HomeCulture50 Years of Civil Rights

50 Years of Civil Rights

Six Southern cities mark the anniversary of one of the most important movements in our nation’s history this year. 
by Erin Z. Bass

The year was 1963. And as the world watched, lunch counters, fire hoses, German Shepherds, a devastating explosion and a letter from jail all played a part in fighting for equal rights for people of all races. As Birmingham enters 2013, the city will mark the 50th anniversary of pivotal events in America’s Civil Rights Movement.

Today is the day Martin Luther King began writing his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail’ exactly 50 years ago. In recognition, the Birmingham Public Library will sponsor a community-wide reading from King’s letter at the Central, North Birmingham and Smithfield Libraries, and at libraries, schools, churches, parks, and businesses around the globe today. A public marker was also installed at the jail site yesterday.

See a list of locations participating in readings here.

The Birmingham Museum of Art plans to memorialize the movement by showcasing contemporary art as a channel for dialogue surrounding the subjects of race, identity, activism and equality. The series, “Art Speaks: 50 Years Forward,” will present five different projects, displayed in various media, including performance and digital art, photography, painting and sculpture by world-renowned, contemporary artists coming from around the world to Birmingham to share their reflections of the movement.

“As a child in the early 1960s, I was only allowed admission to the Birmingham Museum of Art one day a week,” says Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, who is leading the city’s year-long commemoration. “As a result of the progress we have made as a community and as a nation, it fills me with pride to present, as the Mayor of Birmingham, a powerful contemporary art series about history’s most commanding catalyst for social change, the Civil Rights Movement, by some of the world’s most brilliant artists. It is our hope that these art projects will contribute to the further progress of our society as we continue to understand and accept one another.”

Other events in the city that will take place through November include a special exhibit at the Civil Rights Institute, showings of documentary films, a Grand Foot Soldier Reunion Parade, commemoration at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and many more. (See our calendar below.)

In South Carolina, the City of Columbia is in the process of solidifying plans to name the corner of Main and Washington streets Sarah Mae Flemming Way in honor of the late Sarah Mae Flemming (pictured second from left below). On a morning bus ride in the summer of 1954, Flemming and other blacks were forced to stand in the aisle to accommodate white passengers. When a seat became vacant near the front, Flemming sat down. The driver demanded she move to the back. Flemming moved to comply but violated racial custom by attempting to exit the front of the bus because the rear was crowded. The driver struck and ejected Flemming from the bus on the corner of Main and Washington streets.

This story and it’s recognition are immensely important to the overall Civil Rights story. Flemming, along with a number of young advocates and trailblazers, looked fear, danger and opposition square in the eye. They didn’t back down, they didn’t recoil, they stood strong. Columbia joins Birmingham in remembering the heroes of the movement with events, cultural programs and historical retrospectives throughout the year.

Find out more about Columbia’s Civil Rights history here.

Other Southern cities marking the anniversary this summer are Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. Stay tuned for more on events and exhibits in these cities and a special story about Sarah Mae Flemming coming up in June.

Civil Rights Events Calendar 

Through March 2014 – Freedom’s Sisters exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis

Through April 21 – Hattiloo Theater in Memphis presents Richard Wright’s “Native Son”

Through April 28 – “Memphis the Musical” at The Orpheum Theater in Memphis

April 16 – Letter From Birmingham Jail public readings

April 17 – Public discussion of Malcolm X at Allen University in Columbia

April 21 – Civil Rights Bus Tour in Columbia

April 25-27 – “Lessons Learned From the Birmingham Movement: A Symposium on Youth, Activism, And The Struggle For Human Rights”

April 28 – Showing of documentary “Our Mockingbird” at the Carver Theatre in Birmingham

May 1-5 – Foot Soldier 50th Anniversary Reunion in Birmingham

May 19 & June 30 – Civil Rights Sundays at the Nickelodeon Theater and Richland Library in Columbia

May 25 – Foot Soldier Grand Revolution Parade in Birmingham

June 5-12 – Medgar Evers Commemoration in Jackson

June 28 – Unveiling of Columbia street sign recognizing the corner of Main and Washington streets as Sarah Mae Flemming Way on Flemming’s birthday

September 1-7 – Spike Lee Civil Rights Film Festival at the Carver Theatre in Birmingham

September 15 – The Official Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

See the full schedule of Birmingham events here.

Photo Credits: Lennie Glover stands outside the Woolworth’s on Main Street in Downtown Columbia, courtesy of Cecil Williams; Martin Luther King mug shot; Sarah Mae Flemming, second from left, courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Erin Z. Bass is editor/publisher of Deep South Magazine. Find out more about her here


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  • Hunter / April 16, 2013

    This is really great, Erin. Well done. Thanks so much and I hope all’s well with you!