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Spring 1963: The battle for civil rights in Birmingham
Freedom now!

May 16, 2003 | Page 8

FORTY YEARS ago, civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. set their sights on desegregating the southern city of Birmingham, Ala., the citadel of Southern racist power. BRIAN JONES tells the story of the battle for Birmingham.

IN 1863, Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Southern states. But 100 years later, legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North meant life for African Americans was far from "free." Blacks in the South endured an apparatus of racist terror designed not only to deny basic civil rights, but to squelch all resistance.

But forty years ago, the back of Jim Crow began to break--when thousands of men, women and even children, took to the streets of Birmingham to demand "Freedom Now!"

Birmingham was known as the most segregated city in the U.S.--the "southern Johannesburg," after the capital of the apartheid regime in South Africa. All public facilities--restrooms, parks, cabs, department store fitting rooms--were segregated. Only 8 percent of the city's Black schoolchildren attended classes alongside white students. Even the baseball team had been disbanded so that it wouldn't have to play in a league with integrated clubs.

Birmingham's police and politicians did everything in their power to maintain white supremacy. And when necessary, they could rely on thugs like the Ku Klux Klan to take "extralegal" measures to keep the Black population in line. From 1957 to 1963, the small southern city witnessed 50 cross burnings and 18 bombings--causing Birmingham to become known to Black people across the U.S. by another name: "Bombingham."

For years, northern Democratic Party leaders, especially President John F. Kennedy, had spoken out in favor of equal rights for Blacks. To this day, the Democrats portray themselves as a leading force in the civil rights movement. The truth is, however, that Blacks in general--and Black civil rights activists in particular--had become increasingly frustrated with the gap between the northern Democrats' rhetoric and their lack of action.

The northern Democrats' primary aim was to contain the civil rights movement, discouraging protests that embarrassed southern Democratic politicians and alienated racist white Democratic voters. Famously, Attorney General Robert Kennedy--today considered a liberal hero--told the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, which had led the Freedom Rides to protest segregation in public transportation: "Why don't you guys quit all that riding and sitting shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that, I'll get you tax-free status."

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FRUSTRATED WITH the Democrats' foot dragging, civil rights leaders decided it was time for stronger action. Birmingham was targeted for what King called "Project C--for 'confrontation.'"

Beginning on April 4, small groups of activists sat in at segregated lunch counters and were repeatedly arrested. Another 40 or 50 people marched daily on city hall--and were arrested every time.

These continual protests and arrests began to attract national media attention, so within a few days, city officials got an injunction making any and all "racial" demonstrations illegal. Two days later, King defied the injunction by leading a small march to city hall and was himself arrested.

Breaking the law meant that King lost support from some of his more moderate supporters. Eight local clergy published a letter referring to King and his fellow civil rights activists as "outsiders," calling the protests "unwise and untimely" and praising "law enforcement, in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled."

With a pen borrowed from his jailers, King began to write a powerful rebuttal in the margins of a piece of newspaper--his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

King's started by responding to the charge of being an "outside agitator." "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," King wrote. "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham...Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

King went on to expose the attitude of the "white moderate...who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," King wrote. "Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well-timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now, I have heard the word 'Wait!'...This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

King defended the tactic of direct action and the right of the civil rights movement to defy the law. "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal,' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal,'" he wrote.

Published in its entirety in newspapers around the country, King's letter gave confidence to millions of Blacks who were frustrated, fed up and ready for change--who felt that the time for promises of half-measures was over.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, 'Wait,'" King wrote. "But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your Black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

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ON MAY 2, it was the children of Birmingham who dared to protest--and their action returned the attention of the country to the struggle. One thousand young Blacks--some as young as 6 years old--gathered for what protest leaders called "D-Day," marching out of the 16th Street Baptist Church, dancing, clapping and singing protest songs. Television news cameras rolled as the police systematically rounded them up for arrest.

That night, another thousand young people packed the church, and King promised, "Today was D-Day. Tomorrow will be Double-D-Day."

The young protesters gathered the next morning at the 16th Street Church. This time, however, Birmingham's police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, ordered the church sealed. Half of the protesters were trapped inside, and the other half escaped and gathered outside in Kelly Ingram Park.

Police charged into the park, using their batons to beat anyone within reach, including bystanders. Police dogs injured others. Adult onlookers, who previously had felt afraid to protest, now began throwing bottles and bricks.

Connor then ordered city firemen to use their fire hoses. With TV cameras again rolling, the hoses--with hundreds of pounds of water pressure, enough to rip the bark off of trees, knock bricks loose from walls and send people tumbling--were turned on protesters.

All over America, people watched in horror as children were beaten with nightsticks, bitten by dogs and knocked senseless by the fire hoses. In only two days, some 1,300 Black children were thrown in jail. And across the country, the demonstrations in Birmingham became the number one news item on television.

Birmingham's elite decided that it was time to end the crisis, which was fast turning into an international embarrassment. On May 4, round-the-clock negotiations began between activists and city officials, but neither side would budge. Kennedy tried to persuade King to end the protests, but the demonstrations only escalated.

On May 6, students distributed a flyer that read, "Fight for freedom first, then go to school...It's up to you to free our teachers, our parents, yourself and our country." Attendance dropped 90 percent in some schools. More than 1,000 people were arrested that day.

On May 7, even more people took to the streets, sitting in at lunch counters, marching, singing and chanting. Connor's police trapped 4,000 people in Ingram Park and again turned the hoses on them. Even those who were trying to appeal to the crowd to remain calm were hosed.

Day after day, TV cameras captured police beatings, water hosing and police dog attacks, further raising the profile of the civil rights struggle around the country and increasing the pressure on Kennedy and Birmingham's rulers.

On May 10, they finally gave in. King announced at a press conference that all public facilities would be immediately desegregated and that city officials would reverse discriminatory hiring practices. Ultimately, the city went back on some of these concessions. But the struggle in Birmingham also had the effect of forcing the Kennedy administration to declare that it would introduce civil rights legislation--the key to finally dismantling Jim Crow.

The hard core of white supremacists refused to accept the accord. The same evening that King held his press conference, two bombs exploded in the house of King's brother, and a third went off seconds later at King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters.

Black Birmingham retaliated. As police and firemen gathered to examine the damage from the bombings, so did crowds of people who began pelting them with stones and bottles. Reinforcements were brought in, and pandemonium spread. Several white-owned stores were burned, and one police officer was stabbed in the fighting. When the SCLC appealed for calm, protesters replied, "Tell it to Bull Connor."

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IN THE three months that followed, there were 800 boycotts, marches and sit-ins in 200 cities across the South--"Little Birminghams" as they were known. King's "Project C" had set a new tone for the civil rights movement, as even moderate organizations began to endorse, if not initiate, more radical strategies and actions.

For the first time ever in some places, whites and Blacks began to share public restrooms, drinking fountains and parks. Some cities even hired their first Black policemen, and many schools admitted their first Black students.

The speed at which all this took place took even veteran activists by surprise. Who in the Deep South would have guessed in the early spring of 1963 that there would be more changes in the next three months than there had been in the previous three-quarters of a century?

Today, with the number of Black children in deep poverty on the rise, and U.S. prisons packed with young Black men and women, it's clear that the struggle against racism is far from over.

Nevertheless, Birmingham stands out as an important struggle to celebrate--a turning point in the civil rights movement to put an end to Jim Crow racism in the U.S. South.

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