Coalition: Combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc., for joint action or to achieve a common purpose.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made, wrote Kant. The jagged history of coalitions in Birmingham bears out the truth of this observation. It also speaks to the city’s history of difficulties and triumphs.
Its reputation as a bastion of hardline segregation notwithstanding, Birmingham’s social and political atmosphere was complex. Segregationists dominated, but reform efforts surged periodically.
These efforts were driven by a series of coalitions that formed and re-formed over the years, with memberships that shifted depending on the issue at hand. Collectively, they rejected the Ku Klux Klan and promoted substantive interracial initiatives, civil service reforms, and reapportionment of the Alabama Legislature.
Even at times when progressives seemed to be getting a foothold, however, the specter of racism loomed. In fact, it seemed to be ingrained in Birmingham’s civic DNA.
Less than 80 years old in 1948, Birmingham had no traditions. When it was founded nearly seven years after the Civil War ended, all of its citizens were immigrants, arriving from various areas of the nation and world and from all walks of life. They came to work in the quarries, mines, mills and foundries — dangerous, hot and dirty work — and also to buy and sell goods and services. There were northerners, southerners and freed slaves. There were Italians and Greeks, Lebanese and Irish. There were Catholics and Protestants and Jews. Some came with money; most came without. Informal but strict lines of social relations were established.
Birmingham’s black citizens were the object of societal restrictions and justice unevenly administered. Many found themselves newly enslaved by the system of convict leasing that kept the price of labor low. A frequent ploy was to arrest blacks for vagrancy. This provided a steady flow of prisoners, available for lease by towns and counties to, among others, mining companies, iron mills and farms. It was an important source of municipal revenue; as Alabama’s prison inspector, W.H. Oates, wrote in 1922, “Our jails are money making machines.”
The year after Oates penned his glowing assessment of the profitability of Alabama’s prison system, a coalition formed to oppose convict leasing. From its headquarters in Birmingham’s Hillman Hotel, the Statewide Campaign Committee for the Abolition of the Convict Contract System adopted the slogan, “A matter of mercy — not a mercenary matter,” and published a 15-page pamphlet that offered “facts, figures [and] possible remedies” under the title, Let’s Get Rid of Alabama’s Shame. It would not be until 1928, however, that Alabama outlawed the practice — the last state in the Union to do so.
The Great Depression and World War II required different kinds of coalitions, devoted to surviving economic catastrophe and thwarting the threat to democracy around the globe. Of course, that did not mean that blacks in Birmingham— as well as Jews and other ethnic groups — did not continue to be subjected to discrimination, official and otherwise.
Birmingham was laid as low by the Depression as any city in the country, but World War II rejuvenated its economy. With its factories retooled for wartime production, Birmingham was one of the nation’s leading producers of airplanes, ordnance and other military goods. Unfortunately, with the opportunity for economic expansion and social progress in hand, the leaders of the city dug in their heels against change, especially where race relations were concerned.
If depression and war moved Jim Crow and segregation into the background, it didn’t take long once the war was over to reappear. With them came a renewed need for ad hoc coalitions to work toward equality and justice.
At Camp Fletcher: “White robes and pointed hoods…”
One of those coalitions, seldom noted in histories of the era, was Citizens Against Mobism (CAM), founded in 1949 to directly challenge the postwar resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the years leading up to that, the KKK had been responsible for a random series of attacks against unionized miners and black citizens, including some who were veterans of the recent war.
CAM was formed both as a response to such events in general and as the result of a particular occurrence that took place in June 1948, when Klan members terrorized a bi-racial group of counselors at a Girl Scout camp in western Jefferson County.
Located near Bessemer, the camp bore the name of Pauline Bray Fletcher (1898-1970), the first black registered nurse in Alabama. Fletcher — who is memorialized by a marker located at the southwest corner of Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham — founded the camp in the 1920s as a convalescent retreat for black women and children (today, it is operated by the Central Alabama Council of Camp Fire USA).
The night raid on the camp came about when the Klan got word that two white counselors from Memphis were at Camp Fletcher conducting training for several volunteer leaders of the local black Girl Scout chapter. The local chapter had recently been founded by Mildred Johnson, whose husband, R.C. Johnson, was the longtime principal of Birmingham’s A.H. Parker High School, and whose daughter, Alma, would later become the wife of a young Army officer named Colin Powell. Mrs. Johnson was one of the counselors confronted by Klansmen.
[The women] were awakened in their tent by a group of white-robed, hooded men entering the tent, read a report of the incident prepared by Katrine Nickel, a Girl Scout staff member who was present at the camp during the incident. Six or eight of the men entered the tent while others, at least four, remained immediately outside. All were dressed in uniforms consisting of white robes and pointed hoods which fell to their shoulders forming a complete mask…
The spokesman for the group, a large, probable middle-aged man wearing glasses and speaking in gruff tones demanded that the two white instructors leave the camp within twenty-four hours. He shouted, “White women have no business living in a Negro camp. We don’t like it and the people around here don’t like it. We mean to see that our orders are carried out. Do you understand?”
