From the Collection

Jack Wolfe
Black Voice-Freedom Summer
Maxwell Library, 2nd. Floor


Jack Wolfe
Black Voice-Freedom Summer
Oil on Canvas, 1964
Gift of Melinda Greason

On August 28th, 1963, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King would announce that "1963 is not an end, but a beginning". It was King’s speech that announced the defeat of legal segregation in America. This declaration is in stark contrast to the inaugural speech of Governor of Alabama, George Wallace; declaring on the steps of the Alabama State House: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Civil rights activism did not begin in 1963 but was a culmination of numerous small acts of protest that had been sweeping America. It was on February 1st, 1960 that a teenager named Franklin McCain and three friends were refused service at whites-only counter at Woolworths.  This group of four young men staged a sit-in in protest to discrimination based on color. "We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done… the day I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration". This peaceful protest spread across the states and successfully overturned the policy of racial segregation within the largest retailer in America.

Following McCain's protest, the British prime minister Harold Macmillan addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town:  "The wind of change is blowing through this continent," he said. "Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."

Within the span of those three years that separated Macmillan’s and King's speeches; the countries of Togo, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika and Jamaica would become independent. King argued in his 1960 essay, The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness, that the success and confidence in the Civil Rights Movement in America was due in part to "the awareness that this struggle is a part of a worldwide struggle".

"In three difficult years," wrote the late academic Manning Marable, "the southern struggle had grown from a modest group of black students demonstrating at one lunch-counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century". In the 10 weeks prior to King's speech, there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests.  The cornerstone of these protests were the events in Birmingham during the month of May.  The New York Times published more stories about civil rights in those two weeks than it had in the previous two years. Televised scenes of the violent and frightening attacks upon the protesters flashed across the globe causing international outrage and condemnation.

"Birmingham became the moment of truth," argued Bayard Rustin, who was a prominent social movement leader and an organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March which had aroused little interest just months prior, now became the order of the day. It was a bold initiative that drew 250,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom were white. The speech given that day by Martin Luther King would become one of the most celebrated articulations of the Civil Rights Movement. “I Have a Dream” was a clear declaration for universal civil and economic rights and to the end of systemic racism within the United States. "That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height," wrote James Baldwin in No Name in the Street. "And could see our inheritance. perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."

The Freedom Riders in Montgomery, the dogs and water cannons in Birmingham, and the sit-in in Jackson all made further equivocation on civil rights impossible by the spring of 1963. In June, President John F. Kennedy proposed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation to date, saying the United States “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.”  It would be President Lyndon Johnson who would replace the eloquence of Kennedy with concrete congressional action that saw the ratification of the Civil Rights Act. He resolutely announced: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national origin was banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels. No longer could Black people and other minorities be denied service simply based on the color of their skin. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred race, religious, national origin and gender discrimination by employers and labor unions and created an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the power to file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved workers. Additionally, the act forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory program, authorized the Office of Education (now the Department of Education) to assist with school desegregation, gave extra clout to the Commission on Civil Rights and prohibited the unequal application of voting requirements.

The images that are found in this painting come from clippings of the news coverage during the summer of 1963.  Jack Wolfe has collaged them into a compelling overarching narrative of this tumultuous moment in America history.