A look at one of my notebooks tells me that it was over a cup of coffee in late March of 2012 that my friend Sol Kimerling suggested that Weld should publish a series of articles centered on the Civil Rights era in Birmingham. As proposed by Sol, the articles would be written alternately by him and his fellow historian, UAB professor Pamela Sterne King.
Sol and I quickly agreed that the series would be a highly appropriate way for Weld to observe and contribute to the communitywide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the pivotal events of 1963. And so it has, with this conclusive piece representing the 18th monthly installment of a project that has garnered broad readership and consistent praise for the groundbreaking work of two outstanding chroniclers of our city’s history.
More than just a recounting of historical events, what Sol and Pam envisioned was a fresh look at the process of change in Birmingham that culminated in 1963. Among other objectives, they were determined to, as Sol put it to me that first day, “promote a greater understanding of Birmingham’s history, to shine a light on some things that have been glossed over or overlooked altogether.” While charting the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham — and the virulent opposition to it — they also wanted to highlight some of the “good guys,” white and black, who contributed to the city’s progress in ways other than preaching and demonstrating.
Specifically, Sol and Pam were interested in the history of biracial efforts to address both overt acts of racism and the pernicious impacts on the community of the system of segregation under which Birmingham operated. Most specifically of all, they wanted to examine the decade-and-a-half — beginning in 1948, with the local response to a midnight Ku Klux Klan “raid” on a biracial group of counselors at a Girl Scout camp in Bessemer — that led to what Sol termed a “revolution at the ballot box.”
That revolution resulted in a monumental change in Birmingham’s form of government, from a three-member city commission to a mayor-council structure. Even more importantly, in terms of how Birmingham was governed and who manned the levers of political power, it resulted in the ouster of the city’s infamous public safety commissioner — the man who had personified the culture of violent official resistance to calls for equality and justice under the law, and on whose orders Civil Rights demonstrators were met with the police dogs and fire hoses that would shape the city’s image across the globe for decades to come — Eugene “Bull” Connor.
It was with this in mind, Sol told me, that Pam had come up with what he thought — and I immediately agreed — was a great title for the series. I remember Sol’s conspiratorial grin when he relayed the title to me.
“Pam thinks we should call it No More Bull,” he said.
Opportunities won and lost
Sol wrote the first installment of No More Bull, which appeared in May 2012. The purpose and intent of the series, as well as the sheer scope of what he and Pam were undertaking, were made clear in its opening paragraphs, which read in part:
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, reformed around a different issue, 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.
“We were interested in digging deeper into the big issues from a local perspective,” Pam told me recently, when I sat down with her and Sol for a retrospective conversation on their work for Weld. “We wanted to challenge some assumptions and flesh out some things that had only been looked in a cursory way.”
For Pam, that meant starting at the beginning, the very founding of Birmingham. In her first installment in the series, titled “The Perfect City,” she noted that in building a brand-new city in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Birmingham’s founders had their eyes on the very specific objectives of production and profit. But, she added, there were other forces at work, too, in a combination that made Birmingham both a reflection of the times in which it was born, and a place perhaps more perfectly prone than any other to the social dichotomies and racial turmoil by which it came to be defined. Birmingham, Pam wrote, “was not an aberration” of American values.
Rather, it was a city founded in America’s post-Civil War Gilded Age, and it embodied the mainstream values of that era. These ideals included unregulated American capitalism, Booker T. Washington’s individualist work ethic, and Jim Crow segregation. It was an awkward arrangement to be sure, but every industrial city, at that time, blended these ideals to one degree or the other. None, perhaps, did it as well as Birmingham.
“No one should be surprised that Birmingham did what it did, for better and for worse,” Pam said. “It was set up to be that way. But the thing that I wanted to get out there was that it’s not simply a story of black versus white. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
From a positive perspective, those complications were illustrated in “Unmasking the Klan,” Sol’s examination of the aforementioned KKK terrorizing of Girl Scout counselors at Camp Fletcher in 1948. The incident sparked outrage against the Klan — which, as Sol noted, had been “acting at will,” with the tacit approval of leading white citizens — among both blacks and whites. Spurred by Birmingham attorney Abe Berkowitz, a series of actions ultimately led to the adoption of “anti-masking” legislation that was signed into law by Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom in June 1949.
