Was there ever a peacetime month like June 1963?
This was a month, 50 years ago, when the president gave three speeches that are considered among the top presidential speeches in recent history; when, against the backdrop of the death of a beloved pontiff and the installation of another pope, the United States examined anew ancient issues of justice; when a civil rights leader was killed in his driveway; when a governor of Alabama stood in a schoolhouse door and defied decency and history by blocking the entrance of black students into the state university; and when a president traveled with his vice president to Texas to lay the groundwork for a late November visit that would change the trajectory of an entire decade. Also, Johnny Depp was born.
All of this, with the possible exception of the natal day of the star of “Edward Scissorhands,’’ a film more than a quarter-century in the future, helps us understand the country that next week will note with solemnity the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, a vital turning point in the war that would begin the process of granting freedom to African-Americans.
That battle raged at Gettysburg for three days, from July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The Civil War itself would last another 20 months, and the battle for freedom in the United States would wear on, a century and a half long and counting. This, too, is an unavoidable element of the American story: The country noted the 100th anniversary of Gettysburg with a president who had taken his first tentative steps into declaring war on racism. The 150th anniversary will be marked by a black president.
June 1963 is an indispensable part of the American journey, as important in its way as the wartime months of April 1865 (when the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and the struggle over Reconstruction began) and May 1945 (when the Allies completed the war in Europe and the focus of World War II moved to Asia). For June 1963 was the overture to the soundtrack of the 1960s.
Three speeches by President John F. Kennedy provided the narration of the month’s drama. The first was his civil rights speech, foreshadowed by Memorial Day remarks at Gettysburg by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and prompted by the effort of Governor George C. Wallace to prevent the desegregation of the University of Alabama. In that atmosphere, Kennedy issued a nationally televised appeal for justice:
“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.’’
A day earlier, Kennedy had spoken of peace and of the West’s struggle with Soviet Communism, his appeal for freedom for those in the Soviet bloc a poignant counterpoint to the struggle for freedom for those in the American states of the South. A day later, Medgar Evers, who had organized boycotts throughout the segregated South and had worked to integrate the University of Mississippi, was killed. It wasn’t until 1994 that his assassin was convicted and imprisoned.
And on June 26, Kennedy stood before the ultimate symbol of postwar bondage, the Berlin Wall, and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.’’
All this occurred in a turbulent month around the world. Pope John XXIII died and was replaced by Giovanni Battista Montini (known as Paul VI), a Buddhist monk died by self-immolation in South Vietnam, David Ben-Gurion stepped down as premier of Israel and was replaced by Levi Eshkol, the Washington-Moscow hotline was established, and British Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigned as a result of a scandal growing out of his affair with Christine Keeler.
We live in a world shaped by June 1963 and by these remarks from President Kennedy, as powerful today as Americans prepare to mark the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg as they were when they were uttered 50 years ago this month on the virtual eve of Gettysburg’s 100th anniversary:
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot . . . enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?’’
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press.