This is the latest installment in Weld’s historical series, No More Bull! You can find the rest of the series here.
So much of the story of Birmingham is wrapped around protests and demonstrations—and police dogs and fire hoses and guns and bombs and murder. The sheer human drama of the Civil Rights era is potent, but it has tended to obscure another reality of this period.
During the three years between April 1960 and April 1963, Birmingham underwent a transformation. It was a gradual process of change, a time of maturation in which a majority of Birmingham’s citizens came to reject the arch segregationist and Jim Crow defender and enforcer, Eugene “Bull” Connor.
As with any process of maturing, the transformation was not absolute. The characteristics of the “old” Birmingham would not vanish completely. The attitudes that had earned Birmingham the unofficial title of “most segregated city in America” remained entrenched in some quarters. But after the spring of 1963, the vigilantes who had come to symbolize Birmingham in the eyes of the nation and warped the city’s perception of itself were clearly operating outside of community norms.
A community of fear
As the 1960s began, Birmingham was under a microscope. Violence against blacks—not just attacks on civil rights leaders and demonstrators, but random acts of terrorism against black citizens—had begun to attract the attention of the world.
“FEAR AND HATRED GRIP BIRMINGHAM.”
That was the front-page headline of The New York Times on April 12, 1960. Reporter Harrison Salisbury wrote of a “community of fear,” where segregation constricted the lives of both blacks and whites.
Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground, Salisbury wrote, has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism. He recounted the 22 reported bombings of black homes and churches that had occurred in the 11 months prior to his story, as well as the attempted bombing of Temple Beth-El two years earlier.
Local response to the article came from at least two different angles. The business community designated realtor William P. Engel to refute Salisbury’s conclusions. Energetic, aware and deeply civic-minded, Engel gladly took on the task of highlighting the “good” things about life in Birmingham—but he also was soon to join the burgeoning coalition of influential citizens determined to oust Connor and his fellow city commissioners.
Meanwhile, the ever combative and self-righteous Connor and his two fellow city commissioners—Jimmy Morgan and J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr.—wrote letters to the Times, demanding that the paper “publicly retract as a whole” the article by Salisbury. With no retraction forthcoming, Connor filed what would be an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Times. He was represented by attorney James Simpson, who had been his political patron since the 1930s; Simpson was also the corporate counsel for U.S. Steel, the dominant force in the local economy. The actions by Connor and his fellow commissioners, along with Simpson’s involvement, were characteristic of the reaction of the entrenched “old guard” whenever faced with any criticism of the city’s unbending stance on segregation.
The tide begins to turn
By most appearances, not much had changed in Birmingham a year later. Connor’s popularity was at an all-time high. His tough stand against desegregation helped him win re-election as public safety commissioner overwhelmingly on May 2, 1961. Four weeks later, in the runoff to replace retiring Mayor Jimmy Morgan, staunch segregationist Art Hanes won 55 percent of the vote to defeat the reform-minded Tom King. Birmingham’s status as the “Johannesburg of America” seemed firmly entrenched.
Between the two elections, on Mother’s Day, a group of civil rights Freedom Riders—protesters challenging the ongoing failure in the South to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, which outlawed segregation in interstate transportation facilities—arrived at the Trailways bus station in downtown Birmingham. There, they were severely beaten by a mob of Klansmen wielding baseball bats and iron pipes.
It was well known that the Freedom Riders were coming. Earlier that same day, they had encountered trouble in Anniston, where a Greyhound bus, one of two carrying Freedom Riders, had been waylaid and burned on the roadside, with riders beaten as they emerged from the smoking vehicle. But when they got off the bus in Birmingham, not a single policeman was on the scene. It was learned later that Bull Connor had passed word to the Klan that they would be given 15 minutes to assault the group on the Trailways bus before police moved in. Days before their arrival, he had declared that the Freedom Riders were “looking for trouble, and they’re going to get it.”
After the attack, both daily newspapers, the News and the Post-Herald, published editorials asking, “Where were the police?” This was a criticism of police misconduct not previously expressed so forthrightly by the local media, and it provided a glimpse into the changing attitude of mainstream white Birmingham.