Twelve days after the incident, the Klan issued its own report, detailing the circumstances that prompted their raid. It was written by William Hugh Morris, who later became a point of contact within the Klan for Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. As Morris described the situation,
…first three and later two white women were living within the confines of said camp on equal basis with Negro women, eating at the same table with and at the same time that the Negro women ate. Using the same toilet facilities with and at the same time the Negro women did. Visiting the white merchants of the locality to make purchases and telephone calls arm in arm with Negro women, calling them by their first names and in turn being called by their first names; and in other ways and physical embraces and contacts becoming the said Negro women’s social equals…
We feel that this report would be incomplete without the following observation….Having been actively engaged in a movement dedicated to the active maintenance of white supremacy, the preservation of the customs and traditions of our southern way of life, we have found with the exception of a very small minority of radical communists and a very few theorizing intellectuals, a vast majority of the responsible people actively opposed to any and all attempts to bridge the chasm that has separated the races since the beginning of time.
A coalition emerges
The year 1948 was ripe for strife. President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the U.S. military. He also expanded his civil rights agenda to include housing, employment and public accommodations.
Breaking with Truman and the national Democratic Party, Southern politicians and “states’ rights” activists formed the Dixiecrat Party. Meeting that July — a month after the Camp Fletcher incident — at Birmingham’s Municipal (now Boutwell) Auditorium, the breakaway party nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President.
A host of prominent Alabama business and political leaders — many with names familiar to students of Alabama and Birmingham history; Comer, Graves, Smyer, Samford — jumped on the states’ rights bandwagon, railing publicly and privately against Truman’s progressive platform.
Meanwhile, the Klan seemingly was free to act at will, intimidation and violence their methods of choice. Law enforcement, rife itself with officers who also were Klansmen, had little interest in interfering with them.
The front page of the Birmingham Post on Tuesday, June 15, 1948, was a harbinger of struggles to come in Birmingham. A quartet of headlines: “Negroes Ask ‘Protection Against Klan.” “Inquiry into Hooded Raid Demanded.” “Bolters Say They’ll Press Truman Fight.” “Girl Scout Camp to Reopen July 5.”
Prior to its raid on Camp Fletcher, the Klan had been riding unopposed. But it would soon become apparent that these “gallant knights” — as a local newspaper cartoonist labeled them sarcastically — had overreached.
Public reaction against the KKK was swift, led by a pointed and demanding letter written by attorney Abe Berkowitz and published in the Birmingham News. In the letter, Berkowitz demanded that Alabama Attorney General Albert A. Carmichael take steps to revoke the Klan’s state charter. He also offered his legal services free of charge to “the young ladies who were so threatened, maltreated and abused,” stated the opinion that any member of the Birmingham Bar Association would do the same, and said that he was “further confident that any member of the Bar will, on request, gladly render to any citizen of this community, Negro or white, Jew, Protestant or Catholic, his services as an attorney and his aid as a private citizen in connection with any threat or intimidation of him by the Klan or any group…”
I do not propose to rest with this simple letter, Berkowitz advised. I intend to keep on writing these letters so long and as often as you will receive and print them.
Berkowitz also submitted to the Birmingham City Commission eight proposed ordinances designed to rein in the Klan, centered on an “anti-masking” measure. The response of City Attorney James Willis was predictable, as he refused to draw a distinction between the terroristic activities of the Klan and revelers at Mardi Gras or trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
[S]ince hooding and masking, in and of itself, is not evil or wrongful, wrote Willis, the City Commission might deem it to be improper, if not tyrannical, to adopt any of the proposed measures.
Others saw it differently. At its regular meeting on the Monday after Berkowitz’s letter appeared in the News, the Young Men’s Business Club adopted a statement on the Camp Fletcher raid. The YMBC membership “feels that the episode is not only a blow to interracial relations, but a challenge to all the forces of law and order in Jefferson County which must be met squarely and vigorously,” the statement read.
Within weeks, other professional, civic, social and religious organizations picked up the banner. The corporate community and labor unions lagged, but also ultimately joined the effort. Methodist and Baptist ministers’ associations. Women’s organizations. The Birmingham Roundtable of Christians and Jews. The board of the Community Chest (the forerunner of today’s Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham). The Jefferson County Coordinating Council of Social Forces, which branded the incident at Camp Fletcher “a brazen act of bigotry.”
