Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

May 30, 1963

Guest post by Mark Speltz, author of North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016).

On May 30, 1963, a headline in the Los Angeles Sentinel announced the “Greatest Freedom Rally Here Nets Heroes Over $75,000.” A star-studded rally at Wrigley Field on May 26 featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrities and entertainers, including Paul Newman, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dick Gregory. Reports stated upwards of 50,000 people crowded into the ballpark built for half as many spectators. (Click to view PDF of article first page and article second page.) 

Over one hundred prominent local leaders and organizations mounted the massive rally to demonstrate “that citizens of Los Angeles are shocked and ashamed by the atrocities perpetuated upon women and children in Birmingham and show our support in a real manner by contributing to their defense fund.” Well-heeled stars solicited donations at the public event and at private parties raising more than $75,000 in support of Dr. King’s work and to help defray the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s expenses incurred during the well-known spring campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

Just weeks earlier the nation was riveted as Dr. King and Birmingham’s local civil rights leaders and activists faced off against the recalcitrant Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner. News photographs and film footage captured riveting scenes of police dogs barking, snapping, and lunging at protesters and high pressure fire hoses knocking activists down and pinning them against walls. The dramatic pictures splashed across newspaper pages worldwide, including the front of the Los Angeles Times. Reaction was swift sparking hundreds of demonstrations nationwide. 

Dr. King was quick to remind the Los Angeles crowd that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He continued, “You can help us in Birmingham by getting rid of segregation and discrimination—such as de facto segregation—which exist right here is Los Angeles.” Few concerned citizens in the crowd needed reminding that their western city suffered from many of the same racial injustices gaining worldwide attention in Birmingham. Housing segregation, police brutality, unequal and segregated schools, and employment discrimination dogged blacks throughout the North and West as well.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Sentinel provided glowing coverage of Dr. King’s visit calling him a “Modern ‘Moses.’” An editorial in the same issue stated “the rally was a great tribute to King, the sagacious Emancipator of Montgomery and Birmingham.” The black newspaper’s focus and tone reflected King’s rising stature following the successful campaign in Birmingham. He would march with and speak to over 125,000 people in Detroit in June 1963 and headline the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in front of 250,000 more citizens in late August. Dr. King would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. 

The powerful photographs coming out of Birmingham, especially Bill Hudson’s Associated Press picture of the lunging police dog, were quickly becoming famous as well. Just one week before the rally, a photo essay in Life magazine featuring Charles Moore’s now famous large-format photographs hit newsstands. 

Dr. King, the SCLC, and organizers of the Los Angeles freedom rally understood the powerful emotions these types of pictures elicited—fear, contempt, sympathy for the protesters—and prominently featured the snarling police dogs on the rally and fundraiser brochures each of the 50,000 attendees received that Sunday in 1963.

For those interested in hearing Dr. King’s address at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, Pacifica Radio has the audio available online as part of a 2011 Black History Month piece on Rev. David Abernathy in their “From the Vault” show (scroll down to FTV 247).

And, for those interested in the role Hollywood stars played during the civil rights movement, see Emilie Raymond’s Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement from the University of Washington Press.

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