Six days later, a new group of Freedom Riders left Birmingham under heavy state police guard to travel on to Montgomery. But the troopers abandoned the bus at the city limits of the state capital, where it was met by a mob larger and even more vicious than the one encountered in Birmingham. The violence continued that night, with a mob of more than 3,000 whites putting the black church where the Freedom Riders had been taken for protection under virtual siege, with only a small contingent of officers from the U.S. Marshals Service there to prevent them storming the building. When President John F. Kennedy threatened to send federal troops, Alabama Governor John Patterson declared martial law. With a semblance of order restored, the Freedom Riders left Montgomery under heavy police guard on May 22, bound for their next stop in Jackson, Mississippi—where they were arrested and jailed.
If anything, then, Montgomery was more volatile than Birmingham. So much so that in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Freedom Riders, Federal Judge Frank Johnson issued an order that enjoined all parties, in effect, to cool it.
“If there are any such incidents as this again,” Johnson warned from the bench, “I’m going to put some Klansmen, some city officials, some city policemen and some Negro preachers in the Federal penitentiary.”
As his ruling made clear, Johnson’s primary concern was for the rights of the general public—white and black—to safely use public transit vehicles and facilities. The right of the public to be protected from evils of conduct is paramount, Johnson wrote, even though constitutional rights of certain persons groups are thereby in some manner infringed.
Though prompted by the violence in Montgomery, Johnson’s ruling would come into play in Birmingham in 1963. By that time, it would be clear that the tide of history was turning.
No more Bull?
In the summer of 1961, racial unrest, the faltering of the steel industry and the increasing transition of the national economy from manufacturing to service industries, and the international media spotlight were all taking their toll on the economic health of Birmingham. The “Magic City” was falling behind Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans. For one top business leader who had seemed a most unlikely proponent of integration, the beating of the Freedom Riders at the Trailways station was the last straw.
Sidney Smyer was the president of Birmingham Realty Company and indisputably the most powerful businessman in town. He had been a founder of the Dixiecrat Party—formed in 1948 in response to President Truman’s desegregation of the military—and a leader of the massive resistance to enforcement of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated integration of public schools. In May 1961, he was five months into a yearlong term as chairman of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.
When the Mother’s Day attack on the Freedom Riders took place, Smyer was on the other side of the world, at a Rotary International convention in Tokyo. He saw the headlines and heard the reactions of his Japanese hosts and other fellow Rotarians, and resolved that Birmingham would change. In fact, he had already set those wheels in motion two months before, when he had quietly asked the Birmingham Bar Association to study the structure and operation of Birmingham’s city government and make recommendations for possible changes.
Smyer’s unspoken objective in this was to rid Birmingham of Bull Connor once and for all. It wasn’t that he had become a progressive; it was that he was a businessman, and he had come to recognize that segregation was bad for business. If Birmingham did not change, it would die.
“I may be a segregationist,” Smyer famously remarked around this time. “But I’m not a damn fool.”
It wasn’t out in the open yet. But the pressure to end segregation was mounting.
Picking up steam
The quiet effort to end segregation in Birmingham picked up steam in November 1961, when federal Judge Hobart Grooms handed down a ruling in a lawsuit that had been filed three years earlier by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, seeking desegregation of all of Birmingham’s municipal facilities. Grooms sided with the plaintiffs, decreeing that, while the city was not “required” to furnish recreational facilities for its citizens, if it chose to do so using taxpayer dollars, it had to make those facilities open to all without discrimination.
Grooms’ ruling excepted the Public Library system due to a technicality in the filing of the case. But every other public facility in the city was designated for desegregation, including “Public Parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, the Municipal owned zoo…golf courses…ball parks, Legion Field, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Municipal Auditorium of the City of Birmingham.” Staring down the barrel of Grooms’ order to integrate by January 15, 1962, the City Commission instead voted unanimously to close all of Birmingham’s public recreational facilities.
Resistance to the commission’s action was immediate, and the way it was expressed marked a significant shift in public sentiment. Until the commission overplayed its hand with the closures, desegregation had only been challenged in court, case by difficult case. Now, it was not the courts but large numbers of citizens that took up the cause.
Dozens of letters opposing the closure and asking commissioners to reconsider their decision poured into City Hall. Some were from organizations, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce (“[closing] all the parks and other cultural facilities…will result in irreparable harm”) to the Downtown Improvement Association (“no greater mistake could be made”) to the John Carroll High School PTA (“There must be a solution”). Most came from concerned individuals. A few correspondents tried, however incongruously, to strike some middle ground; the Highland Golfers Associated suggested a unique solution, writing that while they were in agreement with “most of the ideas expressed…we strongly feel the exception of the golf courses should be made since there is no personal contact involved.”
