Connor, Theophilus Eugene ("Bull")
CONNOR, Theophilus Eugene ("Bull")
(b. 11 July 1897 in Selma, Alabama; d. 10 March 1973 in Birmingham, Alabama), ardently segregationist commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, Alabama, whose tactics—most notably the use of fire hoses and police dogs against peaceful demonstrators—so shocked the nation that they ultimately aided the passage of civil rights legislation.
Connor was one of five children born to King Edward Connor, a railroad dispatcher, and Molly Godwin. The father's work forced a move in 1905 to Atlanta, where the mother died giving birth to her fifth child. Connor spent the remainder of his childhood with relatives in Birmingham, but traveled widely with his father. A boyhood accident rendered him sightless in one eye, and he never finished high school.
Connor learned the craft of telegraphy from his father, and went to work in that capacity after he married Beara Levens in 1920. In Dallas in 1921, he filled in for an ailing baseball announcer, and became popular for his booming voice, which earned him the nickname of "Bull." Returning to Birmingham in 1922, Connor announced games for that city's Barons baseball team. (Coincidentally, this team came to national attention in 1993 thanks to an African American, Michael Jordan, who played for them during his brief flirtation with a second career in minor-league baseball.)
In 1934 Connor was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives. From 1937 to 1954 and again from 1958 to 1963, he served as Birmingham's commissioner of public safety, which gave him administrative authority over the city's police and fire departments and made him part of a three-man team that ran the city. Over the years, Connor was an outspoken segregationist. In his inaugural remarks as commissioner in 1958, he stated that "These laws [segregation] are still constitutional and I promise you that until they are removed from the ordinance books of Birmingham and the statute books of Alabama, they will be enforced in Birmingham to the utmost of my ability and by all lawful means."
In Birmingham, a conservative stronghold of the South, Connor reacted violently when the policy of segregation was threatened. In 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated interstate bus terminals were unconstitutional, and soon afterward a group of activists, calling themselves the Freedom Riders, rode into southern strongholds. They determined that if they were arrested, the Justice Department would be forced to act on their behalf, and Alabama's bus lines would be desegregated.
However, when the Freedom Riders reached Birmingham on 14 May, Connor gave full support to a group of Ku Klux Klansmen that set upon one of the buses, reportedly telling them to keep up their attack until the riders "looked like a bulldog got ahold of them." This was the first of the major standoffs over segregation involving Connor.
The 1960s was an era that increasingly called for compromise in race relations, but Connor stubbornly played the hard line, resisting integration as long as he remained in office. In December of 1961, rather than desegregate, Connor and his two fellow commissioners closed down Birmingham's sixty-seven parks, thirty-eight playgrounds, and four golf courses. Birmingham was given a choice to either integrate their minor-league baseball team, the Barons, or give it up. They gave it up.
Japanese newspapers in 1961 printed front-page photographs of the Birmingham mob attacking the Freedom Riders, and when these came to the attention of the city's chamber of commerce president Sidney Smyer, they caused him considerable embarrassment. From that point on, Smyer tried to find some way to get rid of Connor, but as the elected, independent chief commissioner, Connor was politically untouchable. The easiest way to expel him from government would therefore be to simply change the form of city government from a city commission (on which three commissioners ran the city government) to mayor-council (on which a mayor and city council ran the city government). This way Connor would be ousted from office by pulling the office out from under him.
In 1962 a majority of Alabama voters, in part tired of Connor's reactionary politics, voted to change Birmingham's form of city government. Connor immediately announced his candidacy for city mayor, and a special election was scheduled for March 1963. Running on a prosegregationist platform, he pledged that if he were elected mayor, one of his first steps in office would be to buy 100 new police dogs to attack any Freedom Rider who ventured into Alabama. In a sign of the changing times, Connor lost the election.
Before he left office in May, Connor gained notoriety for ordering the use of police dogs and fire hoses to disperse civil rights demonstrators. In January 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had announced that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, was going to Birmingham to integrate public facilities and department stores. On 9 April, Connor arrested King for violating an injunction against marching on Good Friday. It was during this period of incarceration that King wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," a reaction to city leaders' demands that African-American citizens slow down and wait for desegregation. Both King and local civil rights leader Fred L. Shuttlesworth were released from jail on 20 April. Throughout that month, small, peaceful movements occurred in Birmingham.
On 2 May, however, the intensity was raised a notch. King's plan was to have children from thirteen to eighteen years of age begin the march and fill up the city's jails, and thus, with the help of the media, embarrass city officials. Connor obliged by arresting 600 to 900 children, some as young as six years old. On 3 May, over 1,000 young people received their marching orders. Connor's jails, however, were quickly running out of room, so he ordered the police to bring high-pressured fire hoses and K-9 units in to repel the advancing tide of young marchers. All this was caught by television cameras and relayed to a stunned nation. Over a seven-day period, television viewers saw nonviolent demonstrators on one side and Connor's police with fire hoses on the other, attempting to enforce segregation.
Connor's resistance to desegregation set off a series of demonstrations around the country, and lit a fire under the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Pictures of one of Connor's police dogs attacking a black woman, said President Kennedy, made him sick. Determined to step up the federal role in civil rights, Kennedy promised major legislation. Indeed, the heavy-handed defense of segregation by Connor in 1963 hastened the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "The civil rights movement should thank Bull Connor," Kennedy stated. "He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln." In July the city of Birmingham repealed its segregation ordinances.
After Connor left his office of commissioner of public safety in 1963, he served two terms as president of Alabama's public service commission, the state body responsible for regulating public utilities. He retired after failing to gain reelection to a third term in 1972 and died the following year.
Connor's papers are in the Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama, and additional material can be found at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. A biography is William A. Nunnelley, Bull Connor (1991). See also Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (1988).