Written by: Morgan Franklin
On April 12, 1963, The Birmingham News published a letter by eight white clergymen in which they “urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.” Published on the same day as Dr. Martin Luther King’s arrest, the “Call to Unity” came in response to protests led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in opposition to the city’s discriminatory system of segregation.
While incarcerated, Dr. King responded with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he writes, “It is unfortunate that these demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Dr. King’s letter laid out the argument for continued demonstrations by Birmingham residents who were, in fact, already “working peacefully for a better Birmingham” through their nonviolent campaign.
At the beginning of April, the ACMHR published their “Birmingham Manifesto,” in which organization leader Fred Shuttleworth outlined the ways that previous attempts at gaining progress had been denied and that civil disobedience was the last resort for justice. He stated that the organization had to serve as “a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive.” Similarly, Dr. King asserted that he was there because injustice was there. He wrote:
“There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.”
The city was referred to colloquially as “Bombingham” due to the frequency of attacks perpetrated against the black community; at the time of the protests none of the approximately fifty bombings of black-owned property since the end of World War II had been solved.
Additionally, segregation ordinances, as well as general prejudice that seeped into all aspects of life in the city, worked to keep black citizens marginalized and without power in Birmingham’s political realm. Despite the fact that 40 percent of the city’s population of 350,000 was African American, there were no black individuals serving in city government; this disparity was due in no small part to voter suppression initiatives, as only ten percent of black residents were registered to vote. There were no black bus drivers, no black sales clerks in department stores, and no black secretaries to white professionals.
In Jefferson County, Alabama, segregation was not only allowed; it was required, and it dictated all aspects of life. Take, for instance, Section 597 of the General Code of the City of Birmingham, “Negroes And White Persons Not To Play Together.” This law banned any kind of cross-racial association in public and made clear the omnipotence of segregation – those who broke the ordinance themselves or permitted others to engage in cross-racial fraternization were liable for punishment. Public Safety Commissioner and adamant segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor decided to close Birmingham parks in 1962 rather than be forced to allow them to be desegregated under a 1961 federal court order.
In such a climate, action was necessary, and it came in the form of the SCLC and ACMHR. The organizations initiated Project C (C for confrontation), better known as the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. Though originally set to begin in early March of 1963, leaders of the campaign decided to wait until Birmingham’s mayoral election concluded.
After “Bull” Connor was defeated by the more moderate (but still supportive of segregation) Albert Boutwell, activists began their efforts in earnest. Demonstrators engaged in lunch counter sit-ins, mass meetings, marches on city hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants. It is with the financial boycott that we see the often-overlooked economic focus of the Civil Rights Movement and particularly of Dr. King.
The reason the campaign occurred when it did was to put economic pressure on the city’s merchants; this made the weeks leading up to the usually economically stimulating holiday of Easter an ideal time for action. As Dr. King stated, “You don’t win against a political power structure where you don’t have enough votes. But you can win against an economic power structure when you have the economic power to make the difference between a merchant’s profit and loss.”
Though protestors were arrested en masse, directors of the movement enlisted the help of children in what would be known as the Children’s Crusade, with more than a thousand of black Birmingham’s children marching. As television documentation of Birmingham’s police force clubbing, hosing, and sicking dogs on children emerged, the nation was able to witness the horror of what was taking place in the city.
The campaign ended on May 10th when officials finally complied with demands to remove white and colored separation markers from water fountains and bathrooms, allow demonstrators who had been jailed to be freed, create a job improvement plan, and desegregate Birmingham lunch counters. This de jure progress fomented resentment among white segregationists in the city; vicious and violent responses followed in the following months that included physical threats, verbal attacks, and the setting off of explosive devices.
It was in this context following the campaign and the breaking down of legal barriers to equality that on September 15th, 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. It should not be missed that this was the way legal desegregation spurred by nonviolent civil disobedience was met: with a terrorist attack on innocent people while they sought to worship and give thanks to their God.
In spite of the challenges faced by the demonstrators, the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 sparked change and marked a significant period in our nation’s civil rights history. In the years that followed, Birmingham continued to struggle with racial tension but did see progress. This weekend, 50 years after the campaign, civil rights activists will gather in the city not only to commemorate the tragic and historic bombing of the Church, but to discuss the ways that progress must continue to occur as we look forward into the next fifty years.