In Context

In places like Birmingham, Alabama segregation was not only the social norm--it was the law. Fred Shuttlesworth's Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), formed in 1956, did achieve some modest successes, such as integration of the city bus system. And college student Frank Dukes started the Anti-Injustice Committee (AIC), which organized a boycott of segregated stores during the 1963 Easter shopping season. In response, segregationist forces escalated their violence. Between 1957 and 1963 there were 17 church bombings in Birmingham, leading some to give the city the nickname "Bombingham." The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in particular, became a touchstone for the movement. The church had been a meeting place for civil rights leaders like Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bombing propelled the issues of segregation into the national spotlight. The SCLC soon joined forces with the local ACMHR to make plans for a Birmingham campaign. The campaign leaders hoped to use concentrated pressure in a single city as a means to achieve change on the national level. SNCC chairman and SCLC board member John Lewis explained,

It was our hope that our efforts in Birmingham would dramatize the fight and determination of African-American citizens in the Southern states and that we would force the Kennedy administration to draft and push through Congress a comprehensive Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation and racial discrimination in public accommodations, employment and education.

Organizers planned a multi-pronged approach, including a voter registration drive for African-Americans, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on city hall and a boycott of merchants during the Easter season. They held mass meetings to teach nonviolence and to recruit volunteers. In The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, Armstrong recalls attending training in tactical nonviolence. Demonstrators were taught not to respond to verbal abuse or physical assaults. During sit-ins at lunch counters, protestors would demonstrate an enormous amount of discipline and resolve, sitting for hours on restaurant stools without moving or fighting back.

Movement organizers were so successful in recruiting large numbers of nonviolent protestors that they were able to expand their actions to include kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at libraries and a march on county buildings to register voters.

Government officials attempted to put down the protests. On April 10, 1963, an injunction from the Alabama Circuit Court declared the protests to be illegal. Protestors continued to demonstrate, ignoring the injunction, which Martin Luther King, Jr. called "unjust" and a "misuse of the legal process." King was arrested on April 12, 1963 and kept in jail for eight days, during which time he wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail on the margins of a newspaper. King responded to criticism from moderates, writing,

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never"... the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice".

At the time, civil rights organizers tried to get the letter published in major news outlets, but the letter did not receive much attention until the campaign had succeeded.

As the Birmingham campaign wore on, the organizers faced the tough reality that adult protestors had limited time that they could dedicate to demonstrations. SCLC organizer James Bevel came up with a solution: involve children, who had more time and fewer responsibilities. On May 2, 1963, more than 1,000 African-American children marched on downtown Birmingham. Police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and his officers greeted them with force. Finally, the national media began paying attention. For the next few days, images of children being attacked by dogs, beaten, by clubs and sprayed with water hoses filled television screens and newspaper pages.

Business declined and national attention was drawn toward Birmingham. Attorney general Robert Kennedy sent in Burke Marshall, assistant attorney general and the head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, to facilitate negotiations between black citizens and business leaders. On May 9, 1963, House Republicans introduced the federal civil rights bill, which would later become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On May 10, an agreement was reached. Terms of the agreement included: the removal of "White Only" and "Black Only" signs from restrooms and drinking fountains in downtown Birmingham; the desegregation of lunch counters; a "Negro job improvement plan"; the release of protestors from jails; and the institution of a biracial committee to monitor the agreement.

Segregationists reacted to the agreement by setting off an explosion near the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying and bombing King's brother's house. President John F. Kennedy sent in 3,000 federal troops to help prevent further violence.

Caption: Recalling the violence of Bloody Sunday
Credit: Photo still from The Barber of Birmingham

» Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. "Resource Center Gallery."
» Civil Rights Movement Veterans. "Birmingham."
» Civil Rights Movement Veterans. "Birmingham Manifesto."
» Civil Rights Movement Veterans. "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
» Library of Congress. "The Civil Rights Era."
» Stanford University. "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle."