The setting is very important in The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Well aware of the ongoing fight for civil rights, Momma and Dad were intent on instilling in their children the integrity and strength of spirit needed to survive in a world that was often unfriendly to people of their race. By traveling to Grandma Sands's home in the Deep South, the family became intimately involved in one of the pivotal events of the times.
In 1963, the year that the story takes place, the civil rights movement was at its height in America. Although African Americans had been guaranteed equal rights in the Declaration of Independence and in amendments to the Constitution, in practice they were still forced to endure discrimination in daily situations. Things were especially bad in the South, where state and local laws fostered discrimination in areas such as education and housing. Segregation was enforced through a system of separate schools and facilities for people of color. Unfair voting requirements prohibited African Americans from participating in elections, and they were also systematically denied service at hotels, restaurants, and other facilities.
A number of organizations and individuals challenged discrimination, standing up for justice in the face of danger and even death. Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Abernathy, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were only a few of the great leaders who sought to change conditions for African Americans through nonviolent resistance. Ordinary citizens from all over the country, blacks and whites alike, converged on the South, staging demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. Inspired by Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who defied the laws that required African Americans to give up their seats on public buses, "Freedom Riders" rode buses throughout the South in an attempt to force the federal government to enforce statutes banning segregation in interstate transportation. Black students enrolled in all-white schools and faced gauntlets of whites determined not to allow them access. The tensions often exploded into violence, and there were many "unsolved bombings," including one that killed four young African American girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Despite these dangers, the civil rights movement gained support throughout the United States and led to the passage of several bills safeguarding equal rights—not just for African Americans but for all U.S. citizens.
Many of the individuals who fought for civil rights suffered greatly because of their actions. Some died and others were injured, arrested, or lost their homes and businesses. The courage of the first African American children who entered segregated schools—and of the parents who allowed them to do so—was especially notable. These people, who saw a wrong and risked everything to change it, followed their belief that everyone has the right to be treated equally.