At the invitation of Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights founder Fred Shuttlesworth, it was a coordinated effort to force an end to Birmingham's segregated civil and discriminatory economic policies. The planned campaign employed Martin Luther King Jr's policies of nonviolent action and Wyatt Tee Walker's strategy to build community support with nightly mass meetings and to draw in supporters to help fill the jails to capacity and create worldwide public pressure for the city to agree to the group's demands. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham Campaign in saying, "The purpose of...direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."1
In the event, after more than two months of demonstrations, it was Birmingham's schoolchildren rather than a mass of outside supporters who succeeded in casting the disproportionate reaction of the Birmingham Police Department under the direction of Eugene "Bull" Connor into sharp relief in the international press, and brought the attention of the nation and the world to the contemporary policies of segregation in the American South. The Birmingham Campaign effectively shut down the city, most, but not all, of the goals of the protest organizers were met, making it a notable success, but leaving many structural injustices intact.
In 1963, Birmingham was one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. Only 10% of the city's black population was registered to vote in 1960.2 Pay scale differences between white and black workers at the local steel mills were common. Time Magazine noted in 1958 that the only thing white workers had to gain from desegregation was more competition from black workers.3 Fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings after 1945 earned the city the nickname "Bombingham." A neighborhood in Birmingham that began to be integrated with white and black families was so concentrated in bombings and arson that it got the name "Dynamite Hill."4
Fred Shuttlesworth was the head of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, that was organized in 1956 to challenge the City of Birmingham's segregation policies through lawsuits and other protests. When the courts overturned the segregation of the city's parks, the city responded by closing them. In response, Shuttlesworth's home was repeatedly bombed, as well as Bethel Baptist Church, the church of which he was the pastor.5 Shuttlesworth invited Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC to Birmingham, reasoning, "If you come to Birmingham, you will not only gain prestige, but really shake the country. If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation."6
Martin Luther King, Jr. had recently been in Albany, Georgia, trying to change the city's policies of segregation and had not been successful. His reputation had been affected by the campaign in Albany, and he was eager to change it. The Albany movement proved to be an important education for the SCLC when it undertook the Birmingham Campaign in 1963. The Campaign focused on several concrete goals that concentrated on the downtown of Birmingham, rather than total desegregation of the city as in Albany: the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown merchants, fair hiring practices in shops and city employment, reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to set a timetable and oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools.7
Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety had lost a recent election for mayor to Albert Boutwell, who was slightly less enthusiastic about segregation than Connor himself, but refused to accept the new mayor's authority.8 Commissioner Connor had a notorious past with protesters, being described as an "arch-segregationist" by Time Magazine.9 Connor stated plainly and confusingly, "We ain't gonna segregate no niggers and whites together in this town."10 He responded to FBI allegations of police misconduct in 1958 when police arrested ministers organizing a bus boycott by saying, "I haven't got any damn apology to the FBI or anybody else," and predicting, "If the North keeps trying to cram this thing (desegregation) down our throats, there's going to be bloodshed."3 Connor allowed freedom riders in 1961 to be beaten by local mobs. Religious leaders and protest organizers were repeatedly harassed by the police when all the cars parked at mass meetings were ticketed, plainclothes police officers attended meetings and took notes, and the Birmingham Fire Department interrupted meetings to search for "phantom fire hazards."11 Connor had previously run for several elected offices, to lose out in all of the races except the one for Public Safety Commissioner. Connor's demeanor was so antagonistic towards the Civil Rights Movement, that he actually galvanized support for black Americans. John F. Kennedy later said of him, "The Civil Rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln."8
The aims of the planned demonstrations were outlined in a document called the "Birmingham Manifesto", compiled by SCLC's Wyatt Walker and issued on April 2, 1963 with the signatures of Fred Shuttlesworth and Nelson Smith of the ACMHR. It was distributed by handbill and as a press release.
The manifesto's demands included:
- Immediate desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms and drinking fountains in downtown department and variety stores.
- The establishment of fair hiring practices in Birmingham businesses.
- Dismissal of charges against non-violent protesters in previous ACMHR boycotts.
- Establishment of a merit system to open the way for African American city employees.
