This is the latest installment in Weld’s historical series, No More Bull! You can find the rest of the series here.
For most of the 20th century — until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — keeping black voters disenfranchised was an article of faith for the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. Throughout the Old South, state legislatures used a variety of methods to circumvent the voting protections provided to all Americans by the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States.
State constitutions were rewritten — like Alabama’s, in 1901 — election procedures were changed, poll taxes were instituted, and electoral districts were gerrymandered to eliminate even the potential for blacks to accumulate political influence. Some state and county Democratic organizations decreed that only whites could vote in their primary elections. Poll taxes and literacy tests kept black voter registration low. For those blacks who still insisted on exercising their right to vote, intimidation tactics and outright violence were often the reward.
Limitations on black voting were essential to maintenance of segregation and Jim Crow laws. And the tactics worked. In Alabama, the literacy test was a vital tool of voter suppression. In order to qualify to vote, a black citizen was required to answer questions, usually about the laws of governance. As straightforward as that may seem, these questions were usually delivered orally and arbitrarily. Even crueler, whether an applicant answered some, any or all of the questions correctly was immaterial, as the decision to award a “passing” grade and allow the applicant to register was made at the full discretion of the registrar administering the test.
How difficult was the test? In 1965, the last year it was given before being outlawed, the Alabama literacy test consisted of 68 questions, a mix of multiple choice, true/false and fill-in-the-blank. Some of the questions — How old must a person be to serve as President? (Answer: 35 years); State legislatures decide how presidential electors may be chosen (Answer: True) — are relatively easy for anyone who has passed a high school civics course. Most, however, are considerably more arcane. For example:
- A U.S. Senator elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?
- When the Constitution was approved by the original colonies, how many states had to ratify it in order for it to be in effect?
- Does enumeration affect the income tax levied on citizens in various states?
- Appropriation of money for the armed services can be only for a period limited to ____ years.
- Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was __________.
So it was in the South. In Alabama. In Birmingham. If you were black, it really came down to a very basic question: How badly do you want to vote?*
A city in decline
In the 20 years after the end of World War II — which had left Birmingham well positioned for economic expansion — Birmingham’s obsession with maintaining segregation had a cumulative effect on the local economy. This is reflected in statistics that highlight the city’s decline.
Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the city of Birmingham increased by just four percent — the lowest rate of growth of any major Southern city. By comparison, Memphis grew by 26 percent and Atlanta by 47.
Between 1956 and 1965, employment in Atlanta grew by 205,000 people. Miami added 203,000 jobs during the same period, while New Orleans added 98,000 and Memphis 70,000. Meanwhile, employment in Birmingham increased by just 21,000.
Between 1958 and 1963, the volume of retail trade in Birmingham increased by 10 percent. In Atlanta, the figure was 24 percent, while Memphis’s retail sales grew by 14 percent and Nashville’s by 12. Birmingham was outpaced even in its own state, by Montgomery and Mobile, where retail trade grew by 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and his allies were determined to preserve segregation at all costs. But even during the height of segregation in Birmingham, some white citizens had come to understand just how high those costs were, and not just in terms of economics. It was a slow process, the changing of a way of life, and it was at least a decade in the making. But, undeniably — and much earlier than is generally noted in histories of the era — there was a growing segment of the white community that moved toward rejecting the politics of race.
In 1950, Mervyn Sterne, a leader of Birmingham’s Jewish community, worked with noted black attorney Arthur Shores to establish the Interracial Committee. This was a group of 25 white and 25 black members who met regularly and lobbied the City Commission to abandon segregation, particularly during the four years (1953-57) when Connor was out of office after choosing not to seek re-election due to a scandal over an extramarital affair.
The hiring of black police officers and other police reforms were prime areas of concern for the Interracial Committee. And in 1955, they held a conference on desegregating Birmingham schools that drew a biracial crowd estimated at 800 — at the time, the largest integrated gathering in the city’s history. But that was the high-water mark for the committee, which became a target of the local White Citizens Council and the Klan, as well as the “Big Mules” who ran the Community Chest, the source of most of the funding for the committee. In the face of such opposition, the committee was disbanded in 1956.
There were other efforts, individual and collective. Labor lawyer Jerome “Buddy” Cooper successfully represented black railroad firemen before the National Labor Relations Board, forcing the union and the railroads to qualify black workers for promotions. Another attorney, Robert Loeb, along with his wife, Betty, actively supported integration efforts, and were reported with an appearance on a “Most Wanted List” circulated by the Klan (Loeb, who served as an artillery officer in World War II and died in 2008, was hardly shaken by the threat; in fact, his wife recalls, he made a joke of it, referring to the location of their home deep in the wooded suburb of Mountain Brook and saying, “I’m not worried. Even my friends can’t find my house.”). Women’s groups quietly held integrated teas and book clubs.
The change that was coming to Birmingham, then, was not an overnight occurrence. Rather, it would be the product of both the courageous sacrifices made by civil rights demonstrators and the determination of white citizens who made the decision that they did not want to live in a city they were ashamed of.
Parallel tracks to progress
After the dissolution of the Interracial Committee in 1956, no formal biracial coalition existed in Birmingham. The efforts of black and white individuals and groups proceeded mostly on parallel tracks.
