Civil rights pioneer Charles McLaurin recalls hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak — and later playing touch football with him and his staff.
April 9, 1865: Confederate General Robert E. Lee remarked this morning that it would be “useless and therefore cruel to provoke the further effusion of blood.” He met Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House and surrendered. Ten days later, Joseph E. Johnston surrendered in North Carolina, effectively ending the Civil War.
April 9, 1866: Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over President Andrew Johnson’s presidential veto. The legislation declared that everyone born in the U.S. was now a citizen.
April 9, 1947: In response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on interstate buses, a group of 16 black and white men rode South together on the first freedom ride, known as the “Journey of Reconciliation.” The Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation sponsored the ride, meant to challenge Jim Crow laws. Two African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, served on a chain gang for 30 days after their conviction in North Carolina.
April 9, 1962: Corporal Roman Ducksworth, a military police officer, was asleep on a bus when he arrived home to Taylorsville, Mississippi. William Kelly, a local policeman, struck Ducksworth and ordered him off the bus. Kelly hit Ducksworth again and then shot him. Kelly claimed he shot Ducksworth in self-defense, and he was never prosecuted. Later he sent a message to Ducksworth’s father: “If I’d known it was your son I wouldn’t have shot him.” The father replied, “I don’t care whose son it was, you had no business shooting him.” Ducksworth was buried with full military honors, including a 16-gun salute by an integrated honor guard. He is among 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
April 9, 1968: More than 100,000 people observed the mule-drawn coffin of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. His body had lay in state, “the black suit tidily pressed, the wound in the throat now all but invisible,” Time magazine wrote. “Many of those who filed past could not control their tears. Some kissed King’s lips; others reverently touched his face. A few women threw their hands in the air and cried aloud in ululating agony.” The procession passed by the Georgia Capitol, but Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox refused to close state government in honor of the slain civil rights leader, calling him an “enemy of the country.”
April 10, 1862: At the request of President Abraham Lincoln,
Congress pledged financial aid to any state that undertook gradual emancipation with compensation to those who owned slaves. The Confederate states rejected this offer.
April 10, 1956: Three members of the Citizens’ Council assaulted singer Nat King Cole during a segregated performance at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. Police apprehended the attackers, who apparently wanted to abduct Cole as part of their campaign against rock ‘n’ roll, unaware that Cole was a big band singer. Birmingham’s mayor ran backstage and apologized to Cole, an Alabama native. The singer reappeared onstage to a standing ovation.
April 11, 1865: Someone held a light while President Abraham Lincoln delivered his last speech to a crowd gathered in the darkness outside the White House, just two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Lincoln expressed generosity toward the South, a vision for reforming the Union and support for African-American suffrage. Hearing those words, Booth vowed this would be Lincoln’s last speech, assassinating the President three days later.
April 11, 1955: Roy Wilkins became executive director of the national NAACP after the death of longtime NAACP director Walter White, who had led the NAACP for 26 years. White’s fair complexion had enabled him to pass for white, investigate lynchings and publish the names of those involved. Wilkins went on to lead the NAACP through some of its most difficult years. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Wilkins the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He served for another decade.
April 11, 1968: President Lyndon Johnson signed a civil rights act that came to be known as the Fair Housing Act. The act outlawed discrimination in the sale, rental or leasing of 80 percent of U.S. housing. It also protected civil rights workers and made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intention of starting a riot.
April 12, 1861: The American Civil War began, lasting four years. More than 600,000 died in battle — almost as many as died in all other U.S. conflicts combined. During the war, tens of thousands of African Americans fled slavery, escaping to Union lines for freedom. By the end of the war, more than 180,000 African Americans, mostly from the South, went on to fight with the Union forces, and slavery as an institution no longer existed.
April 12, 1864: The Battle of Fort Pillow took place at Fort Pillow, 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. According to Union sources, after the Union troops surrendered, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men massacred the mostly African-American troops in cold blood. Confederate sources insisted, however, that the troops never surrendered. In his memoir, U.S. Gen. Ulysses Grant quoted Forrest as justifying the slaughter: “The river was dyed was the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. … It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
April 12, 1963: Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed along with fellow ministers Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy after they were arrested on Good Friday in Birmingham, Alabama, for “parading without a permit” by marching downtown.
April 13, 1873: On Easter Sunday, the White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashed with Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia. The death toll was staggering: only three members of the White League died, but some 100 African-American men were killed. Of those, nearly half were killed in cold blood after they surrendered. What happened became known as the Colfax Massacre.
April 13, 1964: Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the movie, Lilies of the Field. Within three years, he was Hollywood’s top box office draw. In 1999, the American Film Institute named him one of the Greatest Male Stars of all time. In addition to acting, Poitier went on to direct movies, write a memoir and serve as an ambassador. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
April 14, 1775: The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage held four meetings. Reformed in 1784 as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Benjamin Franklin later served as its president.
April 14, 1853: Harriet Tubman made her first of 19 trips back to the South to ensure that hundreds of others that were enslaved also made their way to freedom. She was never caught, despite a $40,000 reward for her capture. In an interview, she recalled her own freedom, saying, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such glory over everything … I felt like I was in heaven.”
April 14, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Vice President Andrew Johnson took over as President.
April 14, 1957: Malcolm X led a demonstration outside the police station in Harlem to protest the beating of a Muslim, demanding his transfer to a hospital.
April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier in Major League Baseball, becoming the first African-American player in the 20th century. He was active in the civil rights movement and became the first African-American television analyst in Major League Baseball and the first African-American vice-president of a major American corporation. In recognition of his achievements, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Major League Baseball has retired his number “42,” which became the title of the movie about his breakthrough. Ken Burns’ four-hour documentary reveals that Robinson did more than just break the color barrier — he became a leader for equal rights for all Americans.