Thus was born the coalition that would become Citizens Against Mobism. The coalition might not have held together, however, without the persistence of the Girl Scout organization, both locally and nationally. The Community Chest, for example, had initially rebuffed the Girl Scouts’ demands for action, saying it was “a Girl Scout problem, a disappointment.” With local law enforcement offering no recourse, the Birmingham office of the FBI declined to investigate the incident, saying that no federal law had been violated.
In the face of such demurrals, the Girl Scouts persevered. The director of Girl Scouts of the USA wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark, asking that he order the FBI to investigate “on the grounds of unlawful entry and search,” and that, “if possible, members of the masked and white robed group be identified and brought to justice.” Keeping the pressure on, the Girl Scouts released subsequent statements over the following weeks and months.
Meanwhile, news of the incident resounded in headlines across the country. From the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, “Klansmen Threaten Girl Scout Camp.” From the hometown newspaper of the two white counselors at Camp Fletcher, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “Memphian tells of night raid on Negro Camp by Hooded Men.” From the Milwaukee Journal, “Alabama at its Worst.”
In Birmingham all of the major papers — the News, the Post, the Age-Herald and the black-owned World — continued to follow the story and publish editorials denouncing the Klan. Their coverage kept the events fresh in the local mind and helped raise awareness and support of the emerging coalition.
A new understanding — and a step forward
As CAM formally began working for anti-masking legislation and other measures, it was aided by the American Legion, which took the lead organizing veterans’ groups against the Klan.
The General Gorgas Post #1 in Birmingham — then chaired by insurance executive Marvin Warner, later appointed as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland by President Jimmy Carter — worked diligently to lobby for governmental action on the state and federal levels. The Legion also posted a $3,000 reward for the information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of the Camp Fletcher raid.
Help also came from private citizens. A petition signed by more than 300 people, protesting “an outbreak of mob violence in our community” was submitted to Birmingham Mayor Cooper Green by business leader Frank Yielding.
Outcry or not, in the absence of law enforcement, the Klan saw no reason not to continue its activities. But the wheels had been set in motion by their raid on the Girl Scout camp. Especially after the Dixiecrats failed to prevent Truman’s re-election in the fall of 1948, the prominent Alabamians who had supported the splinter party and turned a blind eye to the terrorism of the Klan came to a new understanding. The KKK was not only a threat to its victims, but its continued campaign of violence and intimidation would likely invite the active intervention of the federal government in local affairs.
Prodding Alabama further was the United States Government, responding to continued pressure from the Girl Scouts organization and other groups. Rep. William Byrne (D-NY) chaired a House subcommittee that opened an inquiry into Klan violence in Alabama, despite a call from Alabama Congressman to “leave Alabama alone.” Attorney General Clark ordered the FBI to begin investigating the KKK as well.
Paralleling the movement of the federal government, State Senator Henry Holman Mize of Tuscaloosa introduced an anti-masking bill in the 1949 session of the Alabama Legislature. Mize told the state’s newspapers that he was prompted to sponsor the legislation by the “attack made on Girl Scouts” in Jefferson County. The bill passed overwhelmingly, making it a misdemeanor to appear in public wearing a mask, punishable by a $500 fine or a year in jail (with exemptions for Halloween, Mardi Gras and other such festive occasions). Governor James E. Folsom, who also had advocated its passage, signed it into law in June 1949.
The aftermath: Missed opportunities
Days after the anti-masking law was enacted, Jefferson County Judge Robert J. Wheeler ordered a grand jury investigation of “a wave of lawlessness” that included the incident at Camp Fletcher. The grand jury would issue indictments of 17 suspected Klansmen; none would be convicted of any crime. The names of several of those indicted in 1949 would resurface in the Civil Rights violence of the 1960s, including William Hugh Morris, who wrote the Klan “report” on the raid of the Girl Scouts, and Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, who would be convicted in 1977 of the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.
The same week as Wheeler’s order to the grand jury, the Birmingham News published a story under the headline, “People Speak: Violence, Flogging, Terrorism must be wiped out.” In the article, local citizens expressed their outrage at the Klan violence and the damage it did to the national image of Birmingham. Some of these names would resurface in the 1960s as well, as targets of both threats from the Klan and other segregationist groups and boycotts by Civil Rights groups. The irony of these and other moderate-to-progressive citizens being “caught in the middle” of the Civil Rights struggle should not escape historical examination.
The impulse for racial reform in Birmingham — and the coalition that had driven the successful push for anti-Klan laws in Alabama — soon became submerged in the tide of Southern resistance to integration. That tide rose largely in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in 1954, as Southern politicians and the state’s “Big Mule” business leaders continued to fear federal intervention in Alabama’s affairs.
Another wave of progressivism in Birmingham had crested. 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.
Solomon Kimerling is a Birmingham historian and philanthropist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.