Ours was a different world in 1963. We were at the beginning of the decade of youth and change. Although the complacency of the calm post- World War II era had lent a relative tranquility, it was gradually disappearing as the post-war “war babies” became teenagers and young adults. With a cultural landscape that included big American muscle cars, the Civil Rights Movement, the Twist, Elvis, Beatlemania, bikinis, the Pill, and a persistent atmosphere of cigarette smoke, by the time spring arrived, we were at the beginning of what turned out to be a long hot summer in race relations.
In those days, much of the news was dominated by the actions of civil rights activists and the white supremacists who opposed them. Our military involvement in Vietnam was growing, with disturbing images of the war coming into our homes every evening, and the Cold War was a constant presence.
In Southern states, Negroes living under legalized racial terrorism were continuing to rise up in protest and in greater numbers, challenging the status-quo and refusing to allow white supremacy to continue its reign over them.
April 1963 — The Birmingham Campaign
Police dogs, fire hoses and inhumanity to man in the national spotlight
56 years ago this month, the struggle for civil rights in this country was at its apex and finally securing a place in the national media. In homes all across the nation, shocking and disturbing images of Negro civil rights demonstrators, ordinary citizens and children being attacked by vicious police dogs and powerful fire hoses were becoming part of regular evening television viewing. In the nation’s capital, White House insiders were revealing that President Kennedy was sickened by what he was seeing in the media and the cruel inhumanity that Negro citizens were enduring in the Deep South, so he finally moved to begin taking executive action. Kennedy had been cautious about weighing in on the racial conflict, for fear of antagonizing Southern voters in his potential re-election run the following year.
Organized in April of 1963, at the request of Birmingham minister Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined with Birmingham’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), forming an alliance to create a strategic direct action campaign to challenge the city’s segregation system. The organizers urged local Negro citizens to boycott local merchants’ establishments during the popular Easter season, the second most successful shopping season of the year.
The campaign was launched on April 3rd with a series of mass meetings, a boycott of downtown stores, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and voter registrations. Dr. King spoke at black churches, enlisting volunteers and espousing his philosophy of non-violence and its necessity. The response was massive, and hundreds of Birmingham Negro citizens, including children, were arrested and jailed. Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy and several other members of SCLC were also arrested. Dr. King, however, was separated from the group and held in solitary confinement.
All of this was initiated upon orders from the notorious racist “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. During the demonstrations, Connor also directed and personally supervised the use of vicious, snarling police attack dogs as well as powerful fire hoses and against the demonstrators and activists. Children protestors were also subject to the vicious and inhumane attacks.
After his arrest on Good Friday, April 12, and subsequent confinement in solitary confinement, Dr. King learned of the opposition to his efforts by a group of Birmingham clergymen who voiced their opinions to the local press. Knowing that these negative comments must be answered, and with his requests to his jailers for writing paper, Dr. King wrote his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of newspapers and had his associates smuggle the papers out of the jail.
Over the next few weeks, images of Negro children being clubbed by white police officers, blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, and attacked by vicious police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, triggering international outrage. During the explosive turmoil, Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, reached out to the Kennedy White House, and after a phone call from the President, Dr. King was released from jail.
With national pressure mounting, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy dispatched his hands-on master negotiator, Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice to facilitate the negotiations between the organizers and Birmingham’s representatives.
As the protests continued, the decline in white businesses, due to the boycott was undeniable and unprecedented. Even so, local business owners and city officials refused to negotiate with the organizers. Soon thereafter, the Birmingham citizen’s council proposed a “temporary moratorium” on the protests. A so-called “compromise” with the intention of negotiating their demands later.
Several of the civil rights leaders, including Dr. King, were receptive to the idea. But Rev. Shuttlesworth, who had been hospitalized from an injury he received while protesting, was vehemently opposed to compromising. When Dr. King announced his intentions to accept the compromise and postpone further demonstrations, the two men had a brief falling out. However, when an agreement with the city was finally reached several weeks later, Rev. Shuttlesworth joined Dr. King in announcing that their demands had been met.
On May 10, 1963, the city of Birmingham agreed to the following stipulations as put forward by the civil rights organizers in their “Birmingham Truce Agreement”:
· Removal of “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs in restrooms and on drinking fountains.
· A plan to desegregate lunch counters.
· An ongoing program of upgrading Negro employment.
· The formation of a biracial committee to monitor the progress of the agreement, and the release of jailed protesters on bond.
Although an agreement had been seemingly reached, the racist rampage did not end. Die-hard Birmingham white supremacists and segregationists responded with numerous bombings and violent attacks on Negro citizens. And the worst was yet to come.