Today, the 45-year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good time to remember the historic events in Birmingham that started 50 years ago in that city which became the crucible of the civil rights crusade King led in the middle of the 20th century.
And on that date now, in 2013, it’s an honor to be going back to Birmingham with Alma Powell, the chair of the America’s Promise Alliance. She is returning to her hometown to launch a new stage of the campaign for children and youth that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton started, with General Colin Powell as chair, at the Presidents’ Summit in Philadelphia in 1997.
I write as one who was in at the beginning of that campaign for the Five Promises pledged to youth at the Summit in Philadelphia, and before that as one deeply involved in the civil rights movement after the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, and its growth in significant part by Martin Luther King’s turn to the Gandhian strategy of non-violent direct action.
In the first days of April, 1963, when the all-out campaign to end racial segregation in Birmingham was starting, I was far away, in Addis Ababa, having left my post as special assistant to the President for civil rights in order to go to Addis Ababa for two years as the Peace Corps’ special representative to Africa and director of its 400-volunteer strong program in Ethiopia.
So from that distance I did my best to follow the dramatic moments of the Birmingham struggle that climaxed during the next three months. King called Birmingham “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” With some trepidation, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he had accepted the challenge to take on the tough city Commissioner of Public Safety, “Bull” Connor, who famously said that while he was alive there’d be no segregating together in Birmingham.