The Unsung Heroes of the Birmingham Campaign
When one thinks about the civil rights movement, the first name that comes to mind is Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.He contributed greatly to the advancement of African American people in the U.
S. ; however, in the case of the Birmingham Campaign, it was a collective group effort from numerous local leaders and MLK that peacefully protested for, and eventually gained, the rights that all American citizens deserve. Few mention the efforts of local leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth’s work with Project “C”, James Bevel’s orchestrating of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, Wyatt Tee Walker’s organizing confrontations with city officials.
MLK’s own brother A. D. King, who played a part in the eventual success of the movement, is often left out of these conversations as well. None of the rights that African Americans gained after the movement would have been possible without the cooperation of President John F. Kennedy and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a public address to the nation, President Kennedy stated, “It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation…without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street. He continued with, “It ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal,” which was in fact a goal of the Birmingham campaign. 1 There were many factors that brought the civil rights movement to Birmingham. Although it was a city with a forty percent black population in 1960, Birmingham remained one of the most segregated communities in America. 2 The fact that African Americans had been free from slavery for nearly one hundred years did not mean anything to a majority of whites in the South.
Segregation of both communal and commercial facilities was required by law and enforced strictly in Birmingham. 3 African Americans had gained the right to vote ninety years before the beginning of the Birmingham Campaign, but that did not seem to mean much in the South. Whites used several methods including poll taxes, literacy exams, and the grandfather clause to prevent blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote. In 1960, only ten percent of the African American population in Birmingham registered to vote. Some might wonder why the white community was so opposed to desegregation. One answer is the that they simply had nothing to gain except increased competitions for jobs. 5 The unemployment rate for blacks was two and a half times higher that it was for whites. Also, a vast majority of whites had been raised thinking they were superior to African Americans based solely on the color of their skin. It was this stubborn and ignorant way of thinking that made it so difficult for blacks to attain equality in the south.
Although the white and black communities of Birmingham would have never been considered to be at peace, tension between them began to mount early in 1963. On January 14, Governor George C. Wallace was inaugurated. In his speech he stated he believed in “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. ”6 It was at this time that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was founded in 1957, made plans for the Birmingham Campaign. 7 Originally it was scheduled for March of the same year. However, the SCLC chose to wait until after the run-off election for Mayor of Birmingham on April 2.
Albert Boutwell, who was moderate compared to his segregationist opponent Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, won the election. Connor remained the Commissioner of Public Safety, and would later play an instrumental part in the Campaign. 8 They believed this would be the best time to bring the civil rights movement to Birmingham in full force. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a group created in 1956 when Alabama outlawed the NAACP, released a statement entitled the “Birmingham Manifesto” explaining the reasons for the demonstrations that would take place in the following months. It also entailed how black citizens have tried “petitioning for the repeal of city ordinances requiring segregation” as well as how they have “turned to the system of the courts. ” It is clear that those involved in writing this document believed that demonstrations in Birmingham were their last resort. Fred Shuttlesworth and N. H. Smith were the only men brave enough to sign their names at the bottom of the document that declared the black communities future resistance to the discriminatory laws in Birmingham. 10 The Birmingham Campaign officially began on April 3, 1963, the day after the release of the Birmingham Manifesto.
Some of the things those behind the movement hoped to accomplish included desegregating public facilities, releasing non-violent protestors from jail, and reopening of parks that were closed in order to fight segregation. On April 3, black citizens gathered in downtown Birmingham to protest for racial equality in hiring. Smaller groups staged sit-ins at white only lunch counters; however, the lunch counters were closed and around twenty people were arrested. The following day, MLK attempted to lead a march to the Birmingham City Hall. The march did not last long due to a lack of followers. 1 After the protests on the first two days of the campaign saw no results, Fred Shuttlesworth and Wyatt Tee Walker, who were both very active in the SCLC, organized Project “C” (for confrontation. It involved a series of sit-ins and nonviolent protests that would begin on April 7. Shuttlesworth and Rev. Charles Billups, another local leader, staged a march that was supposed to reach the Birmingham City Hall. Police stopped the march and twenty-six people, ranging in age from seventeen to seventy-eight, were arrested. 12 Nine of those arrested were female. Both Shuttlesworth and Billups were in the front of the march and were arrested.
