All are tied by a common theme — freedom, which, not incidentally, was the theme that animated Kennedy in that other struggle of the 1960s, the Cold War. All of 1863 and 1963 were consumed by debates and battles over freedom: the freedom of states to secede, the freedom of blacks to live outside of slavery, the freedom of the descendants of slaves to live in an integrated society.
From the perspective of 2013, the triumphs of the civil rights movement seem to have an inspiring inevitability to them: of course the enslaved would be freed, of course the barriers at the lunch counters and the water bubblers would fall, of course voting rights would be affirmed and in their wake members of town councils and governors and senators and then a president would be elected. But “of course” does not describe the course of history, which has a path but not a logic.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” King wrote earlier in that fateful year of 1963, in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
The battle at the lunch counter was not won at the Lincoln Memorial with King’s speech, nor even at the funeral bier for four little girls in Birmingham, nor was it won by the time the centenary of the Gettysburg Address arrived two months later, nor even three days after that, when President Kennedy was killed and President Johnson dedicated himself to the civil rights bill.
But all these are stones on the path of freedom, and in this anniversary year it is good to be reminded that it is not only presidents and a King who are heroes of freedom. It is four little girls, too.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.