Exactly 50 years ago, the Birmingham business community surrendered to integration as a result of pressure from the federal government and negative media publicity from the May 1963 demonstrations.
Those civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham in May 1963 generated iconic images of the Birmingham Police Department using “fire hoses” and “snarling police dogs” on black high school students.
Those images were broadcast across the world and the savage international criticism and the shift in American public opinion that resulted moved President Kennedy, a Cold War president, to propose a comprehensive federal civil rights bill to end racial segregation. After his assassination in November 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was sold and passed as a tribute to JFK’s legacy.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed mainly as a result of the events in Birmingham, destroyed the Jim Crow South. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed as a result of the events in Selma, reenfranchised Southern blacks whose distorting effect on the national electorate unleashed the forces that led to the creation of Black Run America (BRA).
In Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, J. Mills Thornton III analyzes the Civil Rights Movement from the grassroots level and attempts to explain how municipal politics produced the explosions that carried the Civil Rights Movement forward in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, which had failed to generate the same traction in other Southern cities such as Albany (GA), Meridian (MS), and Mobile.
“The Magic City” in 1963 was the third largest city in the South (behind Atlanta and New Orleans). Unlike other Southern cities, Birmingham was a Northern-style industrial city like Pittsburgh or Detroit, and its politics were dominated by a strong blue collar White working class and White lower middle class majority.
Earlier in its history, Birmingham’s politics had been dominated by three factions, business interests, labor unions, and the Klan. The decline of the Klan in the 1930s tipped the balance of municipal power in Birmingham toward the business community. After 1937, this led to a long period of stability in which the business community protected the racial values and economic interests of the White working class (through segregation and the “race wage”) in exchange for deference in politics to the business leadership.
The key figure in this racial alliance was Eugene “Bull” Connor who served as the Commissioner of Public Safety from 1937 to 1952 and again from 1957 to 1963. In 1952, the business community orchestrated the removal of Connor from office (through publicizing an illicit affair) after a series of Klan bombings in the Smithfield district convinced the “business progressives” that racial violence was damaging Birmingham’s national image and that Connor had become an albatross in their rivalry with Atlanta to become the Deep South’s premiere city.
It was in this context of diminishing racial tensions in Birmingham that the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Movement began to challenge segregation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. In Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, as well as throughout Alabama in general (John Patterson and George Wallace were elected governor in 1958 and 1962), the attack on segregation by the federal courts and black demonstrators inflamed the White majority.
In Selma and Montgomery, the resistance was dominated by the White Citizens’ Council which exploded in growth and soon became the dominant force in municipal politics, which had the effect of silencing White moderates for a number of a years. In Birmingham, which was a rougher blue collar city, a boom town without an antebellum past, the Klan revived and violence was more commonly used to enforce community norms than in other parts of the state.
In 1957, “Bull” Connor rode the wave of segregationist outrage back to office as the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. By this time, Birmingham’s business elite and White upper middle class was moving “Over the Mountain” to the suburbs in Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, and was losing power to the White working class majority which remained “Down in the Valley.”
Bull Connor’s Birmingham in 1963 was the largest city of its size in the Jim Crow South, which because it was an industrial city had the White electorate most committed to the defense of segregation, and where the Klan had the closest ties to the municipal power structure. It also had a business leadership, which increasingly resided outside of Birmingham, that was deeply committed to its municipal rivalry with Atlanta and the “New South” ideology of industrial progress.
The black community in Birmingham was sharply polarized between wealthy upper class moderates like A.G. Gaston and Arthur Shores, who believed in advancing “civil rights” through litigation in the federal courts and negotiation and compromise with the “business progressives,” and militants like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights who believed that only a full frontal assault on the system could bring it down.
Among the other major players in Birmingham, there was the Alabama state government, which under Patterson and Wallace was committed to the defense of segregation, and the various branches of the federal government, which took different approaches to segregation in Birmingham at different times. Also included in this mix were “outside agitators,” namely Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, the Freedom Riders who came in 1961, and the Mainstream Media.
The segregationists in Birmingham couldn’t be effectively challenged at the ballot box at the state or local level. Instead, the attack on Jim Crow Birmingham came primarily through the federal courts: the destruction of the White primary in Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Brown decision (1954 and 1955), Boynton v. Virginia (1960), the ICC which ordered the integration of bus terminals (1960).
By 1962, federal courts (in Birmingham, usually the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which repeatedly overruled District Judges Seymour Lynne and Hobart Grooms) had ordered the integration of public schools, bus terminals, the parks, and the library in Birmingham. The Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham in 1961 (and were beaten by the Klan) in order to test the integration of bus terminals which had already been ordered by the Supreme Court and ICC.
Starting around 1960, Birmingham’s small enclave of Disingenuous White Liberals (DWLs) began to encourage their allies in the Mainstream Media to attack Birmingham’s national image. In 1960, Harrison Salisbury published an article in the New York Times which depicted Bull Connor’s Birmingham as a racist tyranny paralyzed by fear:
“Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police, and many branches of the states’ apparatus.”
