Throughout 2013, Birmingham will observe — or commemorate, or celebrate or otherwise bear official witness to — several important 50th anniversaries of dates and events related to the Civil Rights Movement. The Easter boycott of downtown department stores by black customers; the demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., culminating in the “Children’s Marches” and mass jailing of protestors; the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church — these and other important dates and events of the pivotal year of 1963 will be remembered and marked with ceremony.
A half-century after the bombings, the snarling dogs, the police brutality, the courageous children, the tragedy, the idea has taken hold that Birmingham should embrace the history that made news around the world and catapulted civil rights to the top of the nation’s agenda. To do that, however — to understand fully the revolution that took place in Birmingham, to recognize fully that the path to progressive change was bumpy and uneven, to embrace fully the history that belongs to all of us — we are obliged to delve into events both prior and subsequent to May 1963.
These events took place over a period of years. They took place not in the streets of Birmingham, but in the privacy of the ballot box. In Birmingham, the term “Movement” is rightly associated with the courageous actions of black citizens — and some white ones as well — on the front lines of the battle for civil rights. But there was a “movement” in the white community of Birmingham, too. It was slow to develop. It gathered constituents gradually, in reaction to events or circumstances that challenged the conscience, convenience or pocketbooks of those constituents.
Each of those events has its own history, its own antagonists and protagonists, its own consequences. It is only collectively that they take on the characteristics of a movement. Progressive action among white people in Birmingham came through a series of ad hoc coalitions, associations that formed and dissolved around a particular issue — and, often, re-formed around a different issue, often with different key players. The connecting thread in this haphazard approach to civic affairs was the understanding that change was coming to Birmingham whether Birmingham liked it or not. The desire for change was genuine, even if the approach was methodical and the preferred pace of change incremental.
Ultimately, it was these white voters — along with the small-but-growing number of black registered voters in the city — who affected the most immediate change of the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham. It was this coalition that began to reverse the prevalence of segregation and Jim Crow as the accepted norm in Birmingham politics. It was this coalition that rid Birmingham of Bull Connor.
There are many names and numerous events involved in the story of Birmingham’s revolution at the ballot box. The story takes place over the course of more than 15 years. Like the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, though, its most compelling elements are encapsulated in a number of key events — in this case, the five separate occasions in less than two years when the voters of Birmingham spoke:
- August 1962, when a petition signed by more than 10,000 registered voters in the City of Birmingham was certified to allow for a referendum on changing the form of the city’s government from a three-member commission to a mayor-council structure.
- November 1962, when nearly 19,000 voters — just over 52 percent of total votes cast — approved the change to mayor-council government, obliging Bull Connor to run for mayor in order to retain his power and maintain the city’s segregation by any means approach.
- March 1963, when the largest number of voters ever to participate in a Birmingham municipal election — 44,736 — gave Bull Connor only 31 percent of the vote, second to Albert Boutwell’s 39 percent, setting up a runoff for mayor.
- April 1963, when a new-record 51,278 voters went to the polls and decisively rejected Bull Connor and the politics of segregation, giving Boutwell 58 percent of the vote.
- December 1964, when nearly 30,000 voters joined to defeat a last-ditch referendum to reinstate the commission form of government by a margin of nearly two-to-one.
The drumbeat of progress
This monthly series for Weld, titled “No More Bull: Birmingham’s Revolution at the Ballot Box,” will focus primarily on the critical years of 1958-63 — but it also will highlight important events and personalities prior to and after those years. You will read about any number of people whose names are well known even to casual students of Birmingham’s history — but you also will read, perhaps for the first time, about some of the “good guys” whose names are not so familiar, but whose contributions to Birmingham’s progress make them essential to the telling of its history.
One aim of the series is to offer new perspective on the turbulent social and political atmosphere from which the voter-driven revolution in Birmingham emerged. Postwar Jim Crow laws were followed by even stricter race laws in the wake of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Locally led organized black protests began as early as 1955. Within a few years, many moderate whites — and even some not-so-moderate ones — had come to feel isolated from both of what they saw as two extremes.
One extreme was represented by Bull Connor and his allies in the fight to preserve segregation at all costs. The other was represented by the reverends Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King and their followers in the nonviolent struggle against it. The white “movement” that fueled the successful 1962 referendum to change the form of city government and the defeat of Bull Connor’s campaign for mayor in 1963 grew in part out of reaction to both the black-led “Movement” for civil rights and the violence of hardline resistance to integration — but only in part.
The deepest roots of that era of political change in Birmingham can be traced at least as far back as 1948. On the night of June 10 of that year, a gang of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen terrorized counselors and residents at a convalescent camp in Bessemer. Founded by Pauline Bray Fletcher, the first black registered nurse in Alabama, the camp was for black women and children; the staff included both black and white women.
Outraged by the incident, Birmingham attorney Abe Berkowitz spearheaded the formation of a coalition of business, labor, civic and social groups. This coalition demanded that the State of Alabama take steps to control the Klan. In the spring of 1949, less than a year after the incident at Camp Fletcher, Governor James Folsom championed, and the Alabama Legislature passed by a margin of 84-4, an Anti-Masking Bill that made it a crime for Klan members — or, for that matter, anyone else — to wear hoods or masks that hid their faces.
In subsequent years, a parade of other national, state and local events kept race at the forefront of Birmingham’s consciousness. The 1954 Supreme Court decision on schools. The outlawing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Alabama by the state’s attorney general — and later governor — John Patterson in 1956. The formation that same year of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, founded by Fred Shuttlesworth and other local black ministers to plan and coordinate organized protests of segregation and demands for civil rights in Birmingham.