- Re-opening of closed parks and swimming pools on an integrated basis.
- Establishment of a bi-racial committee to work out a schedule for desegregation in other areas of life.
The manifesto and its local backing was largely ignored in the press, which continued to characterize the demonstrations as unnecessary "stirring up" of black residents by "outside agitators" for self-serving reasons.
Selective Buying Campaign
Modeling after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, protest actions began on April 3, 1963 and were designed to undercut the second busiest shopping season of the year as Easter approached.
King and the leaders of the boycott planned a 6-week abstinence from blacks shopping in the downtown business district, and organizers walked downtown to make sure blacks weren't shopping in stores that promoted or tolerated segregation. If black shoppers were found in these stores, organizers confronted them and shamed them into participating in the boycott. Shuttlesworth recalled a woman had her $15 US hat destroyed by boycott participants.11 Boycott participant Joe Dickson recalled, "We had to go under strict surveillance. We had to tell people, say look: if you go downtown and buy something, you're going to have to answer to us."12 Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to affect Birmingham store owners economically after learning that a direct action against political leaders in Albany was ineffective since too few blacks were registered to vote. King recalled, "We decided to center the Birmingham struggle on the business community, of we knew that the Negro population had sufficient buying power so that its withdrawal could made the difference between profit and loss for many businesses." After several business owners in Birmingham took down "white only" and "colored only" signs, Commissioner Connor threatened business owners should any of them not follow the segregation ordinances, they would lose their business licenses.13
King's presence in Birmingham was not welcomed by all in the black community. A black attorney was reported in Time Magazine saying, "The new administration should have been given a chance to confer with the various groups interested in change." Hotel owner A. G. Gaston stated, "I regret the absence of continued communication between white and Negro leadership in our city." A white Jesuit priest assisting in desegregation negotiations attested, "These demonstrations are poorly timed and misdirected."14 Protesters suspected they would meet with violence from the Birmingham Police Department, but chose a confrontational approach to get the attention of the federal government.7 Wyatt Tee Walker headed the planning of what he titled "Project C" that stood for "confrontation". The plan called for direct nonviolent action to attract media attention to "the biggest and baddest city of the South."6 Walker timed walking distance from the 16th Street Baptist Church to the downtown area and scoped out lunch counters of department stores and even planned for secondary targets of federal buildings should the police block the protesters' entrances into the primary targets.
The Campaign used a variety of nonviolent methods of confrontation, including sit-ins at libraries, kneel-ins by black visitors at local white churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a drive to register voters. A few hundred people were arrested, including jazz musician Al Hibbler (who was immediately released by Connor),15 but not nearly enough to stop the functioning of the city.
Good Friday march
On April 10, Commissioner Conner however, obtained an injunction barring all such protests, and subsequently raised bail bond for all arrested protesters from $300 to $1200. Remembering that the Albany protests had been ineffective in part to their following court injunctions, and convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the Campaign leaders defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. Along with Ralph Abernathy, King elected to be among those arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. It was King's thirteenth arrest.15
Martin Luther King Jr jailed
While in jail on April 16, King wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on the margins of a newspaper, since he had not been allowed any writing paper while held in solitary confinement by jail authorities. The letter responded to eight white clergymen who were protesting King's presence in Birmingham, that he was agitating local residents, and had not given the incoming mayor a chance to make any changes. Supporters pressured the Kennedy administration to intervene to obtain his release or better conditions. King eventually was allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and was released on April 20.
King's arrest did indeed attract national attention. As well, many of Birmingham's downtown businesses were national chains with headquarters in the North. With King arrested, profits of the chain stores began to be affected nationally. The national business owners also put pressure on the Kennedy administration. Jacqueline Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express her concern for Dr. King while he was incarcerated.7
The Campaign, however, was faltering at this time, as the movement was running out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest. SCLC organizers came up with a bold and controversial alternative they named "D" Day (later to be titled the "Children's Crusade" by Newsweek magazine16), calling on elementary, high school, and college students from nearby Miles College to take part in the demonstrations. Children were used because time in jail for them wouldn't impact the family economically as it would a working parent, and the adults in the black community were splintered in how much support they were giving the protests. The organizers knew that students were a more cohesive group; they had been together as classmates since kindergarten. The first public announcement of this strategy was made during a mass meeting on April 12.
