The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

45 years ago in Birmingham:
A turning point in the Civil Rights struggle

May 19, 2008

In April and May of 1963, the black population of Birmingham, Alabama broke the back of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Against fire hoses, police dogs, police clubs and KKK bombs, black Birmingham – including school-age children – joined in a movement that proved itself stronger than the forces of segregation and “law and order.”

For seven years, the Bethel Baptist Church had been a center of civil rights organizing. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, organized by Bethel’s pastor, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had over 500 members in Birmingham. In March 1963, Shuttlesworth called on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to join their fight. He thought that Dr. King’s prestige could bring in reluctant local ministers and other leaders.

Birmingham had long been a dangerous place for black people. The KKK had a free hand, so much that the town’s nickname was “Bombingham.” In the past 10 years there had been 40 unsolved dynamite bombings in the black community. Rev. Shuttlesworth’s house had been bombed twice. One bomb blew his bed right out from under him. He said, “We never did find the spring.” Whenever asked why he risked his life again and again, Rev. Shuttlesworth would say, “I wasn’t saved to run.”

In Birmingham, the South’s steel-producing center, the economic weight of the black community was important. With King and the SCLC in town, the Birmingham movement made five demands of the city government:

Desegregation of downtown department store lunch counters and facilities

Fair hiring practices in stores and for city jobs

Dropping all charges against arrested demonstrators

Reopening of parks and playgrounds under federal desegregation orders

Set up a biracial commission to prepare desegregation of public schools.

On April 6, l963, the first 45 demonstrators gathered to march to City Hall for a prayer meeting. They were promptly arrested by Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor’s police. Each day for the next 34 days, more demonstrators gathered, were arrested, and went to jail. Rev. Wyatt Walker of SCLC said, “There’s two kinds of people. People who are committed to the movement and people who get committed by the movement.” In Birmingham, more people got committed by the day.

On April 10, a judge sent down an injunction that the demonstrations must cease. Obeying such an order would have killed the movement. Shuttlesworth and other local leaders refused to obey. The number of the jailed rose toward 1,000. Meanwhile the white-owned stores suddenly had almost no customers. “The real power was that 250,000 black citizens were not buying anything but food and medicine.” Some white businessmen began secretly to contact the SCLC.

On May 2, the “Children’s Crusade” began. Hundreds of high school and even grade school students left school, gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and marched singing toward City Hall. More than a thousand were arrested that day. “Bull” Connor was running out of places to put people.

On May 3, Connor resorted to brutality. Instead of arresting the children, he let loose the high-pressure water hoses, the police dogs, the police clubs. “They’ve turned fire hoses on those black girls. They’re rolling the little girl there, right there in the middle of the street.” Pictures of the dogs, the beatings, the hoses were national news. The critical moment came the next day when the next thousand young men and women, even grade schoolers, showed up to march again and face the dogs and hoses again. Some taunted the firemen: “Tomorrow we’ll bring soap.”

On this day, the adults – the parents, aunts and uncles – decided it was time to defend their children. Some began throwing rocks and bottles at the cops and “began to organize their guns and knives and bricks.” The “non-violent” leaders talked them down. On May 6, a high-pressure hose slammed Rev. Shuttlesworth into a brick wall, hospitalizing him.

On May 7, with Shuttlesworth hospitalized, city leaders met with the SCLC for official negotiations, and there was no march. But demonstrators by the thousands flooded into downtown, blocked stores, sat in, paralyzed traffic. When the white negotiators broke to go for lunch, they couldn’t get lunch. At this point, they understood that the movement could not be stopped.

But there were more games to be played. The businessmen said they could work something out, but they couldn’t negotiate with the protests going on. President Kennedy had sent a representative who said the same thing. Dr. King and the others were ready to go along. But Rev. Shuttlesworth insisted that without constant pressure, negotiations would go nowhere, just as so many times before.

Shuttlesworth recalled telling King, “That’s what people are saying, you go to a point and then you stop.... You go ahead and call it off, and I know we’ve got around three thousand kids over there in the church. When I see on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street.” The protests did not stop. In less than 24 hours, an agreement was signed with these bankers and businessmen who represented “about 80% of the hiring power of Birmingham.” They met the demands put forward by the movement concerning public accommodations, hiring, and the release of prisoners.

The businessmen may have signed, but “Bull” Connor, Governor George Wallace, and the KKK were not ready to agree. Wallace sent 575 state troopers into Birmingham. The KKK rallied. On the night of May 11, Dr. King’s motel was bombed and his brother’s home was bombed. Neither was killed, but people immediately massed in the streets. Against the state troopers, they threw rocks, bottles, their bodies, fire. Seven stores burned.

President Kennedy mobilized the National Guard, replacing Wallace’s and Connor’s forces, to prevent things from spinning further out of control.

Nonetheless, the black population of Birmingham had won its victory. Meeting fire with fire, they backed off all the forces of segregation. And they let loose a massive wave of protests.

Within ten weeks, 758 demonstrations erupted in 186 cities across the South. At least 14,733 persons were arrested. People had learned that organized collective action could succeed.

Rewriting history, school books give credit to Kennedy for introducing the Civil Rights Act in 1963. But credit for the crumbling of segregation belongs to the black population of Birmingham. Only after Birmingham scared Kennedy did he make his move. And only when the movement kept pushing, scaring Johnson, did he push the bill through and sign it in 1964.

In a way, Birmingham summed up the development of the black movement of the 1960s. Those who counseled patience and negotiations were bypassed as more people were ready to stand up to the established order, including by meeting force with force. In Birmingham, the movement showed that the more people shook that order, the more fruit fell from the tree.