On April 2, 1963, the citizens of Birmingham made history. They did it with the ballot, by going to the polls and soundly rejecting the bid of longtime Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to become the city’s mayor.
Throughout the turbulent Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ‘60s, no other major American city could lay claim to such a dynamic electoral contest in which segregation — the question of whether to maintain or end forever the official stance of city government as a bastion of racial discrimination and separation — was the sole issue. No other city could point to a coalition of white and black voters that joined — unofficially, but joined nonetheless — to effect such a sweeping political transformation.
The defeat of Connor was the culmination of a series of ballot initiatives. It began with 10,000 citizens signing a petition calling for a referendum to change Birmingham’s form of government from a three-person commission — then made up of Connor and two other staunch segregationists, Art Hanes and J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr. — to a mayor and nine-member city council. The referendum passed in November 1962, followed by a primary election and runoff that elected former Alabama Lt. Governor Albert Boutwell as mayor and nine racial moderates to the Birmingham City Council.
The battle for change in Birmingham pitted entrenched segregationists — supported and abetted by the power structure of industrialists, bankers and the “cultured” Klansmen of the White Citizens Council — against whites and blacks who were determined to rid Birmingham of Bull Connor and set the stage for social progress. The good guys won.
But Connor and his fellow commissioners did not go quietly. They filed a legal challenge to the election and refused to leave City Hall. Mayor Boutwell and the City Council took their oaths of office on April 15 and, pending the ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court, Birmingham had two governments — and Bull Connor retained command of the city’s police and fire departments.
The drama of 1963 was just beginning.
The backstory: Why Birmingham?
The glow from the April 2 election didn’t last long. In fact, it lasted only a few hours, as “Project C” — for “confrontation” — began the following day. The intense campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing an end to segregation had been planned for weeks by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in conjunction with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Beginning on April 3, there were demonstrations almost daily. The nonviolent protesters marching in downtown Birmingham were augmented by a black boycott of department stores and other retailers. As Shuttlesworth had known it would, King’s presence drew national and international media attention to the plight of blacks in Birmingham. King knew this, too. Birmingham gave the Movement a national stage and a ready-made foil in Bull Connor. King’s objective was to prod President John F. Kennedy to place civil rights at the top of the national agenda by advancing civil rights legislation to Congress.
With the election done, King also knew that timing was critical, and that he had to act while Connor was still the public safety commissioner. Connor, the self-appointed protector of segregation at all costs, could be counted on to respond to the demonstrations with force, for the whole world to see.
Violent confrontation of peaceful demonstrators suited the aims of both men. Connor, defeated by the voters of Birmingham, already had an eye on winning a statewide political office. His political career depended on ensuring that Alabama voters knew that he continued to stand foursquare against desegregation. Even as he and his fellow commissioners fought to have the April 2 election invalidated, the daily demonstrations presented Connor with a golden opportunity to show the depth of his opposition to King and the Civil Rights Movement.
In part, Project C grew out of Shuttlesworth’s constant beseeching of King to bring attention to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth recalled those conversations in a 2004 interview [excerpts of that interview and others with Shuttlesworth conducted by Weld publisher Mark Kelly appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition].
“I would talk to Martin and tell him that Birmingham was where it was at, that we needed him here and he needed to be here,” Shuttlesworth said. “I told him we were doing something that was the epitome of nonviolence, and if he didn’t get to Birmingham, we were going to go ahead and end segregation without him.”
Beyond simply acceding to Shuttlesworth, however, Project C was birthed by two other imperatives. First, King and the Movement needed a “victory” after an embarrassing failure in Albany, Georgia, in the summer of 1962. Second, the Birmingham campaign was an open expression of King’s frustration with the Kennedy administration’s slow reaction to repeated requests and demands for Presidential action to remove barriers to integration. That frustration had mounted steadily over the two years prior to King’s arrival in Birmingham, as evidenced by a series of communications directed from King to the White House.
The communications began within little more than a month after Kennedy’s inauguration, with a letter from King dated February 28, 1961, suggesting “powerful things that the President can do in the civil rights area through executive orders.” In December of that year, King sent a telegram exhorting the President “to issue at once a Second Emancipation Proclamation to free all Negroes from second class citizenship.” In March 1962, another telegram urged Kennedy to consider black federal judges Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie in filling a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, calling it, “a superb opportunity for the Administration to reveal to the world its serious determination to make the Negro a full participant in every phase of American life.”
