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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Project "C" in Birmingham

1963

"The events in Birmingham... have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them."
—President John F. Kennedy, June 1963

Related Links:

  • Read a telegram from Governor Wallace to President Kennedy warning Kennedy not to send Federal troops.
  • Access a collection of quotes by Governor Wallace that show his changing views.
  • Meet the speechwriter, Asa Carter, who crafted Wallace's messages of racial hatred.
  • Learn about Birmingham organizer and bombing victim Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, is notorious for its segregation and racial hatred, gaining the nickname "Bombingham" for the many violent acts against black citizens. Governor George Wallace declares, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," in January 1963.

Activists in Birmingham launch Project "C" -- for "confrontation." Although the city government is in a state of confusion following a disputed election, the segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, takes charge. When Martin Luther King is arrested, he writes his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which justifies the movement's work. In early May, activists begin recruiting children to march. By the end of the first day, 700 have been arrested. On May 3rd, 1000 more children show up to peacefully protest, and Connor turns high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on them, creating some of the most indelibly violent images to date. Horrified Americans see it all on the news. After five days, 2500 protesters fill the jails, 2000 of them children.

Birmingham business leaders make a deal with protesters after 38 days of confrontation. The city promises to desegregate public facilities and begin an employment program for black people downtown. In response, George Wallace says the deal was not made by the legitimate leaders of Birmingham, and the Klan bombs King's hotel. Though King has already left town, a crowd gathers, and are beaten by state police with clubs and rifles. A riot follows, and black protests spread to other cities, showing that the non-violent approach has limits.

Context

Other Events: Early 1963

The United States and Soviet Union establish a "hot line" allowing direct communication between their leaders; President John F. Kennedy travels to the divided city of Berlin and declares, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

The Supreme Court mandates free legal representation for poor criminal defendants.

Influential black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois dies.

TV chef Julia Child becomes known for her French cooking.

Sidney Poitier is the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar (for "Lilies of the Field").

James Baldwin writes The Fire Next Time and demands "the unconditional freedom of the Negro."

The first liver and lung transplants are performed.

Press

The Washington Post, April 5, 1963

Connor and King Head to Birmingham Clash

Segregationist Eugene (Bull) Connor and Negro leader Martin Luther King Jr. appeared headed today for a collision over segregation in Birmingham.

Connor, whose duties as City Commissioner include jurisdiction over the Police Department, threatened to "fill the jails full" if city segregation statutes are violated.

King, of Atlanta, offered a list of minimum desegregation requirements for the city. He said he would remain until the barriers were eliminated...

...King laid down a list of four requirements to "make just a beginning in the Negro peoples' problem." They were:

- Desegregation of lunch counters and other public facilities.

- Establishment of fair hiring policies.

- A promise from merchants to request that charges be dropped against demonstrators under arrest.

- Establishment of a biracial commission with power to institute plans for peaceful desegregation in the schools...

The Birmingham Post-Herald, April 18, 1963

Letter to the Editor: Negroes Shouldn't Aid King's Cause

...This current effort of King and his co-conspirators really plunged the knife into the back of many a white person who was waiting for just the right time to make friendship for the local Negro's cause and dollars.

The local Negro leaders should refuse to cooperate with King and his boot-lickers who are only in the way of success. Can't the local Negroes understand that all they have to do is wait a little longer? Then certain white businessmen, politicians and clergymen with the help of our daily local newspapers, will hand them, on a silver platter, more than could ever be gained by marches, sit-ins and kneel-ins.

And there would be no need for going to jail or paying fines.

Thomas T. Coley
Ensley, AL

The Birmingham Post-Herald, April 26, 1963

Letter to the Editor: Negroes Here Are Exploited

Stronger laws are necessary to deal effectively with the professional rabble-rousers who are exploiting Birmingham Negroes, bleeding them of their hard earned dollars not only in "dues" in an ever-increasing assortment of organizations but now fines paid to the city for breaking local laws...

...It is a duty of our officials and our police force to protect our Negroes from being robbed by smooth-talking gyp artists...

...the Negroes of this section are not yet ready for what they are seeking: first class citizenship...

Hy Spy
Fairfield, AL

The New York Times, May 11, 1963

Editorial: Sanity in Birmingham

A precarious peace prevails in Birmingham, thanks to a unique experiment in collective bargaining between men of enlightenment in the white and Negro community...

...The pledge of the city's businessmen to desegregate lunch counters and other store facilities and to abolish discriminatory employment practices represents a significant breakthrough. The foundation has been laid for amicable race relations based on mutual respect and cooperation. It would be delusive, however, to pretend that this cooperation can be made secure without much more display of patience and goodwill on both sides.

The business leaders who negotiated the accord spoke only for themselves... The city's lame-duck Mayor denounced them as "a bunch of quisling, gutless traitors..." Most shocking of all was the declaration of Safety Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Conner that he was sorry an associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hospitalized after being hit by a jet from a high-pressure fire hose, had not been carried off in a hearse, instead of an ambulance.

The Negro leaders have now succeeded in focusing national attention on the abuses to which Negroes have been subjected in this citadel of repression. The President has put the prestige of his office behind the satisfaction of their "justifiable needs." To spread more marches through Alabama at this juncture, as some Negroes have suggested, could only renew the danger of heavy casualties and irrepressible violence. The presence of hundreds of children among the marchers made all these marches especially perilous ventures in brinkmanship. The nation will hope that the good beginning made in the present peace pact will ripen into a full recognition in Birmingham and the rest of Alabama of the need for equal treatment and equal opportunity, as guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution.

Music

You Better Leave Segregation Alone
Songwriters: Little Willie John, Titus Turner, James McDougal ("Leave My Little Kitten Alone") with new lyrics by James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette
Performed by: The Nashville Quartet
Listen to the Music

The tactic of Christian non-violence made a big impact on public opinion. Seeing unarmed, unresisting black people dragged by police, jeered at by white mobs and attacked by vicious police dogs or powerful fire hoses, viewers naturally sympathized with the protesters.

The ironically titled "You Better Leave Segregation Alone" made the contrast explicit:

You better leave segregation alone
Because they love segregation
Like a hound dog loves a bone.

Racists had long compared blacks to animals, but this song turned the tables, likening segregationists to dogs. The lyrics reinforced what viewers saw on the television news.

Drawing on the pop charts, the melody of the song was borrowed from a rock and roll tune, "Leave My Little Kitten Alone," with new lyrics by James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Project "C" in Birmingham
Duration: 1:44 min
Watch the Video

The first clip shows Birmingham police chief Bull Connor defending segregation, followed by Martin Luther King describing the importance of succeeding in Birmingham.

The next clips show a police dog attacking a protester, then firefighters turning their hoses on demonstrators, knocking school children down with the force of the blasts.

The final clip is of protesters in jail.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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