White church groups were cautious, acknowledging the problem but hesitant to criticize the City Commission. This can be seen in letters from the Baptist Pastors Conference (“We view with alarm the gravity of the problem facing our community [and…pledge] to work with the elected officials of our city and the community to arrive at a Christian solution”), the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama (“We affirm the moral fact that public facilities must be public…creative decisions may be reached”) and the Bessemer District Ministerial Association (“requesting the City Commission to devise some workable plan”).
The commissioners received some strong letters of support as well. A local attorney praised their “courage and fortitude,” adding, “if I were in your shoes, I would have acted as you acted.” One of the railroad unions wrote that, “we took unanimous action to concur with the City Commission,” and said that Conner, Hanes and Waggoner were “acting in a manner that is to the best interest of the people that elected you.” Kirkman O’Neal, the president of O’Neal Steel, wrote of his approval of the commission’s action, admonishing them, “You cannot give in.”
For his part, Connor wrote an open letter in response to those opposing the closures. He referenced his landslide re-election, noting that “the people who elected me…knew that I am a segregationist, and they knew full well what my stand would be when a situation, such as the one we are now facing, happened.” Connor also expressed the view that if given the opportunity, the voters of Birmingham “would vote overwhelmingly to close these parks rather than integrate them.”
On the Sunday night the week before the closures were scheduled to take effect, a dinner at the Jewish Community Center honored Will Engel for his years of service to the community. Rising to speak, Engel took the opportunity to attack segregation.
“Are we going to follow our course of action as a progressive city?” he implored the audience. “Or are we going to become a city of infamy, known for violence?”
Bull Connor read those words in the next day’s newspaper. Then he placed a phone call to Engel, asking if he had been quoted accurately.
“Bull,” Engel replied, “that wasn’t the half of it.”
The closure of Birmingham’s public facilities went forward as planned on January 15, 1962. On January 16, as if to underscore the determination of segregationists to maintain the status quo, three black churches were bombed.
“Do you really want to do something?”
Eight months after Bull Connor’s telephone call to Will Engel, another phone conversation took place. This call was placed by David Vann, a young attorney who joined the Young Men’s Business Club in the 1950s.* An unabashedly progressive organization, YMBC had taken a leadership role in opposing the park closures and on other race-related issues.
Vann was on a mission from Sidney Smyer, who had approached him the previous March, after the Birmingham Bar Association—completing a year’s work on the study it had undertaken at Smyer’s request—recommended that Birmingham change its form of government from commission to mayor-council. Making that change happen would require a public referendum, and Smyer recognized that if the campaign for the change was led by the Chamber of Commerce, Connor and his confederates would use the fact that most of the Chamber board lived in Mountain Brook to charge that the proposal was being driven by people who would not be affected by integration. Believing that would doom the referendum to failure, Smyer asked Vann and the YMBC to manage the campaign.
Vann had agreed to Smyer’s entreaty and set off on the mission of “getting up an election to throw Bull Connor out of office.” That August, with the referendum set for November 6, Vann began to organize in earnest. He called Abe Berkowitz, an attorney whose activism on civil rights matters dated back to the 1948 Ku Klux Klan “raid” on a biracial group of female Girl Scout counselors at Camp Fletcher, near Bessemer. Berkowitz, along with three young lawyers—Charles Morgan, Jr., George P. “Peaches” Taylor, and Vernon Patrick—had run Tom King’s unsuccessful bid for Mayor the previous year.
Since the public release of the Bar Association study and the setting of the referendum, Berkowitz had been an outspoken advocate for the proposed change of government. It is doubtful that he was surprised to pick up the telephone one hot summer day and find David Vann on the other end of the line.
“Abe,” said Vann, “you’ve been making speeches about the form of city government. Do you really want to do something?”
The reply, as Vann had known it would be, was immediate.
“Yes, of course I want to do something.”
Thus was born Birmingham Citizens for Progress, a broad-based political coalition of lawyers, accountants, real estate professionals, large and small merchants, PTAs and labor unions. It included Kennedy Democrats—attorneys Vann, Robert Vance and Erskine Smith had organized the local Kennedy campaign in 1960—and Nixon Republicans, like local party head Elbert Hobson. This group would spearhead the referendum campaign aimed at getting rid of Bull Connor—and segregation—at the ballot box.
The transformation of Birmingham was well underway.
*Correction: We originally stated that Vann was a co-founder of the YMBC, but current YMBC member Sam Rumore pointed out that Vann was merely quick to join once he returned to Birmingham following his clerkship with Hugo Black.