James Bevel, a religious leader and veteran of the Nashville sit-ins organized the students. Flyers were distributed stating, "Fight for freedom first then go to school," and "It's up to you to free our teachers, our parents, yourself, and our country."17. Bevel had the most success starting with the girls who were leaders in schools: prom queens and the boys who were athletes. Bevel found the girls more receptive to the plans since they had less experience being victims of white violence, however when the girls joined, the boys were not far behind.6 The SCLC held workshops to help students overcome their fear of dogs, jails, and showed them films of the Nashville sit-ins.
May 2, 1963
On May 2, more than a thousand students skipped school and showed up at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The principal of Parker High School attempted to lock the gates to keep students in, but they scrambled over the walls to get to the church.2 They marched in well-disciplined ranks some of them using walkie-talkies,18 timed in intervals from various churches to the downtown business area, and more than 600 were arrested, the youngest reported at 8 years old. Children left the churches singing hymns and "freedom songs", clapping and laughing while being arrested and awaiting transport to jail.19 Initially Commissioner Connor was dumbfounded, but rallied paddy wagons and eventually school buses to take children to jail. When there were no squad cars left to block the city streets, Connor, whose authority was also over the fire department, used fire trucks. The day's arrest brought the total the number of protesters in jail to 1,200 in the 900-capacity Birmingham facility. Incoming Birmingham mayor Albert Boutwell and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy both condemned the decision to use children in the protests. Kennedy was reported in the New York Times stating, "an injured, maimed, or dead child is a price that none of us can afford to pay," although adding, "I believe that everyone understands their just grievances must be resolved."20 Even Malcolm X criticized the decision saying, "Real men don't put their children on the firing line."11 Wyatt Tee Walker responded to the criticism saying, "Negro children will get a better education in five days in jail than in five months in a segregated school."16 The "D" Day campaign received front page coverage on The Washington Post and The New York Times, despite both publications initially disagreeing with the actions.
May 3, 1963
On May 3, Connor realized that the Birmingham jails could hold no more people, so the tactics of the police changed to keep protesters out of the downtown business area. Another thousand students gathered at the church, leaving to walk across Kelly Ingram Park to go downtown chanting, "We're going to walk, walk, walk. Freedom...freedom...freedom."21 As the demonstrators left the church to walk downtown, they were warned to stop and turn back, "or you'll get wet."16 When they continued, Commissioner Connor ordered the firehoses turned on. Boys' shirts were ripped off with the force of the water, and young women were lifted off their feet over the tops of cars when hit by the hoses. When the students fell or crouched down, the blasts of water rolled them down the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks. Connor allowed white spectators to push forward, shouting, "Let those people come forward, sergeant. I want 'em to see the dogs work. Look at those niggers run!"9
Black parents and adults who were not participating, shouted cheers to the students marching. But when the hoses were turned on, the adults began to throw rocks and bottles at the police. To disperse them, Connor ordered German shepherd police dogs on them, who also received peltings with bricks and stones. James Bevel wove in and out of the crowds warning them, "If any cops get hurt, we're going to lose this fight."16 At 3 p.m. however, the protest was over, and in a surreal truce, protesters left the churches and went home as police cleared blockades off the streets for traffic again.22 That evening King told worried parents in a crowd of a thousand, "Don't worry about your children who are in jail. The eyes of the world are on Birmingham. We're going on in spite of dogs and fire hoses. We've gone too far to turn back."9
Television cameras broadcast these scenes to the nation. Where support for King and the SCLC had been disjointed before May 3, "the black community was instantaneously consolidated behind King,"226 according to attorney David Vann. Outside Birmingham there were nearly unanimous exclamations of shock and horror from politicians, the national press, and from the public. President Kennedy sent Burke Marshall to Birmingham to help negotiate a truce, but Marshall faced a stalemate when merchants and protest organizers refused to budge.