Unfortunately, as Sol observed, that impulse for racial reform in Birmingham “soon became submerged in the tide of Southern resistance to integration.” That tide strengthened after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, outlawing segregated schools, and renewed Klan reprisals against any and all voices of moderation, let alone those few who spoke openly in favor of integration.
Another wave of progressivism in Birmingham had crested, Sol wrote. It would not be until the early 1960s that a new coalition formed to help bring about changes in government and race relations in Birmingham. The opportunities that had been lost in the intervening years were — and remain — incalculable.
Tracking the path toward the triumph of democracy that signified Birmingham’s transformation, No More Bull left few, if any, historical markers unexamined. The series pondered what Birmingham might have been like if not for the increasingly stringent Jim Crow laws it enacted between 1910 and 1942, the precursor to the segregation ordinances that ultimately forbade virtually all social interaction between blacks and whites. It recounted the attempted Klan bombing of Temple Beth-El in 1958, and how it awakened in Birmingham’s Jewish community a “heightened sense of cohesion” that grew into “an emphasis on cooperation and amity” with local blacks, including on issues related to civil rights. It looked at the difficulties faced by progressive whites who wanted the city to change economically as well as socially, but could not muster the political muscle to make it happen.
As the series progressed, it brought new perspectives to familiar historic events — the critical role of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights; the savage attack on Freedom Riders at the Birmingham Trailways bus station on Mother’s Day 1961; the study by the Birmingham Bar Association that recommended the change of government, and the subsequent referendum that approved it in 1962; the municipal election of 1963, in which Bull Connor lost his bid for mayor; the Civil Rights demonstrations that took place that same spring, including the “Children’s Crusade” that led to concessions by the white business community; and the horrific bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that September.
The culmination of the series over its last several installments spotlighted the actions and motivations of the key players in the events of 1963 — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Particularly noteworthy was the treatment of Wallace. The most powerful and charismatic politician in Alabama history, the avowed proponent of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Wallace emerged in No More Bull as the central figure of that fateful year.
Determined to solidify his political base in Alabama and begin building a national following, Wallace saw the opportunity to use the turmoil in Birmingham as a springboard for his unquenchable ambition. From his implicit and explicit fanning of the flames of violence during the mass demonstrations in May, to his games of brinkmanship with the Kennedys that set the stage for his “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama in June, Wallace acted as, in Sol’s term, an “agent provocateur,” with tragic consequences — the deaths of four girls in the church bombing that the governor of Alabama had all but encouraged openly with his talk of the need for some “first-class funerals” to stop integration in its tracks.
Birmingham had rid itself of Bull Connor, Sol wrote in the final narrative installment of the series, published last month. But over the decades ahead, change continued to come hard.
That is a true statement, and one reason for it has been Birmingham’s collective aversion to self-examination. As one prominent civic leader said to me nearly a decade ago, “We have a history in this community of coming at each other from adversarial standpoints. That has kept us from forming the consensus we’ve needed to make progress that is dramatic rather than glacial. We’re still trying to define ourselves and where we’re going in the aftermath of Civil Rights.”
Today, however, that has begun to change. This year’s calendar of commemorative events has played a part in that change, along with an abundance of tangible developments on the civic front and a veritable boatload of national publicity that has been unprecedentedly positive. Problems, issues and questions remain, but there is in the air a palpable sense of progress.
I hope that No More Bull has been a part of that as well. Certainly we at Weld, along with Pam and Sol, have viewed it from the start as a kind of public service, believing in the intrinsic value of helping people know more about this city — their city — than they did before.
“I think it has been important to stop and take account of the toll that the system of segregation took on this city,” Pam said. “It was a long time in coming, and I think it has helped us get unstuck.”
Sol concurs, offering the observation that “it says something about where we are now compared to 50 years ago. Some of this stuff, we couldn’t have said then. Our psyche couldn’t have stood it.”
Being a wise man, though, Sol also finds in No More Bull a call for continued progress, of the kind that comes only from constant vigilance and a recognition of the need to keep the lessons of a half-century ago firmly in mind. We need look no further, he said, than the municipal election that took place only a few weeks ago to raise troubling questions about our possible future.
“Why did only 20 percent of the people in Birmingham vote?” Sol asked. “Is that where we’re supposed to be 50 years later? What have later generations taken away from the sacrifices that were made on their behalf? Are we worthy successors to the people who made such remarkable change happen?”
Therein, perhaps, lies the overarching question that No More Bull leaves with us: Where does Birmingham go from here?