In the wake of the beating of the Freedom Riders in 1961 and the avalanche of criticism from the Mainstream Media, the “business progressives” in Birmingham (driven by their obsession to compete with Atlanta) turned against segregation and hatched a plot to rid the city of Bull Connor, the White working class majority, and to peacefully integrate the city with the black moderates under their own leadership.
The scheme was to exploit the growing number of registered black voters and the resentment in the White community over the closure of the city parks to convince Birmingham’s electorate to dump the City Commission and adopt the Mayor/Council form of government. The “business progressives” hoped that dumping the City Commission would reduce the power of the White working class majority, eliminate Bull Connor, and convince the “Over the Mountain” suburbs to consolidate with Birmingham, which would further change the electorate in their favor.
In 1962, Birmingham voters chose to adopt the Mayor/Council form of government, which had been sold to them as a way to defend segregation. In April 1963, Albert Boutwell was elected mayor of Birmingham, along with the new City Council. This brought about a lawsuit in which the City Commission attempted to hold onto power. It was resolved in favor of the City Council on May 23, 1963.
It was at this decisive point – when Birmingham was on the precipice of peaceful integration, and the “business progressives” were on the verge of getting their way – that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth launched their direct action campaign in April 1963 and May 1963 to integrate the five downtown department stores.
The “business progressives” and downtown merchants had already sold out to integration in secret negotiations with the black moderates (the rivals of Fred Shuttlesworth) … and were waiting for Albert Boutwell to assume office, and the lawsuit with the City Commission to be resolved, at which time they would begin to integrate and wouldn’t have to choose between two rival governments.
Shuttlesworth and King chose to force to issue because they wanted a surrender, not a negotiated settlement. MLK defied a federal court order, which is why he was locked up in the Birmingham jail, where he wrote his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in April. The case would ultimately go all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled against King. He returned to Birmingham to serve time in 1967.
In May 1963, the Birmingham campaign had largely been a failure, until MLK’s associate James Bevel (who would later be convicted of molesting his own children) hit upon the idea of using wave after wave of black children to paralyze law and order by overwhelming the resources of the Birmingham Police Department. It was at this point that Bull Connor (a lame duck, who would be removed from power in two weeks) authorized the use of fire hoses and police dogs to quell the demonstrations.
While the same tactics are routinely used in riot control across the world (see recent examples in Germany, Turkey, and Chile), Bull Connor and the Birmingham Police Department were demonized by the international press and the Mainstream Media, and the “shocking images” of police brutality in Birmingham (in which no one was killed) were used to justify the destruction of segregation by Congress.
In the months that followed, Mayor Albert Boutwell, the “business progressives,” and the downtown merchants submitted to one demand after another. There was a showdown between Gov. George Wallace and JFK over the integration of Birmingham City Schools which resulted in JFK federalizing the Alabama National Guard to compel integration. When the political process failed to preserve segregation, the Klan resorted to terrorism and blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and removed the last vestiges of segregation in Birmingham. Also in 1964, the swelling number of black voters (along with upper middle class Whites in the Southside of Birmingham) defeated an attempt by the segregationists to restore the City Commission. Henceforth, the White working class majority which had supported segregation was electorally broken, and White liberals and their black moderate allies would dominate Birmingham into the late 1970s.
If there is any lesson to be learned in this story, it is that the existence of the Union is what ultimately proved fatal to segregation in Birmingham.
- In Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Tuskegee, Gov. George Wallace was forced to submit to integration, which had been mandated by the federal courts, and which was enforced by President Kennedy who federalized the Alabama National Guard.
- In Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, as well as Alabama in general, the Civil Rights Movement inflamed and invigorated the segregationist majority, which would have prevailed had it not been for outside interference.
- In Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, the White segregationist majority succeeded in defeating the White moderates at the local level, and cowing them into silence. Gov. Patterson even sued the New York Times for libel which resulted in a landmark Supreme Court case.
- In Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, integration was compelled by the federal courts, and the swelling number of black voters was a product of federal court intervention. The White majority in Birmingham voted to retain the City Commission in 1962 and voted for Bull Connor for mayor in 1963, but the White minority prevailed with the assistance of black voters.
- Finally, Alabama’s representatives in Congress decisively rejected the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in spite of the Mainstream Media, but were forced to submit to these laws only because the Northern majority in Congress voted for them.
The “System” isn’t what destroyed segregation in Birmingham and Alabama. At the state and local level, the “System” was sufficient to rollback such challenges. In the 1890s, the Northern majority lost interest in defending Reconstruction, and the “System” unraveled and Alabama passed the 1901 Constitution. In 1964, the Northern majority was inflamed by the images in Birmingham, and launched the Second Reconstruction by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
If it were not for the existence of the Union, Birmingham would probably still be segregated today in 2013. That’s something to consider as we ponder the next wave of amnesty for illegal aliens, gay marriage, and the confiscation of firearms.
Note: OD has already reviewed the chapter on the parallel collapse of segregation in Montgomery.