On May 5, the demonstrators abandoned nonviolence. Connor ordered the doors to the churches blocked to prevent students from leaving. Black spectators taunted police, and SCLC leaders pleaded with them to be peaceful or go home. James Bevel borrowed a bullhorn from the police and shouted, "Everybody get off this corner. If you're not going to demonstrate in a nonviolent way, then leave!"27 Alabama Governor George Wallace telegraphed Commissioner Connor his support.
By May 6, the jails were so full that Connor transformed the stockade at the state fairgrounds into a makeshift jail to hold the protesters. Black protesters arrived at white churches to integrate services. They were accepted in Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, but turned away at others, where they knelt and prayed until they were arrested.28 Joan Baez arrived to perform at Miles College for free and stayed at the black-owned and integrated Gaston Hotel.28 Comedian Dick Gregory and writer for The Nation and Barbara Deming were also present and were both arrested. White business leaders met with protest organizers to try to come to an economic solution, but said they had no control over the political environment. Protest organizers disagreed, saying that business leaders were in a position to pressure political leaders.
May 7, 1963
The situation hit its crisis on May 7, 1963. Breakfast in the jail took four hours to distribute to all the prisoners.29 Seventy members of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce pleaded with the protest organizers to stop the actions. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked for sympathizers to picket in unity in 100 American cities. The editor of The Birmingham News wired President Kennedy, pleading with him to put an end to the protesting. Fire hoses were used once again, injuring police and Fred Shuttlesworth, as well as other demonstrators. Commissioner Connor expressed regret at missing seeing Shuttlesworth get hit by the fire hoses and said he, "wished they'd carried him away in a hearse."30 Another 1,000 people were arrested, bringing the total number to 2,500. News of the mass arrests of children by now had reached western Europe, Africa, and the Soviet Union.7 No business of any kind was being done in the downtown area. The civil infrastructure had completely collapsed. Organizers planned to flood the downtown area businesses with black people, but smaller groups of decoys were planted to distract police attention from the 16th Street Baptist Church. False fire alarms were pulled to distract the fire department's hoses. Six hundred picketers reached downtown Birmingham, and in other stores, large groups of protesters sat on the floor and sang freedom songs. Streets, sidewalks, stores, and buildings were overwhelmed with over 3,000 protesters, and the sheriff and chief of police admitted that they didn't think they could handle the situation for more than a few hours.31
On May 8 at 4 A.M., white business leaders conceded most of the protesters' demands. Political leaders held fast, however, and the rift between the businessmen and the politicians became clear when business leaders admitted they could not guarantee the protesters' release from jail. The Birmingham Board of Education filed a complaint in Jefferson County Circuit Court claiming that the SCLC and ACMHR did "induce, coerce, encourage, or persuade" students to be absent from school and to engage in unlawful activities and to attempt to remain in jail, causing harm not only to themselves, but to the system's budget allocation, which was based on attendance.
On May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr told reporters they had an agreement from the City of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms within 90 days, as well as hiring blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks. Those in jail would be released on bond or their own recognizance. Commissioner Connor and outgoing Mayor Art Hanes condemned the decision.13 On May 11, a bomb ripped through the A. G. Gaston Motel where King had been staying, as well as through the parsonage housing King's brother A. D. King and his family. When police came to inspect the motel, they were met again with rocks and bottles from neighborhood blacks. President Kennedy prepared to nationalize the Alabama National Guard, but found it was unnecessary. Hanes left office almost immediately. Upon picking up his last paycheck, Eugene Connor remarked tearfully, "This is the worst day of my life."13 In June and July of 1963, the Jim Crow signs segregating facilities in Birmingham were taken down forever.
After the Campaign
The positive resolution of the Birmingham Campaign and a change in the city's form of government were followed by a major voter registration drive led by Charles Billups of the ACMHR with dozens of student volunteers. The SCLC reported that 3,650 new names had been added to the voter rolls over a two month period thanks to their efforts, bringing the total of registered voters to around 14,000 of the 116,000 Black residents who were eligible to vote.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he delivered his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream." President Kennedy drew up the Civil Rights Act bill that was eventually passed into law and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 that made it federal law to prohibit discrimination based on race in employment and housing matters.
- Garrow, David. Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. W. Morrow, 1986. ISBN 0688047947
- "Birmingham: Integration's Hottest Crucible." (December 15, 1958) TIME magazine
- Crime library.com article on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
- Fred Shuttlesworth on the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute website.
