In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama , had a rocky history concerning race relations. The city had a population of 340,000 people, 40 percent of whom were African American, and it was reputed to be the most
segregated city in the United States. (Segregation is the enforced separation of blacks and whites in public places.) In 1961, the freedom riders, a group of activists bent on achieving desegregation on buses and in bus stations across the South, had been violently attacked there. (See Freedom Rides .) More than fifty unsolved bombings had earned the city the nickname of “Bombingham” among southern blacks. Despite the danger, in 1963 civil rights leaders decided to fight the city's racist policies.
One of the great leaders of the civil rights movement in Birmingham was the outspoken Baptist minister Fred L. Shuttlesworth (1922–). When the Alabama legislature outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the state in 1956, Shuttlesworth organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). It had grown to be the largest civil rights organization in the state. Realizing that local activism was not strong enough to overcome Birmingham's racial problems, in late 1962 Shuttlesworth invited the renowned nonviolent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) to come to Birmingham to lead an all-out campaign to confront the city's segregation and economic discrimination.
King knew that segregation was unlikely to be defeated in the South without a greater degree of involvement by the federal government. He believed a well-publicized campaign in Birmingham could be the means to force President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) and his administration to take an active role in protecting the rights of African Americans. King and Shuttlesworth began planning.
Politics in the city of Birmingham delayed the protest. Birmingham's commissioner of public safety, the staunchly segregationist T. Eugene “Bull” Connor (1897–1973), controlled Birmingham's fire and police departments and dominated the city government. He had embarrassed many prominent citizens of the city with his refusal to go along with court-ordered desegregation. Connor was running for mayor in March 1963, and many hoped he would lose. King decided to postpone the Birmingham protests until the elections were over, not wanting to provoke racial tensions that could strengthen Connor's campaign. Connor lost the election.
On April 3, King's Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the ACMHR began a large-scale, nonviolent campaign of protest marked by a sit-in movement (demonstrations in which protestors would sit down and refuse to move), marches, and a well-organized economic boycott (refusal to do business) against downtown businesses. But even though he was voted out of office, Connor would not step down as public safety commissioner without a fight; as the protests began, he filed a lawsuit to remain in his job. Although the Alabama Supreme Court eventually ruled against Connor (on May 22, 1963), the short-term result was a confusing situation in which Connor was left in control of Birmingham's law enforcement.
The Birmingham protests were among the largest ever launched during the civil rights movement; they continued for sixty-five days and nights. One week after they began, Connor obtained an injunction, or order, from the state court against further demonstrations. King openly defied the injunction.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
On April 12, police arrested King and a number of other demonstrators. While he was in jail, a newspaper published a letter from clergymen that questioned his timing for the protest and his defiance of the injunction. In response, King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Originally penciled in the margin of a newspaper, the letter became a classic expression of the moral injustice of segregation and the urgency of the civil rights movement.
King was released after eight days, but more demonstrators went to jail. In early May, running short of adult protesters, King encouraged children from the public schools to demonstrate. Up until this time, Connor had been fairly restrained in his handling of the protests. Infuriated by the continuation of the protests, he attempted to shut down the demonstrations by using greater force, including police dogs and fire hoses. At the peak of the demonstration on May 6 and 7, approximately two thousand protesters had been arrested, and the state fairgrounds had been pressed into service as a temporary jail.
By this time, Birmingham was the nation's leading news story. Photographs and films of protesters being attacked by dogs and blasted by fire hoses were being seen around the country and overseas. On May 7, some young blacks had vented their anger and frustration by battling with police and other whites in the downtown area. Many began to fear a major riot would erupt.
Birmingham's white and black leaders began serious talks. The Kennedy administration sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall (1922–2003) to the city to pressure both sides to come to terms. During the final stages of negotiations, both the president and his brother, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), kept in frequent contact with Marshall.
On May 8, the demonstrations were suspended, and two days later a formal agreement was signed. Downtown merchants agreed to desegregate lunch counters, drinking fountains, and other facilities, and to hire at least some African Americans in clerical jobs. In addition, a permanent biracial committee (one with both black and white members) was to be established. Any demonstrators still in jail were to be released. The agreement occasioned a heated argument between King, who supported the terms, and Shuttlesworth, who thought the terms were too open to evasion. Segregationist extremists made a last-ditch attempt to disrupt the agreement by bombing the Gaston Motel, which had served as the protest's command center. Despite a night of rioting, the agreement held.
The “Battle of Birmingham” was one of the most dramatic confrontations of the civil rights movement. The newspaper and television pictures of nonviolent protesters—some of them no more than six years old—being bitten by police dogs or swept off their feet by high-pressure fire hoses provided the movement with some of its most powerful images. The violent images made thousands of Americans aware of the injustices African Americans faced in the Deep South. This made it easier for civil rights organizations to raise funds. The protests also inspired African Americans across the South; about two hundred communities organized similar campaigns in 1963.
Events in Birmingham also succeeded in achieving King's goal of promoting a greater federal role in eliminating segregation in the South. In an address in June 1963, President Kennedy called for a new civil rights bill. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not pass for another year, but much of its groundwork was laid by the events of 1963.
The agreement in Birmingham was a milestone, but within the city racial tension remained strong. Hostility to desegregation ended in tragedy on September 15, 1963, when a bomb was detonated by white supremacists at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four African American girls (see Birmingham Baptist Church Bombing ).