Fifty-seven years ago this week—on June 11, 1963—three different events, in three different places, combined to change our world forever. Our very recent history was shaped by these three events, even though they transpired so long ago. In discussions with some of our local leaders about our recent history, the events of June 11,1963, were mentioned more than once as pivotal to the struggle that the Black community has been engaged in for so many years.
June 11, 1963, is echoed in the outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25; in the largely peaceful protests against police brutality and aggression that are taking place across the United States (and the world); and in the powerful assertion that “Black Lives Matter,” which has been taken up by voices from every corner—eloquently proclaimed and affirmed by people who are diverse in every significant way.
Here is what happened on that fateful day. June 11, 1963, began with the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” by the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who tried—and ultimately failed—to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. The National Guard were dispatched to peacefully help guarantee that two African-American students—James Alexander Hood and Vivian Juanita Malone—would be able to register for classes, despite the illegal policies that barred Black students. In spite of the tension and unrest, they were able to enroll in school that June 11.
The confrontation was a catalyst in the thinking of President John F. Kennedy. On the evening of June 11, 1963, Kennedy went on national TV and radio with one of the most important speeches of his presidency. In it he ended his early ambivalence and spoke eloquently about racial justice and personal freedoms. The speech committed the United States to respond to the moral issue of equal rights for everyone. It was a highwater mark for the civil rights movement, paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
Tragically, there would be one more defining event in the waning hours of June 11. Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran and civil rights activist, was working for equal rights for African-Americans in Jackson, Mississippi. He spent the evening with lawyers from the NAACP, returning to his home early on the morning of June 12. As he stepped from his car into his driveway, Mr. Evers was shot in the back by white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith. He died at the hospital about an hour later. Medgar Evers’ death became a rallying point for black communities across the South and the nation—although it was not until some 30 years later, in 1994, that Bryon De La Beckwith was finally convicted of his murder.
When Adventist HealthCare declares that our mission is to extend God’s care through the ministry of physical, mental, and spiritual healing, we are responding, in part, to the lessons we have learned from these events and our own history—and recognizing that the progress we have made in our mission has also been accompanied by conflict, conviction, and, often, tragedy.
When we affirm that Black Lives Matter and seek to match the power of those words with meaningful engagement, renewed commitments, and defiant determination, it is with the events of June 11, 1963, well within our vision. There is much we can learn from those historic events. They contain examples of bravery, courage, and determination that still inspire us today.