On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It read, in part:
That…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons…in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
One hundred years later, on January 14, 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama issued a proclamation of his own. In his inaugural address, Wallace spoke to the persistence of the nation’s deep division over matters of race.
“Today,” Wallace declared, “I have stood where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It’s very appropriate, then, that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny…and I say…segregation today…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever.”
Redeeming the “Lost Cause”
In his bearing and his rhetoric, George Wallace cast himself as the embodiment of the South’s “Lost Cause” doctrine. That doctrine held that, though defeated at Gettysburg and surrendered at Appomattox, the Southern cause and way of life had not been extinguished.
Alabama was unique among Southern states. In the Civil War, it had not suffered the likes of Sherman’s march through Georgia and the burning of Atlanta. There had been nothing like the occupation of Nashville or the siege and devastation of Vicksburg. Alabama’s planter class remained intact after the war, soon to be augmented by the entrepreneurs, railroads and land speculators intersecting in the new city of Birmingham.
Long before the 1950s, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered desegregation of public schools, massive resistance to equality for black citizens in Alabama was sustained by a coalition of Black Belt planters — of cotton, mostly — and the “Big Mules” of the timber, mining, steel and finance industries. These industries adopted and nurtured the Lost Cause ideology that maintained the racial attitudes of the Civil War era of a century before.
What were these attitudes? Among them, that blacks should be subservient to whites as under slavery — and be content with their lot — and that women should be deferential to fathers, husbands, brothers and other male authority. As it related to the latter, the feeling was so strong that in 1919, the Alabama Legislature voted against ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote; the amendment was not officially adopted in Alabama until 1953. As it related to the status of blacks, the tool of oppression was strict enforcement of Jim Crow laws, augmented by violence.
Certainly, this was the case in Birmingham. The specter of racism was front-and-center in the city’s government and its social atmosphere, and it came to be embodied in the person of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. But, contrary to the general perception — and glossed over, ignored, or missed altogether in most historical writing about the long era of Jim Crow and segregation in Birmingham — the segregationist hard line was not a monolithic force in the city.
In fact, the history of Birmingham, especially from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, is peppered with the emergence of a series of shifting coalitions that pushed for progressive reforms. As detailed in previous installments of Weld’s “No More Bull” series, these efforts variously challenged the Ku Klux Klan, promoted serious interracial initiatives, and called for legislative reapportionment and civil service reform. In both the black and white communities, coalitions formed and re-formed, usually in response to particular incidents or circumstances. Each had its proponents and detractors, and none met with more than limited success until the fateful years of 1962 and 1963. This jagged history of progressive coalescence speaks to both the difficulties and triumphs that Birmingham experienced during the Civil Rights Era.
A New Day?
“A New Day Dawns for Birmingham,” blared the banner headline of The Birmingham News on Wednesday, April 3, 1963. The headline was set against the background of a shining sun.
Why the optimism? The day before, the people of Birmingham had voted Bull Connor out of City Hall. In a runoff election to become the city’s first mayor under its new mayor-council form of government, Albert Boutwell — a former state legislator and lieutenant governor, and a comparative moderate on racial issues — polled 29,063 votes, to Connor’s 21,648. The margin of Boutwell’s victory was an estimated 8,000-plus black citizens who turned out to vote against the arch segregationist Connor.
The black vote was clearly the result of what had been an ongoing, multi-year effort by black leaders to push voter registration. Such a push was much needed, as only about 10 percent of Birmingham’s black population was registered to vote as of 1960 (based on that figure, turnout among black voters in the 1963 mayoral runoff was astounding, as it approached, and possibly exceeded, the 75 percent mark). This was a testament to the effectiveness of measures like the poll tax and the literacy tests administered and arbitrarily “graded” by registrars.
That general effect is illustrated in a routine report from The Birmingham News in January 1950. During what was described as “a typical week,” the Jefferson County Board of Registrars “accepted 252 whites as voters and turned down only three, while it accepted only 125 black voters and turned down 115.”
In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a major drive called the Crusade for Citizenship, with the stated purposes of “doubl[ing] the number of qualified Negro voters in the South,” and “mobiliz[ing] the potential voting strength of the Negro population in the South and implement[ing] the 1960 Civil Rights Bill.” In Birmingham, the crusade was backed by the Birmingham World newspaper and numerous black churches.
“A sustained and vital mass movement must be developed,” said a statement from the organization at the time the Crusade for Citizenship was initiated. “No legislation is meaningful unless people make use of it.”
Despite their relatively small numbers, black voters clearly played a decisive role in the rejection of Bull Connor at the ballot box. But the mechanism of transformation was the passage the previous fall of the referendum to change Birmingham’s form of municipal government from a three-member commission to a mayor-council structure.
Connor and his fellow commissioners had been elected to four-year terms in May 1961. For those who recognized that any hope of a viable economic future for Birmingham had come to rest on ending segregation as soon as possible, a referendum calling for a new governmental structure was really the only viable option. In the summer of 1962, more than 10,000 citizens started that process by signing a petition calling for an election to vote on the change. In approving that measure, the voters of Birmingham rejected not only Bull Connor, but also the Big Mules of industry and finance and their program of resistance to federal mandates.
In the two years following the petition drive, the people would speak in three separate elections. In November 1962, voters approved the change to a mayor-council government. In April 1963, they chose Boutwell over Connor in the mayoral election. And in December 1964, a referendum to reinstate the commission form of government was defeated at the polls.
