“The citizens of Birmingham, Alabama fooled their critics recently.
It turned out not to be Bull Connor’s town after all.”
That was what The Atlanta Constitution said after the Magic City fired its whole government in 1963. The fight had been culminating for years, but when the moderates and middle classes saw no other choice they decided to act. In one of the most rigidly controlled, balled-fisted cities in the country, Birmingham voters unseated their three-man commission. No one was shot or even beaten up. This time, Birmingham citizens practiced old-fashioned democracy. They signed petitions, cast votes, embraced the winners and gave losers the heave-ho.
Ten years earlier, in 1953, the state legislature passed the Council-Manager Act, which said that any municipality with a population over 200,000 could elect a city council and hire a manager to run the city. Two years later it passed the Mayor-Council Act, which was identical except that the municipality could opt for an elected mayor instead of a hired manager. Moreover, if the city held an election to change its government it had to let voters choose between its commission and the other two types.
In 1957, according to Mary Phyllis Harrison’s 1974 thesis, the Greater Birmingham Association prepared to change the city’s government. It led a petition drive and secured six thousand signatures, but problems with petition stealing, falsified signatures and wobbly political support caused the effort to fail. The same thing happened two years later in a move led by the Glen Iris Civic Club.
For the next several years the Young Men’s Business Club, a group of young downtown businessmen and lawyers, picked up the charge. Led by lawyer David Vann — who had clerked with Alabama’s liberal U. S. Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black, a man who helped write the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision — this group bore down to find a winning strategy. In 1961, they tried to avoid the change by getting behind reformer Tom King for mayor, but that also failed. If they intended to turn out Birmingham Public Service Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and his fellow commissioners, they would have to think further outside the box and be ready at any moment. They also needed help.
On February 22, 1961, reformers were elated when the elite business community sent up a white smoke-like signal from inside its ranks. Sydney Smyer, president of the ultra-conservative Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, announced it was ready to consider political reform. Smyer, who led overwrought Southern racists in the Dixiecrat revolt against Harry Truman for president in 1948, now called on the Birmingham Bar Association to study their governmental options and get back to him with a recommendation. In April, a committee of 15 lawyers began meeting at the First National Bank Building. Just as they got going, however, the Freedom Riders came to town. On Mother’s Day, the Klan – with permission from Bull Connor – beat them up with bats and sticks, and cameras showed the scene to the world. Smyer was in Japan on business when a reporter asked him about the incident. He was horrified.
By the time he returned home, according to his own account, Smyer was a changed man. His city was going to seed and he had to stop it. From then on, he threw his lot in with Vann and the progressives.
Smyer, Vann, attorney Erskine Smith and others decided to form a petition committee. But who would lead it? They needed someone other than themselves – someone uncontroversial – but all 25 men they asked to do it said no. In frustration, William A. Jenkins, a house painter, union member, and retired official of the Birmingham Labor Council, said he would do it. Jenkins’ offer turned out to be providential, because not only was he up to the task, but he also had the same name as a respected judge. If name confusion caused some citizens to support them, organizers agreed, then so be it.
Vann prepared the petition meticulously, knowing any error could cost the city its future. As the law required, moreover, it would need 10% of Birmingham’s 75,000 registered voters to sign it.
To the reformers “amazement,” they did much better than that. On August 28, 1962 some 11,000 women and men signed the petition asking for a new government. Almost all were white; only about one hundred were black. They were executives, skilled workers, engineers, small business owners, salesmen and managers, and a few professional women. About one-third were housewives. They lived in blue collar and blue stocking neighborhoods from Ensley to Forest Park, and most owned their own homes. They had different religions and different motivations. But they all wanted change and they decided to get it. Moderates were in revolt.
The reason they were mostly white was strategic. Petition planners, led by Vann and Smith, decided to set up signing tables only in predominantly white voting precincts. That way, Connor and his supporters could not say that blacks were behind the move. They removed race from the mix and replaced it with issues of competency.
Each name was checked and verified and Judge J. Paul Meeks certified the petition. Mayor Art Hanes was not happy and petulantly said he would not allow for the election. He charged that the effort had been, according to Harrison, a “persistent underground activity from groups who want to control the city . . . with a weak Mayor-Council government.” Meeks responded that if Hanes had not called for the election within ten days he would. Hanes did not, so, on September 29, 1962, Meeks did. The election was set for March 5, 1963.
The issues of “if” and “when” finally had been settled. Now the question was, “who”?