The following day, A. D. King led a group of over two thousand people to protest Shuttlesworth and Billups’ incarceration.The demonstration was quickly put to an end when Circuit Court Judge William Jenkins issued a court injunction that forbade public protests. 13 Very early in the campaign, African Americans gained one small victory. On April 11, 1963, the Birmingham Public Library voted to desegregate. 14 On this same day, a court-ordered injunction against “boycotting, trespassing, parading, picketing, sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and inciting or encouraging such acts,” was issued.
MLK and Ralph Abernathy were arrested for parading without a permit the following day, Good Friday. 15 16 Many were outraged that the biggest leader in the national civil rights movement was unjustly arrested for a peaceful protest in Birmingham. Following MLK and Abernathy’s arrests, eight white clergymen released “A Call for Unity,” an article that was intended for African Americans in the Birmingham community who had been protesting in the past weeks. The article used words like “impatient” to describe blacks and also warned about joining “outsiders” in their demonstrations, referring to MLK. 7 While in jail, MLK wrote a direct response to his “fellow clergymen” entitled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. ” The first issue he addressed in the letter was his reason for being in Birmingham. MLK says, “[I] am here because I was invited here,” and also, “I am here because injustice is here. ” These were direct responses to the questions posed by the clergymen in “A Call for Unity. ” Next, he explained the four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign: collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
MLK believed the people of Birmingham had gone through all of these steps. Also, he addressed the injustices that African Americans had faced in the Birmingham courts, as well as the numerous unsolved bombings. MLK then explained why his associates and he “[did not] give the new city administration time to act. ” He states that the new city administration must be pressured early in order for them to act. Also, he states that although Boutwell is a “much more gentle person the Mr. Connor…we are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell will bring the millennium to Birmingham. Later in his letter, MLK explained that he believes segregation is a sin because is denies African Americans their basic human rights. He also says that one has a “moral responsibility” to disobey unjust laws. Then, he explains the difference in a just law and an unjust law. “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. MLK also discusses that he is upset with the white moderate because they are more concerned with keeping order than attaining justice. The main focus of the letter is to help spread the message of civil disobedience. MLK believed this was the best way for African Americans to achieve their goals. Throughout the letter, he used strong language but was never offensive. The response was widely published and has since become very famous. 18 The Campaign continued throughout April with various demonstrations that achieved little success.
However, James Bevel, a minister who played a big part in the Nashville Student movement and who had been called in to work alongside MLK, had been planning a big series of events. For weeks Bevel had been meeting with local elementary and high school students in the Birmingham school districts. He had been teaching children how to protest without using violence. If students did not demonstrate an ability to handle verbal, and sometimes physical, assault without retaliating, they were not allowed to join Bevel’s cause.
When he finally felt his students had been trained well enough, Bevel instructed them to march from the 16th Street Baptist Church to Birmingham’s City Hall to protest city segregation laws. Bevel chose to use kids to help his cause because he believed most people would have the decency to not harm the children; however this was not always true. The demonstrations began on May 2, which earned the nickname “D-Day” from many. Over the next five days, thousands of student protestors where arrested which filled the jails to maximum capacity. This did little to diminish their spirits. Thousands more lined the streets. Bull” Connor, the Head of Police at the time, ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs to help put an end to the Children’s Campaign. 19 20 On May 5, Fred Shuttlesworth was hospitalized after being knocked off of his feet by a blast from a fire hose. Connor was quoted saying that he was upset that he had missed seeing this happen and that he wished “he had been carried away in a hearse. ”21 One white man attempted to run his car into demonstrators and was arrested. 22 When pictures of fire hoses and police dogs being used on children were released in newspapers, the incident gained national attention.
Ironically, by defending segregation so fervently, “Bull” Connor actually drew national attention to the civil rights movement and hastened the passage of major civil rights legislation. After hearing of what had happened during the Children’s Campaign, President Kennedy asked MLK to stop using children in his protests. When King relayed the message to Bevel, he refused. He then instructed the student’s to prepare to March to Washington. This caught JFK’s attention. The president and his team began collaborating with the SCLC on a comprehensive civil rights bill, considered by some as a step in the right direction for America.