In each of these elections, the choice between segregation and integration was the central issue, with Birmingham’s rigid Jim Crow history and laws pervading the narrative. And in each election, the forces of segregation went down to defeat.
To many, it did indeed seem as if a new day had dawned for Birmingham.
Birmingham as backdrop
The rays of light from the newly bright sun over Birmingham were quickly obscured by the shadows of two opposing titans: George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Jr. The outcome of their epic battle would set the tone for civil rights, politics and social actions for a generation. But the effect upon Birmingham in the spring and summer of 1963 was toxic, as they used Birmingham as a backdrop for pursuing their very different agendas. In that sense, both King and Wallace needed Birmingham.
The previous summer, King’s efforts to desegregate the city of Albany, Georgia, had met with failure. That failure was due in part to the benign nature of Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett’s racism. When King was arrested there and given the choice of a 45-day jail sentence or a relatively small fine, he had chosen to go jail. Recognizing the opportunity to rob the civil rights leader of a platform for protest, Pritchett quietly saw to it that King’s fine was paid, and the minister was released after only three days in confinement.
The episode was widely viewed as a defeat for the Civil Rights Movement. After having long been urged by Birmingham’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, King now came to view Birmingham as fertile ground for the next battle, and the SCLC began to work with Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to lay the groundwork for mass demonstrations.
(One reason Shuttlesworth was so eager to have King come to Birmingham was that he knew that, in contrast to Pritchett in Albany, Bull Connor would take every opportunity to defend segregation by engaging King and the legions of protesters directly and violently. Little noted in history is the fact that the newly elected Birmingham City Council invited Pritchett to Birmingham as a consultant as the protests began in April 1963. Pritchett departed after seeing that there would be no swaying Connor’s oppressive tactics.)
As for Wallace, he was preparing to challenge the authority of President John F. Kennedy. Having thrown down the “segregation forever” gauntlet in his 1962 inaugural address, Wallace meant to make good his promise to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent the integration of public education in Alabama. The University of Alabama was under federal court order to admit two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, with a deadline of June 11. Wallace relished the chance to pit himself against President Kennedy, and saw the coming turmoil in Birmingham as a skirmish that would maximize the national press coverage of the “stand” he planned in Tuscaloosa.
Language was the key to King’s and Wallace’s respective transformations of their ideas into movements. Each called explicitly for direct action and resistance — King against Jim Crow and the public officials who were determined to uphold it, Wallace against racial moderation and federal power.
In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, King articulated the philosophy and circumstances that had led him to Birmingham. “In the entire country,” he wrote, “there was no place to compare with Birmingham. … It was a community in which human rights had been trampled for so long that fear and oppression were as thick in its atmospheres as the smog from the factories.” If Wallace had his way, King insisted, the citizens of Birmingham “would be living in the largest city of a police state.”
But King was not satisfied with recounting Birmingham’s history and the recalcitrance of those who rejected calls for equality and justice. He also turned with calculated disdain on local reformers:
[O]ver the past few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great block in his stride for freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice…
In Connor’s Birmingham, King wrote in another passage, the silent password was fear. … Certainly Birmingham had its white moderates who disapproved of Bull Connor’s tactics…but they remained silent. … The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the people, but the silence of the good people.
King’s rhetoric was grand — and there was much truth in it. But his facts were incomplete, for as he made his preparations to come to Birmingham in the spring of 1963, many of the people his words indicted already had spoken. There had been more than 10,000 petitioners calling for change. There had been thousands who signed newspaper advertisements. There were the results of two elections in five months’ time. There was not silence, but commotion.
Of course, few were more adept at taking advantage of commotion than George Wallace. Having staked his territory as a defender of segregation when, after losing the 1958 gubernatorial election in which he campaigned as a moderate, he famously vowed never again to be “out-niggered,” he now saw Birmingham as a stepping-stone to national prominence. Shortly before his inauguration in January 1963, he had informed a group of state senators that, “I’m going to make race the basis of politics in this state, and I’m going to make it the basis of politics in this country.”
He amplified those themes in his inaugural speech, looking past Alabama to the nation. “[F]rom this day, from this hour, from this minute, we give the word of a race of honor that we will tolerate their boot in our face no longer,” Wallace proclaimed. “This nation was never meant to be a unit of one, but a united of the many.”
Back in Birmingham
On April 3 — the very day that The Birmingham News announced a “new day” in Birmingham — King and the SCLC launched “Project C” (for “confrontation”). Mayor Albert Boutwell and the Birmingham City Council were sworn into office on April 15, but Commissioners Connor, Art Hanes and J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr., filed a lawsuit appealing the legality of the election. Effectively, Birmingham had two governments, as the commissioners refused to vacate City Hall, thereby maintaining their authority and control as the protests continued.
David Vann was one of the architects of the transformation underway in Birmingham, and later would become the city’s mayor. In a 1978 interview during his term as mayor, Vann would lament that the events of 1963 — the clash in Birmingham between the world views of King and Wallace — “totally overpower the exciting story of a city attempting to take control of its own destiny through the democratic process — a story which too often seems destined to be relegated to historical oblivion.”
The protests that commenced on April 3 would be only the beginning. Much more confrontation loomed. Birmingham, having declared at the ballot box its desire to rid itself of segregation, would be rewarded with weeks of demonstrations and months of violence, bombs and murder.