With the formation of the ACMHR, the battle was truly joined, and the real brutality began. Shuttlesworth agitating for an end to segregated city buses. Shuttleworth’s house bombed on Christmas night of 1956. Shuttlesworth and others arrested in demonstrations on city buses, in downtown department stores and on the streets of Birmingham. Shuttlesworth severely beaten by a mob in the summer of 1957, when he attempts to enroll two of his daughters in the all-white Phillips High School. Shuttlesworth’s church bombed repeatedly, including one attempt foiled by watchmen.
Meanwhile, there were other events. Amid the unfolding civil rights drama, these events commanded relatively little attention. Nevertheless, they added to the steady drumbeat of news and information that pricked at the consciences — and, in some cases, the pocket books — of growing portions of Birmingham’s white electorate.
One such event that will be examined more closely in the course of the “No More Bull” series occurred in April 1958. A bomb was discovered at Temple Beth-El, the Conservative Jewish synagogue on Birmingham’s Highland Avenue. The bomb had been planted the night before, but heavy rains had defused it. No damage was done here, but it turned out that Beth-El was one only one of seven bombings in a wave of violence against Jewish institutions in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
An organization that called itself the Confederate Underground took credit for the bombings with a statement that read in part: We bombed the temple…we are going to blow up all the Communist organizations, and all the Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens. The leader of the Confederate Underground was J.B. Stoner, the avowed racist who would be convicted — but not until 1980 — of the 1958 bombing of Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church. Stoner’s neo-Nazi views were well known; he once voiced the opinion that “being a Jew” should be a crime “punishable by death.”
Despite the connection of Stoner to the bombing — and an outpouring of support in Birmingham, where temple leaders put up $5,000 in reward money for information on the failed bombing that was matched by $2,000 from Governor Folsom and another $3,000 from hundreds of individual contributors — FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover instructed his local agents not to investigate the Beth-El bombing attempt.
But the drumbeat continued.
Change in the air
As the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham began to build momentum in the mid-50s — a time when the budding coalition of white interests was still very much in the embryonic stage — Eugene “Bull” Connor did not even hold public office in Birmingham. He was the city’s Commissioner for Public Safety for four consecutive terms, from 1937-53, but had declined to run for a fifth because of the scandal that arose in 1952, after he was caught in an adulterous affair with his secretary.
Connor’s comeback attempt in 1957 was only barely successful. He won by just over 100 votes of more than 31,000 cast in the race for public safety commissioner. Even before winning back his old office, however, Bull had been bellowing louder than ever about his devotion to maintaining segregation. It was during that time that he rather famously told a newspaper reporter that as long as he was drawing breath there would be no “white folks and nigras segregatin’ together” in Birmingham.
The margin of his victory didn’t matter. Bull was back in charge.
Over the next four years, Birmingham’s status as the most segregated city in America — no longer the Pittsburgh of the South, but now America’s Johannesburg — was solidified and fixed in the national mind. The reason? The violent response of Bull Connor and the city of Birmingham to nonviolent Civil Rights protestors.
To people around the world, Bull Connor was white Birmingham. This was seemingly confirmed on May 2, 1961, when Connor won re-election to a sixth four-year term by a landslide. He received more than 41,000 votes, and with fellow commissioners Art Hanes and J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr., would form a stridently, unanimously segregationist governing body. To all appearances, both sides in the battle between segregationists and Civil Rights activists were dug in for the long haul. To all appearances, it would be a battle of inches.
But even as the battle lines hardened, even as it appeared that segregation would remain the official policy of Birmingham for the foreseeable future, the slow coalescence of white moderates and what we might call “racial pragmatists” was happening. In the long shadows cast by the very visible revolution on the streets of Birmingham, the revolution that would take place at the ballot box was taking shape.
Less than two weeks after Connor’s triumphant re-election, on Mother’s Day 1961, a bus carrying a biracial group of “Freedom Riders” pulled into the Birmingham Trailways Station at 19th Street and 4th Avenue North. The riders were testing a recent Supreme Court order to desegregate lunch counters and restrooms at interstate travel facilities. A Klan-led mob awaited the Freedom Riders. Per prior agreement with Connor himself, the mob’s leaders had been told that they would have 15 minutes with the protestors before the Birmingham Police arrived to “restore order.”
The violence that ensued was more than enough to inspire a very pertinent headline in the next day’s paper: “Where Were the Police?”
Across the globe, Sidney Smyer was attending the International Rotary Club Convention in Tokyo, Japan. Smyer was the most influential businessman in Birmingham at the time, president of Birmingham Realty Company and, in 1961, the chairman of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. He was also an avowed segregationist — but one who had slowly come to believe that his views on segregation did not matter. What mattered was that if Birmingham continued to cling to segregation as a way of life, it would die economically.
Due to the time difference between Birmingham and Tokyo, it was the following day when Smyer awoke to newspaper headlines and televised footage of the violence in Birmingham and its aftermath. Seeing the horrified reactions of his Japanese hosts and fellow Rotarians from across the world, Smyer became determined to transform both the image and the reality of Birmingham.
Already, three months before, Smyer had quietly asked the Birmingham Bar Association to conduct a study to determine whether the city’s commission form of government was the best and most efficient way to govern the city. He also had asked for recommendations on what changes in the form of government might be in order and how to go about effecting those changes.
The campaign to rid Birmingham of Bull Connor had begun in earnest.
Solomon P. Kimerling is a businessman, philanthropist, historian and proud native of Birmingham. The Weld series “No More Bull: Birmingham’s Revolution at the Ballot Box” will be published in monthly installments. The series will be alternately authored by Kimerling and UAB historian Pamela Sterne King.