Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, was known as “the most segregated city in the South.” As in many Southern cities, the segregation of restaurants, movie theaters, rest rooms and other public facilities was man dated by law. Over the years, the city had earned the nickname “Bombingham”, due to the number of bombs that had been set off by the Ku Klux Klan (approximately 60 between 1945 and 1963). It was in Birmingham that the first Freedom Riders were brutally beaten in 1961. When the city lost a lawsuit in federal court, and was ordered to desegregate its parks and swimming pools, leaders decided to shut them all down instead.
In December 1962, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., developed a strategy to use Birmingham to spotlight the issue of segregation nationally. Dubbed “Project C” (for “confrontation”) the goal was not only to desegregate facilities and businesses in Birmingham, but force the Kennedy administration to actively defend the civil rights of black citizens, and get Congress to pass a civil rights bill forbidding racial discrimination. The plan was to conduct an escalating campaign of non-violent sit-ins at downtown lunch counters, picketing, and a boycott of downtown businesses that practiced discrimination, and eventually overwhelm authorities by filling the jails past capacity with protestors.
The campaign began in April 1963, at the beginning of the traditional Easter shopping season. The main gathering place for protestors was the 16th Street Baptist Church, across the street from Kelly Ingram Park. On a daily basis protest groups marched from the church toward downtown Birmingham with the intent of disrupting normal business. Invariably, they were arrested before reaching downtown. After some initial success, during which King was arrested and penned his celebrated Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the protests began to bog down. Most black adults in Birmingham were poor and reluctant to jeopardize their income by being fired or black- listed for engaging in the demonstrations.
By contrast, many black students were frustrated by their parents’ and Movement leaders’ refusal to allow them to participate. Almost out of desperation, the SCLC decided to allow these young people, from elementary through high school age, to join in the marches. On Thursday, May 2nd what became known as The Children’s March began when wave after wave of youths emerged from the 16th Street Baptist Church, headed downtown, and were systematically arrested. Over 1,000 were arrested on the first day, forcing Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety Eugene “Bull” Connor to establish temporary detention centers. When the marches resumed the next day, a furious Bull Connor resorted to brute force, using police dogs and fire hoses to disperse the protestors. The images of police violence were on the national news that night and on front pages of newspapers around the world the next day. Alarmed by what he saw, President Kennedy sent Justice Department officials to Birmingham to mediate the conflict and placed federal troops on alert outside the city.
The demonstrations continued for several days and Connor was temporarily convinced to shelve the fire hoses in favor of continued arrests, but a crisis developed when there was no place to put the growing number of detainees (at this point there had been about 2,500 arrests). In addition, more and more adults had joined the marches in support of the children. On Tuesday, May 7th, Connor unleashed the fire hoses again, with almost 200 reporters, photographers and cameramen on hand to document the events.
Finally, business owners and local government leaders, stung by the negative publicity and the crippling of the downtown shopping area, agreed to desegregate their facilities in a series of steps to be implemented over the next 60 days. Following the announcement of the settlement on May 10th, the Ku Klux Klan set off two bombs, one at the Gaston Motel (which had been King’s headquarters), and the other at the home of King’s brother, the Reverend AD King. Four months later, in September, four young girls would die when the Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.
In Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement gained an important victory that re-energized the Movement. Because of these events, President Kennedy declared in a nationally televised address on June 11th: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue… It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution… One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs…are not fully free. Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality, that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them… I am therefore asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments. This seems to me to be an elementary right.”
-Text from the 2014 exhibition THE MOVEMENT curated by Peter Boswell