- Hampton, Henry, ed. "Birmingham, 1963." Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s to the 1980s. Bantam Books, 1990.
- Morris, Aldon. "Birmingham Confrontation and the Power of Social Protest: An Analysis of the Dynamics and Tactics of Mobilization." American Sociological Review 1993: p. 621-636.
- "Theophilus Eugene Connor." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9: 1971-1975. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
- "Dogs, Kids and Clubs." TIME Magazine: May 10, 1963
- "Integration: Bull at Bay." Newsweek: April 15, 1963. p. 29
- Dickson, Joe . Interview. "Interview with Dickson." BCRI Oral Histories. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. 15 Apr. 1996.
- Nunnelley, William. Bull Connor. University of Alabama Press, 1991. ISBN 058532316X
- "Poorly Timed Protest." TIME Magazine. April 19, 1963
- "Integration: Connor and King." Newsweek: April 22, 1963; pp. 28, 33.
- "Birmingham USA: 'Look at Them Run'" May 13, 1963. pp 27-
- Sitton, Claude. "Birmingham Jails 1,000, More Negroes; Waves of Chanting Students Seized." The New York Times. May 7, 1963. p. 1
- Gordon, Robert. "Waves of Young Negroes March in Birmingham Segregation Protest." Washington Post: May 3, 1963. p.1
- Hailey, Foster. "500 Are Arrested in Negro Portest at Birmingham" The New York Times May 3, 1963. p. 1
- Robert Kennedy Warns of 'Increasing Turmoil': Deplores Denials of Negroes' Rights but Questions Timing of Protests in Birmingham . (1963, May 4). The New York Times p. 1
- "Fire Hoses and Police Dogs Quell Birmingham Segregation Protest." Washington Post: May 4, 1963; p. 1
- Haily, Foster. "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham." The New York Times May 4, 1963. p. 1
- "Javits Denounces Birmingham Police." The New York Times: May 5, 1963. p. 82
- "Birmingham's use of dogs assailed." The New York Times: May 7, 1963. p. 32
- "Outrage in Alabama." The New York Times: May 5, 1963. p. 200
- "Violence in Birmingham." Washington Post: May 5, 1963. p. E5
- Hailey, Foster. "U.S. Seeking a Truce in Birmingham; Hoses Again Drive Off Demonstrators; Two Aides Meeting With Leaders--Negroes Halt Protests Temporarily." The New York Times: May 5, 1963. p. 1
- Hailey, Foster. "Birmingham Talks Pushed; Negroes March Peacefully." The New York Times: May 6, 1963. p. 1
- "Birmingham Jail Is So Crowded Breakfast Takes Four Hours." The New York Times: May 8, 1963. p. 29
- Sitton, Claude. "Rioting Negroes routed by police at Birmingham; 3,000 Demonstrators Crash Lines." The New York Times. May 8, 1963. p. 1
- Fairclough, Adam (1987) To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. University of Georgia Press ISBN 0820308986
- Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can't Wait (1963; Signet Classics) ISBN 9780451527530
- "Birmingham Moves To End Segregation As Voter Drive Mounts" (August 1963) Southern Christian Leadership Conference Newsletter. Vol. 1, No. 11
- Howell Raines (1977) "My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered." Putnam Publishing Group. ISBN 0399118535
- Eskew, Glenn T. (1997) But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807846678
- Branch, Taylor (1988) Parting The Waters; America In The King Years 1954-63. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0671460978
- White, Marjorie Longenecker (1998) A Walk to Freedom: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, 1956-1964. Birmingham: Birmingham Historical Society. ISBN 0943994241
- Manis, Andrew (1999) A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817309683
- Bass, S. Jonathan (2001) Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Baton Rouge: LSU Press. ISBN 0807126551
- McWhorter, Diane (2001) Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743226488
- "Birmingham campaign" (October 17, 2007) Wikipedia - accessed October 18, 2007
- Wright, Barnett (April 5, 2023) "The Pivotal Meetings 60 Years Ago That Helped Desegregate Birmingham AL" The Birmingham Times