Operation Oak Tree
The bombings broke a peace brokered at the culmination of the organized Birmingham Campaign of peaceful demonstrations. The "Birmingham Truce", signed by a Senior Citizens Committee of 100 business leader, and by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, established a tentative process of desegregating downtown stores and lunch counters and called on the incoming Council and Mayor Albert Boutwell to work through a bi-racial committee to address other injustices and open the door for African Americans to be employed as store clerks and in civil service. To belligerent segregationists like outgoing commissioners Art Hanes and Bull Connor, the agreement amounted to treachery. Governor George Wallace promised to quell the violence with "whatever it takes".
Terrorist bombers reacted with violence aimed at the leaders of the ACHMR's campaign. In the wake of the bombings, crowds of African Americans took to the streets. Some Birmingham Police officers and their cars were targeted and a rash of fires broke out overnight. Police responded by arresting 32 African American suspects and, with help from Alabama State Troopers, succeeded in restoring a semblance of order before daybreak.
With uncertainty over the status of the city, President Kennedy authorized Operation Oak Tree on Sunday, May 12. Along with protecting the truce, which he described as "fair and just", he sought to counter the perceived threat of rioting spreading to other cities and worsening into a general rebellion against the federal government. Where the administration had been hesitant to activate troops to protect demonstrators, it felt more justified in using the military to protect the citizenry from "out of hand" African Americans.
In his televised address to the nation, Kennedy pledged that the "government will do whatever must be done to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens...[and to] uphold the law of the land." He announced that Justice Department attorney Burke Marshall, who had helped broker the earlier truce, was being sent back to Birmingham to discuss the matter with local officials and African-American leaders. He also announced that special units would be sent to nearby bases and that preliminary steps would be taken to place the Alabama National Guard into federal service.
Brigadier General John T. Corley initially commanded the troops dispatched to Alabama, but was relieved on their arrival by Major General Charles Billingslea. Meanwhile, Major General Creighton Abrams was placed in command of the operation's headquarters at the FBI's Birmingham Field Office in the 2121 Building. Operation Oak Tree never involved action in the field, but it did cause 18,525 soldiers (15,685 tactical personnel and 2,840 support staff) to be placed on one-, two-, or four-hour alert status for possible deployment into the city by May 18. The troops were instructed to use minimal force if called upon to suppress civil unrest. The troops were divided into seven task forces, with two of those, Bravo (in Columbus, Georgia) and 503 (in Montgomery), placed on 15-minute suspense for possible airlift to Birmingham.
On the basis of his interpretation of "states' rights", Wallace registered a complaint to the White House in which he further rejected the "authority of any group of white citizens to negotiate with the lawless mobsters who had been leading the Negroes in Birmingham in weeks of violence and lawbreaking." Kennedy's response instructed Wallace that "the community leaders who worked out this agreement…deserve to see it implemented in an atmosphere of law and order," and repeated that troops would be sent into the city, "if required."
Seeking to ease the tension with Wallace, Kennedy moved the Operational headquarters out of Birmingham to Fort McClellan in Anniston on May 14. Wallace sought an opinion for the United States Supreme Court on whether the administration's actions were unconstitutional. The response cited U.S. Code Title X, Section 333, a Reconstruction-era law which gives the President power to intervene if a violent insurrection or conspiracy impedes Constitutional rights to a class of people and the State is unable or unwilling to intervene for their protection. Their opinion concluded that, "purely preparatory measures and their alleged adverse general effects upon the plaintiffs afford no basis for the granting of any relief."
In the event, no military action was warranted. On May 23 the Alabama Supreme Court settled the disagreement over which city government belonged in office and the incoming Birmingham City Council acted swiftly in striking the city's segregation laws from the books and establishing the promised bi-racial committee. Both Black and White leaders were successful in discouraging further violence. The Oak Tree force was reduced by half on May 25 and the operation was ended entirely on May 31.
At the insistence of Robert McNamara, the Pentagon began forming plans to be better prepared for possible deployments inside the United States. Part of that process involved improving communication with the Justice Department and the FBI. It also led to expanding military intelligence capabilities and adding signal and public information officers to advance party groups that could quickly move to assist local law enforcement agencies if needed. The lasting result of Operation Oak Tree was the augmentation of the U.S. Strike Command with seven Army brigades available to respond to civil disturbances.
The next showdown between the Kennedy administration and George Wallace would take place at the University of Alabama for the scheduled June 10 enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. On May 31, the day that Operation Oak Tree was shuttered, Operation Palm Tree was activated in case unrest broke out at in Tuscaloosa.
- Scheips, Paul J. (2005) The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1945-1992. Center for Military History, Vol 30. No. 20-21. Washington DC: Government Printing Office ISBN 0160723612
- Kimerling, Solomon P. (July 17, 2013) "The stand in the schoolhouse door." "No More Bull!" series. Weld for Birmingham
- "Birmingham riot of 1963" (May 12, 2014) Wikipedia - accessed June 18, 2014