In the 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was the most racially divided city in the nation. With a black population of approximately 35 percent, Birmingham offered virtually no opportunities for black employment in the public sector—no black police or firefighters, no black store clerks or bank tellers—their best hope being a job in the city's steel industry. With this economic disparity, Birmingham was ripe to become a major scene in America's civil rights movement.
Peaceful protests in Birmingham gained nothing for the black population. When segregation was outlawed in city parks, the city closed them. Birmingham became known as “Bombingham” after homemade bombs damaged churches and homes. Black pastor and civic leader Fred Shuttlesworth's home was the target of bombing more than once. Although attempts by Martin Luther King Jr. to bring integration to Albany, Georgia, in 1962 had failed miserably and harmed his reputation, Shuttlesworth joined other black leaders to urge King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to lead the fight for civil rights in Birmingham. Employing different tactics, King and the SCLC aimed to desegregate the city's parks and down-town commercial district, provide job opportunities for blacks in city government and stores, and begin the process of school integration. In opposition, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the racist Commissioner of Public Safety, believed the civil rights movement
was a northern conspiracy and communist plot. Connor, a determined segregationist, used Birmingham's police force as storm troopers in the war for racial equality.
Protests begun in 1962 ramped up in spring 1963 with what was termed “Plan C” (C for confrontation): nonviolent sit-ins at libraries and lunch counters, attendance at white churches, a march to promote voter registration. The work of SCLC leader Wyatt Tee Walker, Plan C aimed at filling the city's jails with nonviolent protesters, but there were not many arrests initially. In April, the opposition, through Connor, gained an injunction against any protests and raised the bail amount from $300 to $1200. Among those arrested on April 12—ironically, Good Friday—were King and fellow SCLC leader Ralph Abernathy. During his nine-day stay in jail, King penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a widely read summary of his attitudes and feelings on race and injustice in America in response to eight white clergy who had criticized King's actions.
After King's release, SCLC organizers made a bold decision to use students for major roles in demonstrations. Termed “D Day” by the SCLC, the plan called for Miles College, high school, and elementary students to participate. An uneasy decision considering the inherent dangers, SCLC leaders worked with the students to deal with police dogs and jails. May 2 marked the date as thousands of students gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and marched downtown—by the end of the day there were an estimated 1,200 protestors jailed, mostly children. National reaction was against children being involved in such a volatile setting, but King and protest leaders were enthusiastic. The nation's media covered the protests on the front page; News-week termed it the “Children's Crusade.” But tempers and police reaction escalated the next day as Connor ordered the use of attack dogs and fire hoses so strong that protestors' torn off and bodies blown all over the streets. Parents and supporters who had shown up to support their children reacted by throwing rocks and bottles at police, who in turn used dogs against protestors. By 3 p.m., the action was over, an informal truce reached when protestors left the streets. This time the national reaction was horror as newspapers ran photographs of students being attacked with fire hoses and vicious trained dogs. Makeshift jails were organized. From nearby Montgomery, racist governor George Wallace did little.
The nation reacted as celebrities like Joan Baez and Dick Gregory arrived to show support, and in some cases were arrested. As protests continued downtown, congressional leadership called for the passage of a civil rights bill, and sympathetic protests were held nationwide. Protests continued downtown, with estimates of participants running as high as 3,000 involved. On May 8, an accord was reached to integrate Birmingham within 90 days. Jailed protestors were to be released—King had won. His movement's reputation restored, King went on to lead the March on Washington in August. President John Kennedy had watched the entire debacle, and the following year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, but racial strife in Birmingham was far from over. Schools were integrated in September, but the violence and bombings continued until one fatal September 15 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four black girls—aged 11 to 14—with over 20 other people injured. Four Klansmen were charged but not convicted until years later. Blacks had won, but the price was steep—and Birmingham had lost.
Eskew, Glenn. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Garrow, David J., ed. Birmingham, Alabama, 1956–1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989.
Huntley, Horace, and McKerley, John W, eds. Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.