A March was still organized in Washington, however it was not to protest. Instead, over two hundred and fifty thousand people came to Washington in August of 1963 to show their support for the bill. 23 On May 8, the SCLC met with many local business leaders to form a compromise to end the Birmingham Campaign. Fred Shuttlesworth was so disgusted with the agreement he checked himself out of the hospital in order to confront the leaders of the SCLC for giving in. He believed the compromise was unacceptable because it lacked any serious concessions from Birmingham’s white community.
The SCLC met again with the business leaders and a modified compromise was agreed upon. On May 10, at the A. G. Gaston Motel, MLK announced the end of the Birmingham Campaign while Shuttlesworth fielded questions. 24 Although the Birmingham Campaign was over, the local civil rights movement continued. Birmingham’s white community did not embrace the compromise that ended the campaign. For example, public parks were not reopened for nearly two months. 25 One of the stipulations of the compromise involved releasing of non-violent protestors from jail, including A.
D. King. After his release on May 11, King returned to his home. Later that night, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed his residence, but the family was able to escape. Another bombing at the A. G. Gaston Motel occurred the same night, and riots began in the streets of Birmingham. 26 The African American citizens were outraged by the bombings. Nearly three thousand rioters gathered in downtown Birmingham after the bombing of the motel. Wyatt Walker arrived quickly and pleaded with the citizens to disperse to their homes.
Several rioters began throwing rocks at policemen, making this one of the few events where African Americans were violent. Walker and A. D. King asked all those who would not protest peacefully to leave. They knew that if policemen got hurt, it would be bad news for the black citizens. By 4:00 A. M. fifty people were harmed in the riots, including one police officer that was stabbed. 27 The civil rights movement continued in Birmingham throughout the summer. On June 11, JFK announced in an address to the nation that he was committed to the Civil rights movement.
His attention had previously been focused on the Cold War, however the local leaders as well as MLK had pushed the issue. In Birmingham however, little progress had been made. Governor Wallace, in an attempt to fight segregation, ordered all city schools to be closed. 28 JFK called in the National Guard to reopen and integrate the schools. 29 Although it took nearly two months, Birmingham City Parks were reopened. On September 15, Ku Klux Klan member Bobby Frank Cherry bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had been a rallying point for the movement, and four African American girls were killed. 0 Many considered this to be the turning point in the national civil rights movement. An article in the Milwaukee Sentinel read, “The Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us. ”31 Both the city of Birmingham and Governor Wallace offered a reward for the arrest of the bombers. Many would argue that the Birmingham Campaign had little impact for several reasons. Many of the integration efforts that were proposed in the compromise that ended the Birmingham Campaign were overturned.
There were numerous bombings after the campaign had ended, which showed the white community would not embrace the attempted changes without a fight. However, others would argue that the Birmingham Campaign was successful not because of what it accomplished in Birmingham, but for what it accomplished on the national level. The campaign gained national media attention, which helped spread the message of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to other areas of the nation.
The campaign was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wyatt Tee Walker wrote that the Birmingham Campaign was “the chief watershed of the nonviolent movement in the United States. ”32 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did play a major role in the national civil rights movement; however, in the case of the Birmingham Campaign, it was a collective group effort from numerous local leaders and MLK that peacefully protested for, and eventually gained, the rights that all American citizens deserve. Fred Shuttlesworth and Wyatt Tee Walker organized Project “C”.
Shuttlesworth was even hospitalized after being hurt during a protest. James Bevel organized perhaps one of the most successful demonstrations of the Birmingham Campaign with the Children’s Crusade. This helped gain attention and support from across the nation. Without the help of these men, as well as other local leaders, MLK would have accomplished very little in Birmingham. Although “Bull” Connor’s ordering the use of police dogs and fire hoses during protests was cruel and violent, it gained national media attention, which contributed greatly to the success of the Birmingham Campaign.
President Kennedy’s cooperation was also crucial in the success of the movement. After the numerous violent acts in Birmingham, JFK announced his commitment to the civil rights movement and was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964. As one can see, it was a combination of efforts from numerous leaders in Birmingham, the President, and MLK that lead to the eventual desegregation of not only Birmingham, but also the entire nation.