May 1963 riot

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The May 1963 riot was a three-hour period of violent unrest precipitated by the bombings of the A. D. King residence and the A. G. Gaston Motel the day after a truce was announced between Civil Rights Movement leaders and Birmingham business and political leaders to end the Birmingham Campaign of non-violent protests. The bombings also followed closely a mass rally and cross burning staged by Alabama and Georgia klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan at Moose Park near Bessemer.

Immediately after the bombing of A. D. King's home in Ensley a crowd of about 2,000 people gathered. While rumors spread that Birmingham Police had been complicit in the bombing, some in the crowd began throwing rocks at a policeman and cutting the tires of police and fire department vehicles. Reverend King, who had led his family to safety just as the first of two blasts damaged the front of his house, picked up a bullhorn and pleaded with the crowd to peacefully disperse to their homes.

His pleas met rising anger as the news of another bombing in downtown Birmingham reached the crowd. Though he had left the city that morning, the room below the one where Martin Luther King had been staying at the Gaston Motel was heavily damaged. The midnight blast injured four people and also damaged nearby house trailers and shattered the windows of J. D.'s Grocery. As many as 2,500 people, mostly African Americans, took to the streets following that bombing.

As police grouped to push the mob westward along 5th Avenue North, Reverend Wyatt Walker brought out a public address speaker and began pleading with rioters to end the violence. He was hit in the ankle by a thrown brick, but continued his pleas. At about 12:45 the police department's armored riot car and a canine unit made its appearance, provoking more rock-throwing. As police herded the crowd beyond Kelly Ingram Park they were joined by a force of 250 Alabama Highway Patrolmen led by State Director of Public Safety Albert Lingo and armed with carbine rifles as well as by a group of armed whites deputized by Sheriff James Clark of Dallas County who had been in the city for a week to assist with crowd control. Birmingham Police Chief Jamie Moore asked the leaders of those forces to withdraw, or at least to put away their guns, as their appearance was provoking more outrage.

By 1:30 A. D. King had joined other ministers in leading prayers for peace in the parking lot of the motel. State troopers and irregulars massed outside on the street. Minutes after one black man yelled out from the motel that the people inside were unarmed, the squad charged into the courtyard and began clubbing the people gathered there. Meanwhile African American civil defense workers helped to hold back crowds as a fire spread from one shop to others and to a two-story apartment building. Firefighters withdrew under a hail of rocks and bricks.

By 4:00 AM peace had generally been restored and the fires extinguished. Over the course of the night scores of police cars and private vehicles were damaged. Six small shops and the two-story apartment building were burned. Approximately 50 people were injured, including one policeman and a taxi-driver who each sustained stab wounds.

The State Troopers and Dallas County irregulars sealed off a 28-block area from 1st to 8th Avenue North between 14th and 18th Street as Sunday morning, Mother's Day, dawned. Martin Luther King and U. S. Justice Department official Burke Marshall returned to the city. The city's government, still operating in confusion as the election of a new Birmingham City Council and Mayor Albert Boutwell was being challenged by the Birmingham City Commission and Mayor Art Hanes. Hanes announced to the press that Martin Luther King was a dangerous revolutionary operating with the blessing of the White House and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He said of Kennedy that "I hope that every drop of blood that's spilled he tastes in his throat, and I hope he chokes on it."

The new City Council and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, held an emergency meeting to seek ways to restore peace.


  • Sitton, Claude (May 13, 1963) "50 Hurt in Negro Rioting After Birmingham Blasts." The New York Times