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1963: A Fluid Year That Ended With Eyes On Berlin, Mandela And The Vatican

Kennedy in a crowd at the Berlin Wall
Robert Knudsen | White House

CBS News once described 1963 as “the year everything happened.” Not everything, of course, but it certainly included more than its share of unsettling and promising events, ranging from an international standoff with the Soviet Union to a presidential assassination that shook the world, from a landmark March on Washington to more enlightened policies toward women in the workplace.

These events are worth noting because they help us understand some subsequent developments over the past half a century.

Crack In The Wall

Fifty Christmases ago, for example, a faint light of freedom shone through a chink in the concrete that made up the Berlin Wall. The structure had been erected to slow the flow of residents seeking to flee East Germany, and it became a powerful image of the Cold War. The crack lasted only 28 days, the result of eased visa policies that allowed residents in West Berlin to cross to the East and celebrate Christmas with relatives. Though greeted with joy among those wanting to see loved ones, the gesture was a mere moment in the division of Germany into two zones following the end of World War II. But it offered hope that East-West tension would ease.

Among events aimed at cracking the wall were powerful Berlin speeches by two visiting American presidents more than two decades apart. A few months before East Berlin eased visa restrictions during Christmas of ‘63, President John F. Kennedy had paid a visit to the divided city and made a freedom-inspiring speech that resonated with many on both sides of the wall. Equally powerful was President Ronald Reagan’s West Berlin address in 1987 in which he exhorted his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this wall."

Americans trying to learn what the dispute was about could learn much from a visit to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where Winston Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech in 1946. On the campus is a chunk of the Berlin concrete that offers Americans added understanding of the tension and the outcome of the East-West divide.  

A Trial In South Africa

When the prisoner rose to address the Pretoria Supreme Court, the eloquence of his speech and the convictions of his words must have shocked his jailer.

Nelson Mandela burns his pass
Credit Wikipedia | 1960 photo
Nelson Mandela burns his pass, which blacks needed to be able to move throughout South Africa under apartheid.

“I am the first accused,” his famous speech begins, and it ends by summing up a philosophy: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

At the time, the world knew little about the speaker, Nelson Mandela, who was put on trial 50 years ago and sentenced to life in prison for inciting strikes by workers and leaving the country without permission. The speech, delivered in 1964 after his 1963 arrest, has come to be considered one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.

Before world pressure led to his release, Mandela had served 27 years in prison where he was forced to sleep on the floor, ordered to perform hard labor in a quarry, and got only 30-minute access to one visitor each year. Far from breaking his spirit, the ordeal revealed Mandela’s graceful and forgiving nature. He left prison without rancor and led South Africa’s transition from white minority rule. His example explains why he was admired the world over when he died this month at age of 95, half a century after the start of his conspiracy trial in 1963.

Long Shadow Of The Second Vatican

In December 1963, Pope Paul VI closed the second session of the Second Vatican Council,  but debate over the meaning of the event persists to this day. Some Catholic watchers see echoes of the event in examples set by the leadership of Pope Francis. Those who believe as much include respected Washington Post columnist and scholar E.J. Dionne. While stressing recently that “the pope is not changing church doctrine,” Dionne detects a major change in emphasis that he says can have “profound implications.”

Procession of Cardinals
Credit Original artwork by Franklin McMahon. Created Oct. 11, 1962 | Wikipedia
Procession of Cardinals

One such act, he says, was Francis’ decision to canonize Pope John XXIII along with Pope John Paul II. The former was the reformist pope of the Second Vatican Council. By lifting up John XXIII, according to Dionne, the new pope “is telling Catholics to gladly accept his legacy – and the legacy of the council’s embrace of democracy, religious freedom and the centrality of the Catholic laity. If some conservative voices in the church have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world, Francis is welcoming its dialectical mission: that modernity has lessons to teach Catholics, even as the church should be critical of modernity’s failings.” Dionne’s opinion is only one of many about where Francis is leading the church. But it’s worth linking the dots over half a century as a way of understanding the directions the church has taken since the Second Vatican Council.

Year Of Rapid Change

As Americans ended the official 30-day mourning period for President Kennedy this week 50 years ago, they sought closure not only to an innocence-shattering assassination but to a year of many other whirlwind changes. Americans had seen Kennedy draw a line in the sand against Soviet expansion into Cuba, set the stage for nuclear test bans, used the presidency to speak out forcefully against racial bigotry, pushed for workplace parity for women and championed the rights of the mentally ill. He also set a new standard of public service through his Peace Corps, and still had the energy left to point America to a once unthinkable mission of putting a man on the moon.

Looking back at momentous events in 1963, when “everything happened,” can help reveal America’s untapped potential for goodness. It can also help people find links, make connections and gain insight into some of the major developments that, for better or worse, have influenced our choices and shaped our destiny for half a century.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. Georg
Credit Wikipedia
Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. George Wallace, on the same day as the president's address, blocks the doorway at the University of Alabama.

Throughout the past year, reporter Robert Joiner and others have looked back and pointed to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are. Subjects in this series include The assassination of President Kennedy, the Equal Pay Act, the March on Washington, Gideon's Trumpet, the Jefferson Bank demonstrations and Chuck Berry.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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