started in 1962, until 1963 when their recordings were released on independent U.S. labels. The group really made it big in December when Capitol Records released, their ageless tune, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
And in celebration of history and overcoming, Juneteenth — also known as Freedom or Emancipation Day — is recognized as a state holiday in 42 states and is celebrated throughout the United States between June 13 and 19. The term “Juneteenth” was coined because the actual date the slaves found out about their freedom is unknown.
Juneteenth started in 1865 in Galveston, Texas, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is the oldest national celebration of the end of slavery and a great way to commemorate the accomplishments of those who paved the way for the freedoms were are enjoying and still striving to achieve.