The Civil Rights movement is marked with several historic protests (the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, etc.) but none was as important as the ‘Project C’ protests in Birmingham Alabama in May 1963.
These brought unprecedented pressure to act on civil rights to bear on the federal government, and so set the legislative process in motion.
It also proved the turning point in public opinion, swaying the hitherto silent majority into action. It exposed southern segregationist brutality to an international audience.
For too long the passive white moderate had stood in the way of advancing civil rights. Although Birmingham was by no means a total remedy, it invigorated and drew support to a flagging cause.
Ultimately it created a confluence of forces that compelled the Kennedy administration to introduce Civil Rights legislation.
By 1963 the Civil Rights movement had stalled. The Albany Movement had failed, and the Kennedy administration was unmoved on the possibility of introducing legislation.
However, a co-ordinated protest in Birmingham, Alabama had the potential to ignite racial tensions and stir the national consciousness.
On 2 April the moderate Albert Boutwell had won a decisive 8,000 vote victory over Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor in the run-off mayoral election. However, the victory was disputed and Connor remained as Police Commissioner. A publicity-seeking segregationist, Connor was liable to meet a large demonstration with a high profile display of force.
A coalition of Civil Rights groups, led by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, resolved to orchestrate sit-ins to bring about de-segregation of lunch counters at downtown stores.
Although blacks in Birmingham didn’t have the numbers to effect political change, as Martin Luther King Jr noted, ‘Negroes… had enough buying power to make the difference between profit and loss in downtown stores.’
Some urged delay, for the odd situation of two competing city governments didn’t seem conducive to a direct protest. Father Albert Foley among others also believed that voluntary desegregation was imminent. However, as Wyatt Walker said, ‘We didn’t want to march after Bull was gone.’
What happened? – A timeline of the protests
3 April – The first protesters entered five downtown stores. Four stopped serving immediately and at the fifth thirteen protesters were arrested. After a week there had been around 150 arrests.
10 April – ‘Bull’ Connor obtains an injunction barring protests, but this is ignored by King and the protests continue.
12 April – King is arrested for demonstrating, and from his jail cell pens his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’, a riposte to the charge levelled by eight white clergymen that King was impeding rather than prompting change. This emotive plea to the inert white moderates brought Birmingham into the national spotlight.
2 May – In a D-Day demonstration over a thousand students marched on the city centre. Connor’s police sprung an ambush from Kelly Ingram Park, arresting over 600 and filling the city’s jails to capacity.
3 May – As demonstrators took to the streets once more, Connor ordered the fire hoses turned up to lethal intensity and police dogs to be used with devastating impunity. Protests concluded at 3pm but the media storm had just begun. As the demonstrators were ‘jumping up and down…’ and shouting ‘we had some police brutality! They brought out the dogs!’
Images of bloodied, beaten protesters were broadcast globally. Robert Kennedy publicly sympathised that, ‘These demonstrations are understandable expressions of resentment and hurt.’
He also criticized the use of children, but the bulk of public horror was directed at the police brutality. An Associated Press photograph showing a large dog lunging at a peaceful protester vividly crystallised the event and the Huntington Advisor reported that the fire hoses were able to peel bark off trees.
7 May – The fire hoses were turned on protesters once more. Reverend Shuttlesworth was hospitalised by a hose blast, and Connor was heard saying that he wished Shuttlesworth had been ‘carried away in a hearse.’
Robert Kennedy prepared to activate the Alabama National Guard, but the violence had reached a tipping point. Business in the downtown stores was completely frozen, and that night the Senior Citizens Committee, representing Birmingham’s white elite, agreed to negotiate.
8 May – At 4pm an agreement was reached and the President formally announced a ceasefire. However, later that day King was re-arrested and the fragile truce collapsed.
10 May – After some frantic behind-the-scenes work by the Kennedy administration, King’s bail was paid and a second truce agreed.
11 May – 3 bombings (2 at King’s brother’s house and one at the Gaston motel) prompted an angry black mob to gather and rampage through the city, destroying vehicles and razing 6 stores to the ground.
13 May – JFK orders 3,000 troops deployed to Birmingham. He also gave a neutral statement, saying ‘the Government will do whatever it can to preserve order.’
15 May – After further negotiations the Senior Citizen’s Committee reiterated its commitments to the points established in the first agreement, and eventually 4 Points for Progress were established. From that point the crisis steadily wound down until Connor left office.
Political fallout from Birmingham
Birmingham precipitated a sea change on the racial issue. From May to late August there were 1,340 demonstrations in over 200 cities across 34 states. It seemed that nonviolent protest had run its course.
JFK had received a letter from several celebrities berating, ‘the total, moral collapse of your response to the pleas of millions of Americans.’
On 17 May a memorandum summarising global opinion to the crisis found that Moscow had, unleashed a propaganda blast on Birmingham’ with ‘most attention given to use of brutality and dogs.’
Legislation now constituted a remedy for the social conflict, a damaged international reputation and an historic injustice.