Commissioners Bull Connor and James Waggoner put in their names for mayor. The third sitting commissioner, Mayor Hanes, deliberated for a while but eventually opted not to run. Progressive Tom King decided to go again. So did Albert Boutwell. Boutwell, who had served 12 years in the state’s senate and four years as lieutenant governor, determined to leave his arch segregationist past and move toward the middle. If Connor and Waggoner could be beaten, then Birmingham voters at least had guaranteed themselves a racially moderate future.
Reformers wanted to pay the new mayor $25,000. Connor said he would be happy with the regular $15,000. He also told city newspapers that “all Birmingham needed was a boost, telling a few white lies along the way.” Waggoner proposed the city might be able to get the World’s Fair in Birmingham in 1972.
King and Boutwell scoffed at Connor and told Waggoner to get real. King wanted to stabilize racial problems and focus on downtown development, pollution and airport expansion. Boutwell also wanted to move the city off its old racial dime and concentrate on jobs and growth. Other compelling issues were a $6 million bond issue, buying a baseball stadium, reopening the parks Connor had closed, a $400,000 city deficit, whether or not the city could build taller skyscrapers, and how to annex the city’s suburbs and airport expansion.
Besides the four mayoral candidates, 75 hopefuls qualified to run for the nine council seats. They included two black men, three white women, and 70 white men. Who they were and what they wanted was anybody’s guess. Who would be able to vote was even more uncertain.
In 1963 all Birmingham voters had to pay a poll tax. (The following year, Congress passed the 24th Amendment outlawing poll taxes for federal elections and in 1966, the Supreme Court said they were unconstitutional in state elections.) On Friday, January 18, 1963, The Birmingham News reminded voters of the upcoming February 1 deadline. “Birmingham voters,” it said, “whose poll tax is unpaid will not be able to cast ballots in the March 5 mayor-council election.
“For the convenience of voters,” it continued, “two additional poll tax books have been placed in outlying areas.” By those, they meant the heavily white districts of Eastwood Mall and Roebuck Shopping Mall. 27 other collection stations were located around the city including “in several downtown locations.”
All voters, except military veterans, had to pay the tax. Everyone had to register, of course, but for blacks that was no easy matter. Since 1901 the state had intentionally and systematically disenfranchised black citizens. Whether registrars used the poll tax, grandfather clause, or literacy test made little difference. What mattered was to accomplish the goal which the state did with an over 90 percent success rate. To overcome this situation, civil rights activists worked during the 1950s and early 1960s to get blacks registered.
The Birmingham World, then the Magic City’s foremost black newspaper, partnered with lawyer J. Mason Davis and others to teach potential voters how to push beyond this barrier. In a December 5, 1962 editorial, managing editor Emory O. Jackson coached his readers:
Put it to apathy, charge it to citizenship indifference, lay it on a lack of effective community leadership, attribute it to difficult voter-registration screening, and it still does not make sense to us. Something is either wrong with politics, cloggy in voter registration machinery, or short in public education.
There is a campaign for mass voter-registration underway in Jefferson County. The Birmingham World is of the opinion that the voter-registration machinery should be able to process not less than 600 applicants for the ballot each day it screens prospective voters. This is really too few.
Three days later the paper ran an ad posting the locations of some 40 voter registration “clinics.” Most were Baptist, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), or Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) churches located throughout the city. Christian Industrial Hall in Fairfield also held daily clinics, and two women, Mrs. Julia Raings of Collegeville and Mrs. Lucy Berry of East Lake, opened their homes for the work.
The World continued its pressure right up to voting day. In a March 2 editorial, Jackson reminded voters of the election’s importance, but stressed that it was only a step toward the goal. He was walking a fine line with his readers – the one between hope and reality – but he took it head on:
On next Tuesday, March 5th, there will be a special municipal election in Birmingham. It will be the first election under Birmingham’s new form of government. It is tailored in a way to hold on to certain political features and to guard against fixed representation.
As tailored, the newly-drafted form of Birmingham city government does not permit truly grassroots representation. It is so constructed that it is unlikely that there will be fairly distributed population and geographical representation. It provides a device for larger representation, at best.
The issue is whether Birmingham voters want to go forward or are satisfied with standing still. The issue in other words is whether Birmingham voters desire to see their city grow in freedom, in population understanding, in job creations, in recognition of the role of good government. It is whether Birmingham voters are satisfied with social lag, civic stagnation, community frustration, and the withering of the freedom spirit.
The Birmingham World chooses to be counted among those who desire see Birmingham moving forward. Birmingham has suffered too long, too unnecessarily, and too patiently from standstillism. We have been too silent about standstillism and that silence has hardened the damaging effects of stand-patism. The time has come for those who believe in going forward to stand up and be counted.
Jackson did not have much advice concerning the mayor’s race. He wrote only that all four candidates were “known and have been before the voters.