While white citizens tried to leverage integration through private actions and friendly appeals to city government, black citizens — primarily through Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights — necessarily took a more confrontational route to changing Birmingham. Demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts were the weapons of choice in the nonviolent battle against segregation. There were also ongoing efforts to register black voters in greater numbers, but most were thwarted by some combination of the poll tax and the literacy test.
The city fathers were gifted at finding new and ever more punitive ways to retaliate against blacks for daring to try and change the system. In March 1962, students at Miles College, Daniel Payne College and Booker T. Washington Business College — all black institutions — along with a few compatriots from the white Birmingham-Southern College, organized a pre-Easter boycott of downtown department stores. People were urged to “Wear your old clothes for freedom” in support of a list of demands that included desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms and drinking fountains, the removal of “White” and “Colored” signage, and the hiring of blacks as salespeople and for other non-menial jobs. As one of the boycott’s slogans asked, Why spend hundreds of dollars at a store where you cannot spend 25 cents for a hamburger?
The response of the City Commission to the boycott? It voted to rescind its $45,000 allocation to the county’s surplus food program, which served mostly black residents. The commission’s action was particularly mean-spirited since an estimated 95 percent of surplus food recipients could not afford to shop downtown. As such, it merely strengthened black resolve, with the result that Easter sales fell by as much as 20 percent from normal levels — thus also increasing sentiment among white business owners for repeal of the city’s segregation ordinances.
The timeline of change
By the time of the Easter boycott, of course, the movement for change in Birmingham — for ridding the city once and for all of Bull Connor and the City Commission — was well underway on all fronts. As has been featured in previous installments in Weld’s “No More Bull” series, events and circumstances of the previous several years portended a growing attitude of social transformation. A few highlights that illustrate the progression:
- The founding in May 1956 of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the key organizer of civil rights activities in Birmingham. Led by Shuttlesworth and supported by dozens of black churches, the ACMHR kept near-constant pressure on Connor and his fellow commissioners, challenging segregation ordinances at every turn. “Kill segregation or be killed by it,” Shuttlesworth exhorted his followers.
- The appearance in April 1960 of an article in The New York Times, written by reporter Harrison Salisbury. The article’s headline, “Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham,” aptly described the situation and greatly embarrassed the local business community.
- The brutal Klan attack on Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s Trailways bus station on Mother’s Day 1961. By prior arrangement with the Klan, Connor’s police didn’t intervene for 15 minutes, allowing Klansmen ample time to do their work on the protesters. Four days later, the CBS television network aired “Who Speaks for Birmingham?”, a scathing analysis by correspondent Eric Sevareid.
Meanwhile, Sidney Smyer — president of Birmingham Realty and the most powerful businessman in the city at the time — heard about the attack on the Freedom Riders when questioned about it by fellow Rotarians at an international conference in Tokyo. Though an avowed segregationist, Smyer recognized the impact of racial strife and continued oppression of blacks on a local economy already in decline. Upon his return to Birmingham, he began to work actively for change.
- The December 1961 decision by the City Commission, in the face of an order by federal Judge Hobart Grooms, to close city parks rather than allowing them to be integrated. The move by the commission inflamed public opinion in the white community, and more than 1,000 citizens signed a petition — “A Plea for Courage and Common Sense” — to keep the parks open. As much as any single action, this demonstrated that the white populace was wearying of the commission and its actions in defense of segregation.
- The March 1962 recommendation by the Birmingham Bar Association — following a study it had undertaken at the request of Sidney Smyer — to change from the city commission to a mayor-council form of government. Following the recommendation, more than 10,000 citizens signed a petition in support of the change, and a referendum on the matter was set for November 1962.
- The formation in August 1962 of Citizens for Progress. Fronted by lawyer David Vann, the group was formed to work for passage of the change of government referendum. Vann enlisted attorney Abe Berkowitz in formulating the campaign plan, and a committee of three prominent businessmen — Motion Industries co-founders Caldwell Marks and William Spencer, and Alex Rittenbaum, president of the Birmingham Jewish Council — was formed to raise funds.
Setting the stage
On November 6, 1962, the referendum to change Birmingham’s city government passed by a margin of 1,558 votes. While only about 3,000 black voters were eligible to vote, their overwhelming support of the change made the difference. Black registration and turnout had been aided greatly by the work of Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR, along with other key black organizations and individuals — the local chapter of the NAACP, the Progressive Democratic Council led by W.C. Patton, the millionaire businessman A.G. Gaston, attorney J. Mason Davis, editor Emory O. Jackson and his newspaper The Birmingham World.
Also playing a key role in the result was the South Elyton Voters League, which operated in Precinct 9, where most of the black vote was concentrated. To understand the impact of this precinct, consider that black voters there cast 1,529 votes for the mayor-council form of government, and only 97 for retaining the city commission. Then compare that margin of 1,432 to the 1,558 by which the referendum passed citywide.
The unofficial coalition of black and white voters who saw the opportunity to force Bull Connor and his fellow commissioners from office had brought Birmingham to the brink of transformational change. The November 1962 vote set the stage for the mayoral election of April 1963 — a year that would be marked by triumph and tragedy that few other cities have experienced before or since.
The stage was set for Bull Connor’s last stand.
* Answers to the literacy test questions posed at the beginning of this article:
1. January 3
How did you do? Take the full 1965 Alabama literacy test here.