The society is coming apart at the seams. What good is it doing to force these situations when white people nowhere in the South want integration? What this country needs is a few first-class funerals…
— George Wallace
September 5, 1963
At 10:22 on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The force of the explosion ripped a gaping hole in the back wall of the church, shattered windows of the church and adjacent buildings, and destroyed automobiles parked on the street outside. Inside the church, it killed four young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — and injured 22 other people.
More than any other single event, the bombing awakened the consciousness of Americans to the Civil Rights Movement and prompted governmental action that led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year. And, while most people in Birmingham, black and white, reacted with revulsion and horror, the bombing also branded the city as a place where intolerance and hatred ruled — an image that endured for decades to come.
The bomb was planted by members of the “Cahaba River Bridge Boys,” an especially violent faction of the local Ku Klux Klan. These men were radicals even among their fellow Klansmen, determined that no price was too high to pay for maintaining the separation of the races and convinced that violence was the only means of ensuring that integration would never occur. One of them, Robert Chambliss, had told his niece days before the bombing that the group “had enough stuff to flatten half of Birmingham,” and then issued a chilling prophecy.
“You wait until after Sunday,” Chambliss said. “They’ll beg us to let them segregate.”
While it was Klansmen who carried out the bombing — and while Chambliss and two others eventually would be convicted of the crime (the fourth bomber died before he could be brought to trial) — ultimate responsibility for the murder at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church went much higher. Ultimately, the bombing was encouraged and enabled by the words and deeds of one man: Alabama’s governor, George Corley Wallace.
“My stand is the same…”
Wallace had begun paving the road to Sixteenth Street eight months before, with his inaugural speech as governor and its infamous declaration for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” If there was any thought that Wallace might back off his tough-talking rhetoric in the face of real-life events, it was dispelled in a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy that took place in Montgomery April 25, 1963 — five days after Rev. Martin Luther King’s release from jail in Birmingham, and as King and other Civil Rights leaders were making preparations to ramp up the nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham by having schoolchildren march against Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses.
Hoping to head off any action by Wallace that would further inflame the situation, Kennedy reminded the governor that “the law is the law.” Wallace responded that it was his duty to see that the laws of Alabama were “faithfully executed.”
“My stand is the same as the day that I was inaugurated,” Wallace said.
Wallace was as ambitious a politician as ever drew breath, and he was intent on exploiting racial tensions for his own political benefit. His eye was already on the national stage, and he saw confrontation with the federal government — most specifically President John F. Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general — as a fast ticket to building a national following of white people who were confused, frightened and outraged by King and the movement he led.
Events in Birmingham came to a head in early May, with thousands of children arrested and jailed and indelible images of violence against the Civil Rights demonstrators beamed to the world via television and newspapers. Wallace fanned the flames. He sent more than 500 heavily armed state troopers to Birmingham, continued his public battle of words with the Kennedys, and blasted the concessions by white business leaders that ended the demonstrations. Ultimately, it took the presence of more than 18,000 federal troops in Birmingham to ensure that order was restored.
Having turned up the heat in Birmingham, Wallace cast his attention to what, for him, was an even bigger opportunity — making good on another promise from his inaugural address, to “stand in the schoolhouse door” in defiance the court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama. The “stand” that took place June 11 was a well-staged charade for the assembled television cameras and news reporters. Wallace made a speech that was a full-throated defense of segregation, and then he stepped aside to allow the enrollment of two black students. But he had achieved his objective.
Tossing matches at a powder keg
With Wallace drawing media attention to Tuscaloosa — and King long gone from Birmingham — the new mayor-council government in Birmingham was dithering. Mayor Albert Boutwell had defeated Bull Connor in the race for the city’s highest office, and the nine-member city council had replaced Connor and his two fellow city commissioners. The change of government and the defeat of Connor had been progressive actions by the voters of Birmingham, but the new government was stalling on integration.
Likewise, the business community was dragging its feet on several commitments made in the “accord of conscience,” most notably the formation of a bi-racial committee to track the process of integration and formulate solutions to any issues that arose. One writer at the time said he “was informed” that the reason Boutwell and the city council had not established the committee was because “the Negroes will not present a list of names for such a committee,” but added, “I do not know whether this is so.”
The week after Wallace’s theatrics on the UA campus, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Burke Marshall — who ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — was forwarded a memo written by Red Holland, an observer on the ground in Birmingham. The two-and-a-half page memo, in which Holland admitted that his assessment “could be pessimistic,” painted a damning picture of a white power structure in denial.
