The book details the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (CRM) of 1963. Birmingham was considered the most segregated city in the United States of America. Nine years after Brown v. Board only nine percent of the black children went to integrated schools. Steady growth in the economy did not affect black life as blacks had two times the unemployment of whites. To add to unemployment troubles automation and discrimination in the construction industry added to unemployment.
The CRM had gotten off to an auspicious start with the 1958 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The 1962 campaign in Albany, GA was far less successful in spite of the fact five percent of the black population was willing to be jailed for freedom. Many were looking on the CRM as a flash in the pan that was soon to fizzle out.
In 1962 virulent racist and segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor was the City Commissioner of public safety. He saw his job as maintaining the status quo and quelling protests. George Wallace, governor of Alabama, supported Connor’s stance. To aid these men in their mission in “state’s rights,” the Alabama legislature created a law that said no foreign corporation could operate in Alabama. Therefore the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC could not have a formal presence in Alabama.
To combat the political climate, Fred Shuttlesworth created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHR). The ACHR had many successful boycotts. The white citizens’ mob responded by bombing his house. However, with perseverance, the ACHR was able to become an affiliate with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. King.
The SCLC began planning to aid Birmingham in the summer of 1962. The now-famous Gatson Motel was the site of the initial planning meetings. The SCLC would lead a protest to integrate shopping centers in Birmingham. The national convention of the SCLC would be held in Birmingham to show solidarity. Also, a boycott would follow in the spring of 1963 culminating Easter weekend. The first mobilization of protests would happen the first week of March. Protests would slowly build to a massive demonstration April 14.
The 1962 SCLC convention had a profound effect. Once business owners realized the best Civil Rights leaders in the nation would all be in Birmingham they needed to pacify the ACHR. The ACHR and local business owners held negotiations to reduce the chance of mass protests during or immediately after the SCLC convention. The business owners remove Jim Crow signs while the SCLC was in town. However, once they left the owners reneged on the deal and put the signs back up. The momentary capitulation of the business owners shows how powerful the SCLC was in the early 1960’s.
Unfortunately, the political climate would not allow for the first execution of this plan. A mayoral election was early March that included Bull Connor. If a protest happened during the mayoral election, Connor would be emboldened, and the white citizens in Birmingham would gravitate toward him. The mayoral election went into a run-off, so the protests were postponed even later. Bull Connor officially lost April 3 protest began two weeks later.
Connor and his supporters had not given up. They filed an injunction to leave the current City Commissioners in office until 1965. Another injunction was filed to stop all protesting by the ACHR until their right to protest had been litigated in court. The injunction to stop all protest guaranteed protesters could be arrested even if the protest was peaceful.
The fact that all the protesters would be arrested after April 10 but Dr. King at a crossroads. If he were to participate in the protest and be arrested there would be no one well connected enough to raise bail for the rest of the protesters. The SCLC was low on funds because of the protests that happened earlier in the month. The SCLC and ACHR debate if Dr. King going to jail will benefit the movement. In the end, Dr. King made the decision to go to jail. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s aide and friend, accompanied him to jail. It will be in the Birmingham jail he writes his famous letter.
Dr.King and Ralph Abernathy stayed in jail for eight days before being bonded out. They left to organize a new wave of protest in which children would be the main participants. Many criticized using kids as reckless. However, these same kids suffer the humiliation of segregation every day. Having them confront the violence head-on is not a far stretch.
As jails filled up, the City Commissioners has few options, but violence. The police used their infamous hoses and dogs. Their efforts were supplement by domestic terrorist using bombs. Kennedy had to bring in federal troops to restore peace.
Ultimately a coalition of citizen and business owners had to be formed for negotiations. The protesters demanded:
- Desegregation of private business
- Non-discriminatory hiring in business and industry. Black clerks and salesman had to be hired within 60 days
- Dropping all charges on all jailed protester
- Creation of a biracial committee to work our timetable for further desegregation
The coalition finally came agreed, and the protests ended. A few days later the Alabama Supreme Court forced the City Commissioners to leave office and let the officials elected in April take office. May 23, 1963, a new City Commission took office.
Relationship with Presidents
Eisenhower proved to King he was personally invested in advancing Civil Rights through many meetings. However, Eisenhower has a hard time communicating his passion to the public. Also, his rigid conservatism only allowed for small incremental change. Dr. King did not see a way to defeat Jim Crow without sweeping change to the power structure.
In the 1960 election, King did not endorse John Kennedy. King admits he liked many aspects of Kennedy’s platform and was grateful for his help in King’s release from jail earlier that year. However, King felt Kennedy was an untested politician. The Civil Rights Movement was fledging, and if Kennedy reneged on his platform, the movement could have ended.
Dr. King described a strained relationship with John Kennedy. Kenndy did run on a pro-CRM platform but abandoned the movement in 1961 and 1962 due to his small margin of victory. In 1963, JFK saw that public opinion shifted and began to support Civil Rights again.
Dr. King said he would have supported JFK in 1964 had he lived. Not because King felt Kennedy had fundamentally changed, but the Civil Rights movement was fundamentally stronger. If Kennedy were to abandon Civil Rights again, the movement would survive.
Lyndon Johnson had an intense involvement in Civil Rights intellectually and emotionally. LBJ rekindled King’s faith in the ability of white southerners to change. King attributes LBJ for inspiring him to write an article for “The Nation” magazine on changing attitudes in the South.