Throughout the remainder of 1962, King continued to call, implicitly and explicitly, for a second Emancipation Proclamation — in letters and telegrams to Kennedy, as well as in a speech in New York at a Civil War centennial commemoration. He went so far as to draft a proclamation that was delivered to the White House in December 1962. But Kennedy, having weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis and no doubt basking in the afterglow of public approval, failed to respond.
Just two days prior to sending his draft proclamation language to Kennedy, King had sent a telegram that signaled his intention to take the Movement to Birmingham. In it, he reminded the President that, “A virtual reign of terror is still alive in Birmingham, Alabama. It is by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States.”
Faced with Kennedy’s reluctance to force the issue on civil rights, King made a decision. As historian Taylor Branch has noted, King realized that “he had to ‘go for broke,’ as he called it, and head down to Birmingham…and create a situation that dramatized the moral imperative of the segregation issue in America.”
“We could not stop…”
Originally planned to begin in March 1963, Project C was postponed at the urging of “elite” black leaders — such as the millionaire businessman A.G. Gaston — who didn’t want to give Connor an issue in the upcoming mayoral election and the subsequent runoff. Once the election was done, however, giving the new government an opportunity to weigh into racial issues was not an option.
King’s fear was that the new mayor and city council would seek the intervention of state or federal courts as sanction against the demonstrations. While King intended to march even in defiance of such a court order, he knew that would cause complications which very well could limit the effectiveness of the planned campaign. He said as much in remarks at a March meeting in the New York apartment of actor Harry Belafonte, a strong supporter of the Movement.
“[I]f the court issued an injunction to discourage demonstrations, it would be our duty to violate it,” King said. But Shuttlesworth, pressing the case as ever, acknowledged the need to move forward with Project C, saying later that, “we could not stop…because a court injunction could kill the movement.”
And so it was that on April 3, Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights issued the “Birmingham Manifesto,” a 616-word statement that began with the declaration that “The patience of an oppressed people cannot endure forever.” The manifesto noted that blacks in Birmingham had been “segregated racially, exploited economically, and dominated politically,” with no relief from government or the courts, and that blacks had been “ victims of repeated violence, not only that inflicted by the hoodlum element but also that inflicted by the blatant misuse of police power.” It also pointed out the “broken faith and broken promises” of a committee of elite white business leaders, which had pledged the previous year to take steps toward ending segregation, but reneged on an agreement negotiated with Shuttlesworth.
That same afternoon, 20 people were arrested in lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth’s, Loveman’s, Pizitz and Kress stores downtown. Hundreds more were arrested in the following days, including King himself, who, in defiance of a Jefferson County Circuit Court injunction and the direct pleading of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, marched on Good Friday, April 12. King would spend eight days in jail, producing the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” as the marches continued. Meanwhile, Mayor Boutwell and the new City Council were sworn in, prompting Birmingham News editor John Bloomer to quip that Birmingham was “the only city in the world with two mayors and a King.”
By the time King emerged from jail April 20, however, the campaign had lost momentum. Hundreds had been arrested, but organizers were finding it difficult to recruit new volunteers, as people rightly feared that participating in the marches — and, especially, being arrested — would give employers an excuse to fire them. Urged on by one of his lieutenants, James Bevel, King made the fateful decision to use schoolchildren as marchers.
As King and Shuttlesworth knew he would be, Bull Connor was only too glad to arrest schoolchildren. As the Civil Rights leaders also anticipated, the assembled news media were eager to document Connor’s brutality for an international audience — and for history. Early May brought a steady drumbeat of news:
Thursday, May 2: Demonstrators assemble at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, heading out in groups of 50 to march into the downtown business district. Within three hours, approximately 1,000 children are arrested.
Friday, May 3: King and Shuttlesworth hold a press conference as thousands more children gather at the church and in the park. With jails already nearly full, Connor is determined to intimidate the crowds, bringing in police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses. With television cameras rolling, the public safety commissioner bellows, “Let ‘em have it!” With this confrontation, both King and Connor have achieved their objective of garnering maximum publicity.