Boutwell and the city council, Holland wrote, were “delaying, apparently deliberately, on many matters pressing on them and the city.” Meanwhile, “nothing within the commercial community is being done to take action on the Negro-white agreements. … The atmosphere here is of no follow-through by the whites.” As for the city at large, Holland noted that there had been “no public or publicly-accepted turn of the wheel to a new condition,” and wrote of the coming integration of Birmingham schools that, “the community is failing to show any courage in facing up to the realities and prepare to deal effectively with them.”
Holland also weighed in on the immediate aftermath of Wallace’s “stand” in Tuscaloosa. He saw the governor’s words and deeds for what they were, a move that was both finely calculated to “build up” Wallace as a political figure and extremely reckless in the aid and comfort they gave to violent men for whom “segregation forever” was a call to arms.
Wallace still has the overwhelming majority support of Alabamians, apparently, despite his clear retreat, Holland wrote. For one reason or another, the people seem in great numbers to have concluded that he “succeeded” at Tuscaloosa, despite the Negro students’ entry. It is wholly probable…that he will nurture this impression in every way he can, and…will not publicly conclude the battle has been lost and turn substantially away from the racial situation as his number one emphasis.
Burke Marshall had been instrumental in the May negotiations in Birmingham, and also had direct dealings with Wallace himself. Reading Holland’s memo, he must have felt a chill at the idea that racial tensions in Birmingham were threatening to boil over again, whether in the form of Klan-fed violence, demonstrations or even riots by blacks frustrated with the foot-dragging on desegregation, or both. Marshall forwarded the memo to Joe Dolan, an assistant who had been with him in Birmingham. Attached to it was a typewritten, one-sentence message to Dolan:
Read and weep and return.
How fragile was the situation in Birmingham? The Alabama Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission met in Birmingham on May 22 — 11 days after riots that followed Klan bombings — which had been in response to the concessions made by white business leaders to end the King-led demonstrations and segregationist vandalism of several major downtown retail establishments whose owners had been party to the settlement.
Among those who addressed the Civil Rights advisory committee was David Vann, a young lawyer and co-founder of the politically progressive Young Men’s Business Club. Vann’s work as a lawyer, political strategist and budding visionary — later, he would be elected to a term on the Birmingham City Council and one as mayor (1975-79) — had been key to the successful effort to change the city’s form of government and drive Bull Connor from office.
According to official minutes from the Civil Rights advisory committee meeting, Vann said the open strife of April and May “had been almost at the point of a civil war,” and called on all sides to “view the overall picture more realistically and comprehensively.”
In addition, the minutes record, Mr. Vann stated that very few people realized the total picture of what has gone on in Birmingham in the last eight weeks. He said that he believed that the public was not fully informed about the process of settling a racial revolution. Vann also voiced agreement with statements that had been made by committee member James A. Head, a successful Birmingham businessman whose fellow business leaders had long been wary of his unabashed political liberalism.
Mr. Vann agreed with Mr. Head’s recommendation for a complete critique of the Birmingham situation, the minutes read. [E]specially the many bad decisions made both by the Negro leadership and by government and civic leaders on all levels.
Meanwhile, the Alabama House of Representatives authorized the establishment of a committee of its own. The special House committee was given subpoena power to investigate the negotiated “truce” in Birmingham. As Red Holland put it, the committee had “as its prime target Birmingham and the process and personnel of that agreement.”
How fragile was the situation in Birmingham? The city that already was known as Bombingham was still a powder keg — and George Wallace would toss matches at it all summer long.
As the self-styled champion of “state sovereignty” — as he had told high school students attending the annual Alabama Boys State conference in early June, “We have a right to stand up and defend our Constitutional government” — Wallace had set himself up in direct opposition to the interference of the federal government in the racial affairs of Alabama. Ignoring his defeat by President Kennedy’s military intervention in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, the governor responded to events — especially federal court orders that Alabama’s school system be integrated for the school year that began in September — with bellicose words and actions.
Throughout July and August, Wallace took every opportunity to denounce the federal courts, reminding listeners that his control of the Alabama National Guard and the State Troopers vested him with policing powers that he would use to uphold segregation. He declared the Civil Rights Movement to be “infiltrated by Communists.” He compared Kennedy and his administration to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and he criticized the president for “illegal federalization of the National Guard to integrate the University of Alabama.” Playing on age-old racial fears, he announced a plan to form separate schools for boys and girls.
Most chillingly, Wallace telegraphed his sympathy with the Klan by co-opting a familiar refrain of theirs. He proclaimed that, “it is the destiny of the people of the South to help save the nation” by fighting to keep the races separate.
Thus emboldened by the governor, the Klan mobilized. By early September, Klan leader Robert Shelton was telling an audience of 1,500 at the Graymont National Guard Armory that he and his followers would defy federal warnings against opposing desegregation. Rejected by most citizens of Birmingham — not least at the ballot box, in the April election that had rid the city of Connor — the Klan was clearly feeling the need to demonstrate its relevance.
