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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
50 Years Ago Today in Birmingham, AL Negotiations Begin Ending Jim Crow: Update
Civil Rights Spotlight: Birmingham, AL
Birmingham, Alabama was the site of some the Civil Rights Era's most iconic and most contentious struggles. In the early 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the country. Black citizens faced economic exploitation, political repression, and violence. Between 1948 and 1957, there were 48 unsolved, racially motivated bombings, garnering the nickname "Bombingham" for the city.
Who was "Bull Connor?"
Birmingham was also home to the notorious Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, a strong proponent of segregation. In 1961, when a group of Freedom Riders was being attacked by a local mob, Bull Connor's police force offered them very little protection. Connor was quoted as saying, "If the North keeps trying to shove this thing [desegregation] down our throats, there's going to be bloodshed."
Leading with courage and conviction: Fred Shuttlesworth
It was in this context that Black citizens of Birmingham began to organize. When Alabama banned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1956, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local Civil Rights leader, formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). In 1962, he invited Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to come to Birmingham, telling him, "If you come to Birmingham, you will not only gain prestige, but really shake thecountry. If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation."
What was "Project C?"
In April 1963, Shuttlesworth and King joined together the ACMHR and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to launch "Project C." Project C (for confrontation) was a massive series of direct actions directed at the government and businesses in Birmingham. It launched on April 3 with a number of mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and boycotts of downtown merchants. These actions continued until April 10 when the City obtained a court-ordered injunction to stop the protests. Shuttlesworth, King, and the other leaders of Project C debated whether to continue the protests and risk arrest, despite the fact that they had depleted their funds for bail money. The decision was made to continue the actions, and on April 12, King and 50 other protestors were arrested and taken to Birmingham Jail. It was while in solitary confinement there that King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." He was released April 20.
How did young children make a difference?
With fewer people willing to risk arrests, the Birmingham Campaign was beginning to lose steam.James Bevel, the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education at SCLC, came up with the idea of involving children and youth in the campaign. He recruited and trained hundreds of young people, from elementary school to college, to be part of the "Children's Crusade." On May 2, over 1,000 students gathered around the 16th Street Baptist Church and began to march through Kelly Ingram Park. Bull Connor was overwhelmed by the size of the protests and had hundreds of students arrested. When the protests continued the next day, Bull Connor ordered the protesters to be attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses, and beaten with police batons. During the protest, Shuttlesworth was injured by a fire hose and hospitalized. The photos and news reports of the brutal treatment of young people at the protests caused international outrage. Over the next several days, protests continued, and the leaders struggled to keep them from becoming violent. Attorney General Robert Kennedy prepared to send the Alabama National Guard into Birmingham.
50 Years Ago Today.
On May 7th, with the city in chaos, white business leaders and the leaders of Birmingham campaign began negotiations. The business leaders asked that the protests be suspended while the negotiations took place. King agreed to call off the protests, which enraged Shuttlesworth, who was still in the hospital. On May 10th, an agreement was reached that promised the removal of "White Only" and "Black Only" signs from public facilities, desegregation of lunch counters, an ongoing program of "upgrading negro employment," the formation of a bi-racial committee to monitor the agreement, and a release of the jailed protestors.
We remember four little girls.
These promises slowly began to be realized in Birmingham. By July, most of the segregation ordinances had been overturned, but some businesses moved slowly in desegregating their facilities. There were also a number of violent responses from segregationists. In the weeks after the agreement, the hotel where King had stayed as well as King's brother's home were bombed. On September 15, the16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, and four young girls were killed. King gave the eulogy at their memorial.
What Birmingham taught the world.
Some felt the leaders of the Birmingham Campaign had offered too many concessions and not demanded enough of the government and business leaders. However, Shuttlesworth believed the true impact of the Birmingham Campaign was not only local, but in the way it exposed the conditions of black people in the South to the whole nation.
Many people and organizations are working in Birmingham today to continue the city's legacy of activism. Check out these great organizations:
The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) is working to protect and promote civil and human rights in Alabama by exposing rights violations, educating the public and the media, supporting leadership development in immigrant communities, strengthening alliances with communities of faith and concerned citizens, and fighting anti-immigrant legislation.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) is an interpretive museum that showcases Birmingham's role in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, the BCRI hosts educational events including workshops for teachers, commemorations of social movement history, conferences on the role of youth activism, and more.
The National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) seeks to fight bias, bigotry and racism and to promote respect and understanding among all races, religions and cultures through education, conflict resolution and advocacy. NCCJ hosts leadership programs for youth and adults, interfaith dialogues, and diversity training and consulting.