“By their records,” he said, the voters “should know which direction they would travel, if elected.” Therefore, “The Birmingham World recommends that the voters make a selection for mayor based on direction, rather than personality.”
The mayor’s election was undoubtedly easier to navigate than the council race. “Various communities are represented in this bundle of candidates,” he cautioned. “Yet,” he wrote, “the voters should be careful to try to select and vote for the nine of the seventy-five candidates on the basis of the direction these candidates would travel, it seems to us.” As for Rev. J. L. Ware and attorney W. L. Williams, the two black candidates, Jackson wrote, “The Birmingham World is glad to see in this number of candidates two who spring from the Negro group.” While he had hoped for five, he concluded that, “We hope that from now on there will be Negro candidates for public office at every turn. Candidacy for public office must know no color line.”
For blacks and whites alike, choosing from a field of 75 candidates was daunting, but, come Election Day, the top vote getters would win. Women candidates were Maureen Slaughter, Nina Miglionico, and Eleanor Overton Abercrombie. Slaughter entered first. She wanted a law against child molesters and called on mothers to help her. Miglionico came next. She was a seasoned attorney endorsed by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Abercrombie, editor of the Alabama Legal Advertiser and former college faculty member, qualified later.
Of all council candidates, restaurateur Gabriel Magdalani was the first to announce. Soon there was also a booking agent for football officials, Birmingham Park and Recreation Board maintenance operator, Birmingham Transit Authority employee, service station operator, school principal, retired U. S. Department of Labor official, millwright, photographer, real estate executive, tackle shop operator, professional baseball player, Birmingham police sergeant, chemical engineer, auto parts company owner and electrician.
Higher-profile candidates included plant supervisor for U. S. Pipe and Foundry Walter Nielsen, former Chamber of Commerce executive Dr. John Bryan, prominent Woodlawn merchant Tom Woods, pathologist Dr. Harwell Davis, Jr., jeweler Taft Epstein, optometrist Dr. E. C. Overton, industrial salesman Don Hawkins, attorney John Golden and Alabama Power Company executive M. E. Wiggins.
By February 3, 40 candidates had qualified but 35 more planned to do so. Coming soon were a photo supply agent, “automobile man,” Albert Boutwell’s campaign manager, circulation director of The Birmingham News, advocate of “Christian ethics,” steelworker, Rust Engineering Company executive, elementary teacher, city detective, leader of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, paint salesman, Elyton School principal, and advocate of strong “Sunday blue laws.” Among the last to qualify were insurance executives George G. Seibels, Jr. and Alan Drennan, Jr.
Connor and the other commissioners repeatedly tried to have the courts stop the election, but they could not. Meanwhile The Birmingham Post-Herald and The Birmingham News endorsed Boutwell. Similarly to the Birmingham World, the News, in its February 27 editorial, pleaded with residents to use good sense:
THIS CITY is at a crossroads. YOU are at a crossroads.
The startling near-miracle accomplished when our people – when you – voted to change Birmingham’s form of government must not be lost in current apathy. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, that apathy is part of what is wrong with Birmingham.
If you’re not satisfied with anything about Birmingham, if you’re one of us who hopes that we don’t have to stay on this negative merry-go-round, then you’ll have your chance next Tuesday at the ballot box. But gather up your commonsense and bring it into play – force politicians to do the same.
American self-government is for people with heart, courage and candor.
The day after the election the News proclaimed, “Birmingham is Sure: Change!” Although Boutwell and Connor faced a run-off, the paper believed that if King’s votes went to Boutwell, there would be “no question” reform had won. As for the council, the top 18 vote-getters also faced a run-off. Nina Miglionico placed third, while W. L. Williams, Jr. came in 14th ,and Rev. J. L. Ware positioned 16th.
On April 2, voters returned to the polls to seal the deal. They elected Albert Boutwell mayor. Their council was Dr. John Bryan, Don Hawkins, George G. Seibels, Jr. and M. E. Wiggins for four-year terms; and Alan Drennan Jr., Nina Miglionico, John Golden, Dr. E. C. Overton and Tom Woods for 2-year terms.
Moderates all. The middle classes had won. They looked toward the day Birmingham would put itself on an even, respectable path. They did not know that Bull Connor and the commission soon would refuse to leave City Hall; that mass demonstrations were just getting started; that Martin Luther King would be arrested in April and that he would write his most famous letter from their jail; and that vigilantes would kill four Sunday School girls.
Had they known, they might have left the valley and run for the hills.
CORRECTION (4/27/13, 9 a.m.): The text has been amended to reflect the concern of Becky Overton Gray, who pointed out that her father, E.C. Overton, was an optometrist who took a special interest in mentoring African-American students, not an optician.