Saturday, May 4: Mass demonstrations continue, with as many as 3,000 children protesting, and another 1,000 arrested and jailed. Attorney General Kennedy again calls on King to abandon the marches, but King refuses. Assistant Attorney Generals Burke Marshall and John Doar are sent to Birmingham to mediate, and set up their headquarters in the offices of attorney Abe Berkowitz. King now has the full attention of the Kennedy Administration, while Connor receives support and encouragement from Governor George Wallace, who will soon send hundreds of Alabama State Troopers to Birmingham.
Sunday, May 5: Led by Rev. Charles Billups, about 2,000 blacks — adults and children — march on the Birmingham City Jail, singing, “Above my head, I hear freedom in the air.” In addition, “kneel-ins” take place at 21 white churches. No arrests are made.
Monday, May 6: Of nearly 7,400 black students enrolled in city schools, fewer than 900 are in class. Comedian Dick Gregory leads the children’s march. The 800 arrests made on this day bring the total to nearly 2,500 in the Birmingham and Bessemer jails and at the Alabama State Fairgrounds (Frank Wagner, the city’s director of parks and recreation, had refused to allow Legion Field to be used as an internment center).
Tuesday, May 7: King extends an olive branch to community leaders, saying, “We are ready to negotiate. If the white power structure of the city will meet some of our minimum demands, then we will consider calling off the demonstrations.” Meanwhile, more than 2,000 students circumvent police lines and race to the downtown retail district, effectively shutting it down. Wallace’s state troopers — 575 strong, equipped with tear gas, shot guns and other heavy artillery — arrive in Birmingham. During the demonstrations, spectators hurl rocks and bottles at police and firefighters. Shuttlesworth is injured by a blast from the fire hoses and hospitalized; Connor comments, “I wish I’d been there to see him carried away in a hearse.”
Wednesday, May 8: With local newspapers reporting that “yelling Negro mobs flooded 19th and 20th Streets…shoving white people off the sidewalk and bullying their way in and out of department stores,” King announces, over Shuttlesworth’s objections, that demonstrations will be suspended for 24 hours. Still, Shuttlesworth tells the press that, “We do believe that honest efforts to negotiate in good faith are underway.” In an attempt to derail the negotiations, Connor has King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy arrested on an outstanding warrant for contempt of court, but they are quickly released when A.G. Gaston personally pays their $5,000 bond.
Thursday, May 9: Gov. Wallace issues a statement: “I regret President Kennedy’s statement which in substance says the people of Birmingham have inflicted abuse on the Negroes.” Wallace pledges to keep the state troopers in Birmingham for “as long as…the police commissioner is of the opinion they are needed to enforce law and order and to prevent violence.”
Friday, May 10: A truce is reached. Mediated by Burke Marshall, the settlement between the Movement and white business leaders is announced at a press conference held by King, Shuttlesworth and Abernathy in the parking lot of the A.G. Gaston Motel. Among the key terms of the agreement: Dining establishments will be desegregated within 90 days of the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision on the validity of Birmingham’s new government, regardless of which government is seated; “White” and “Colored” signs will be removed from drinking fountains and restrooms within 30 days of the agreement, and fitting rooms at department stores will be desegregated; retail “employment opportunities for Negroes will be upgraded” with at least one Negro salesperson to be hired within 60 days.
Shuttlesworth, who leaves his hospital bed to attend the press conference, is not satisfied with the outcome, but tells the media that Birmingham has “reached an accord with its conscience,” and that there is no “necessity for further demonstrations.” Mayor Art Hanes calls the white leaders who participated in the negotiations “gutless traitors.”
Saturday, May 11: The Ku Klux Klan bombs the A.G. Gaston Motel and the Ensley home of Rev. A.D. King, Martin Luther King’s brother.
Sunday, May 12: President Kennedy orders federal troops to Birmingham, and cautions Gov. Wallace that he now is committed to take whatever actions are necessary to support civil rights for blacks.
Progress at hand
The last of the pivotal “12 days in May” came on Thursday, the 23rd, when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against Connor, Hanes and Waggoner. The old guard left City Hall, clearing the way for the new mayor and council.
With the change in government, and as promised in the “Accord of Conscience,” changes began to come in Birmingham. On July 16, Mayor Boutwell named a biracial committee to advise and monitor the city’s progress toward integration. A week later, the City Council repealed all of Birmingham’s segregation ordinances. On July 30, lunch counters were officially desegregated. When students returned to class for the academic year that fall, Graymont Elementary became the first Birmingham school to be desegregated.
Bull Connor was gone. Progress was at hand. But the violence did not stop.