As schools opened the first week of September, Wallace proved true to his word. He sent state troopers to Tuskegee and Birmingham to block or delay the opening of schools (to the credit of both bodies, the Birmingham City Council adopted a resolution asking Wallace to withdraw the troopers, while the Birmingham Board of Education declined an offer by Wallace to seek an injunction to stop integration) as hundreds of white citizens descended on Birmingham City Hall to demand that schools be closed rather than integrate, and whites picketed at schools set for desegregation.
On September 4, riots broke out in the streets of Birmingham, with five whites and one black person arrested and 21 injured. That night, the home of Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores was bombed for the second time in 15 days; Shores’ wife was injured in the blast. The next day, a Thursday, the Birmingham school board voted to close the three newly integrated schools until the following Monday, and Wallace withdrew the 600 state troopers he had posted to the city.
It was that same day that Wallace’s quote about the need for “a few first-class funerals” appeared in The New York Times. In the following days, he continued to publicly tangle with the Kennedys and the courts, even fleeing Montgomery with a phalanx of state troopers to avoid being served with a restraining order to force integration of schools in Mobile. On September 10, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce integration statewide, and Wallace said the president had “taken complete control” of Alabama.
To readers of The New York Times — and even to Wallace himself — the governor’s words might have seemed rhetorical. But those words were gospel to the Cahaba River Bridge Boys. With “society…coming apart at the seams,” they knew only one way to respond — the way of violence. They had planted dozens of bombs, but their next one, the one that exploded on the morning of September 15, would surpass all others. That one, they believed, would, in the words of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, leave blacks in Birmingham “begging us to let them segregate.”
The tragedy of missed opportunity
The words and deeds of George Wallace — and, before and in concert with him, those of Eugene “Bull” Connor — nourished the seeds of unspeakable tragedy. Both men were obstinate in their defiance of the forces of progress and their abuse of police powers, hastening an exercise of federal authority at levels not invoked since Reconstruction.
But the tragedy of Birmingham in 1963 did not belong to Wallace and Connor alone. It also belonged to the “power” class of Birmingham and Alabama, the general lack of understanding and acceptance among educated, wealthy and churchgoing people that Jim Crow had to be dismantled and the gates opened wide for black Alabamians to assume full citizenship and equal rights. George Wallace may never have won a majority of the vote in Birmingham, but the passive resistance of the city’s white power structure to real change in the status quo meant that he didn’t need to. Even in the wake of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the outpouring of sympathy and rage from well-meaning white citizens did not displace the fixed attitudes and customs of the time.
Eight days after the bombing, a delegation of prominent Birmingham citizens traveled to the White House at President Kennedy’s invitation. These pillars of the community — City Councilor Don Hawkins, businessmen Caldwell Marks and Frank Newton, minister Landon Miller and the mayor’s executive assistant, W.C. Hamilton — had been carefully selected by Boutwell, who had written Kennedy that the “difficulties of these times are not confined to Birmingham,” and that the Birmingham delegation would “lay before your office the facts of our problems and our future potentials as an American city.”
This was the theme of the meeting between Kennedy and the Birmingham delegation: the unfair light into which Birmingham had been cast nationally, and the plea that the city be left to manage desegregation without federal interference. Excerpts of the comments by members of the delegation underscore the missed opportunity.
“Decades of tradition are not overthrown overnight, even by a court decree or government pressure, when feelings run so deep.”
“The influx of elements foreign to our community and state, whose sole purpose is to agitate and foment hate, has made it very difficult for the vast majority of our citizens to look objectively at the problems which confront them.”
“We have to impress you with the sincerity and good will of our unswerving belief in the ability of local authority to enforce law and maintain order, and the capacity of local leadership to solve local problems.”
“Our longstanding customs of life do not yield too well to force, any more than do those of other people.”
“We cannot fail, Mr. President, to state in clear and unmistakable words the deep resentment we feel when we are so used as we have been. Using our city as a symbol of all that is violent and bad in a discontent that has swept…into almost every city in the nation is grossly unfair.”
In retrospect, this collective misunderstanding by the white power structure of Birmingham contributed to the way that events played out over the years to come — the sweeping Civil Rights legislation proposed by Kennedy and ultimately enacted after his assassination under President Lyndon B. Johnson; the violence at Selma that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965; race riots in cities across the country; and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. All were the products of resistance to change. In that sense, Birmingham was “a symbol of all that is violent and bad,” as well as of what happens when, to borrow a phrase of King’s, “good people do nothing” — or, at the very least, do too little.
Birmingham had rid itself of Bull Connor. But over the decades ahead, change continued to come hard.