Of all of the many battlegrounds for Civil Rights in the South, Birmingham, Alabama stood out for the level of sheer ferocity and brutality of opposition to change. Then, on September 15, 1963 the already blood-soaked city was rocked by a Sunday morning bomb blast at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. When the dust and smoke cleared, four young Black girls were dead and 22 other people were injured. It was a crime of such sickening brutality that it shocked the nation. If it happened today, it would be called what it surely was then—an act of terrorism.
Birmingham was not a rural backwater. It was one of the South’s major industrial centers, a miracle city that had grown on economy based on steel production. After a war time boom, the city settled into a period of prosperity in the 1950’s—a prosperity that the approximately one third of its population, Blacks, did not fully share in. The large white working class population of the city, mostly no more than a generation or so from rural poverty themselves, were particularly fearful of competition from blacks for jobs and resources. That fueled a culture that was as resistant to change as any in the South.
Local Blacks, led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Bethel Baptist Church, began to organize protests in the mid 1950’s. After the State of Alabama outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Shuttlesworth was state Membership Chair, in 1956, the minister organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to continue the work. On Christmas Day that year a bomb made of 16 sticks of dynamite nearly destroyed Shuttlesworth’s parsonage home. He survived and defied threats by police to leave town. The next day he launched an attempt to desegregate the city bus system. He and 21 others were arrested and launched a suit as a result.
It was just the beginning. In January, 1957 Shuttlesworth joined Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Ruskin, and other to establish what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). The pugnacious Shuttlesworth sometimes bedeviled King and other leaders while pressing for more aggressive action. He said that “flowery speeches” were empty unless acted upon.
Shuttlesworth continued to act. When trying to register his children at an all white school later that year the minister and his wife were attacked by a mob of known Ku Klux Klansmen with police notable for their absence. Shuttlesworth was beaten unconscious with chains and his wife stabbed. The next year he survived another bombing attempt. He organized and participated in lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and was part of the Freedom Rides in 1961.
Through it all, his most visible opponent was Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor an ardent and outspoken segregationist who frequently arrested Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders while his department refused to investigate the many attacks that by 1960 had earned the city the nickname Bombingham. Connor was supported by most of the local establishment under the banner of a local White Citizen’s Council. Businessmen and professionals who showed any tendency to toward compromise were threatened and harassed themselves. And behind everything was a large, if sometimes fractured, Ku Klux Klan, which included many sworn police officers, ready to do almost anything.
In 1961, the Bethel Church, which itself had been bombed twice, grew tired of Shuttlesworth’s obsession with the Civil Rights movement at the expense of regular pastoral duties. The minister left town to take up another pulpit in Cincinnati, but returned regularly and continued to lead the Birmingham movement.
In 1962 local Black leaders, with the encouragement of Shuttlesworth, began a boycott of major downtown business to demand equal access and employment opportunity. Enforced by community patrols, the boycott successfully reduced sales downtown by as much a 40%. Business leaders, led by the Chamber of Commerce, sought a compromise. They fielded a candidate for mayor against Bull Connor, who was running for the same office, in the November 1962. When their candidate won the election, however, Connor asserted that his term as the almost completely independent Police Commission did not expire until 1965 and retained the support of other lame duck Commissioners. The city essentially operated with two city governments—but Connor’s side had the guns and muscle. After the Easter shopping season was ruined, many took the “Whites only” and “Colored only” signs out of their windows only to be threatened by Connor with the revocation of their business licenses.
At this point Shuttlesworth and other boycott leaders decided to call in Dr. King and the SCLC. The new initiative was dubbed Plan C. Devised by SCLC leader Wyatt Tee Walker, the plan was to defy Connor and fill the jails with daily protests that would inevitably result in brutal suppression by Connor leading to public condemnation around the country. They also felt that they had to keep local business leaders feet to the fire to give them courage to defy Connor. There were daily demonstrations including lunch counter sit-ins, kneel-ins at white only churches, demonstrations at libraries and other segregated city facilities, and, perhaps most frightening of all, a march to register voters at the Jefferson County Court House. The aggressiveness of the campaign frightened and alienated even many in the Black community, but leaders were undeterred.
Connor played his role as predicted. On April 10 he got a blanket injunction against all demonstrations from a state judge. He began to arrest anyone even attempting to demonstrate and held them on bonds of $1,200 each. The King and SCLC leaders who had obeyed an injunction during an earlier failed campaign in Albany, Georgia, struggled with what to do. Shuttlesworth and others accused King of being indecisive and his closest aides reported that he was “more troubled than they had ever seen him” about the prospects of leading a march directly into Connor’s brutal hands. After prayer, however, he decided to go ahead.
On April 12, Good Friday, King, Abernathy, and 50 Birmingham residents were arrested. At first King was held without being able to see a lawyer and was not allowed to communicate with his family, including wife Coretta Scott King who had just given birth to her fourth child. Mrs. King received a call President John F. Kennedy the following Monday. On Tuesday King released his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which berated White “moderates” for failing to act. Publicity surrounding King’s jailing and the letter alarmed the owners of several major national chain stores with businesses downtown who urged the Kennedy to intervene to resolve the problem. On April 20 King was released.
Demonstrations and arrests had continued, but finding more volunteers for abuse and incarceration was getting harder. The campaign was in danger of collapse until James Bevel, the SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education, devised a plan for a Children’s Crusade. After getting King’s reluctant approval, Bevel began to recruit and train high school students, local Black college students, and even elementary age children. He thought them the basics of non-violence and shared films of earlier Civil Rights confrontations. He counted on the social cohesion of students to stay together.
On May 2 more than 1000 students skipped school and gathered at the 16th Street Church. Marching in disciplined small groups and coordinated with walkie-talkies, the students set out at intervals on different routes, each group assigned a target. The first group was to attempt to meet with the new Mayor. Others were to go to various stores and public facilities. Astonished by the discipline of the students, Connor arrested more than 600 on the first day swelling the total number of demonstrators incarcerated in the city jail to more than 1,2000, far exceeding the maximum capacity of 900.
On the May 3, Connor first used high pressure fire hoses against the marching students and then attacked demonstrators and bystanders alike with police dogs. The whole scene was captured on film for national television and dramatic still photographs splashed across the papers nationwide the next day.
As leaders knew it would, the ghastly images moved national opinion. New York Senator Jacob Javits, with bi-partisan support of Republicans and Democrats announced support for a new Civil Rights Act to cover public accommodations. Kennedy ordered the Justice Department to open an investigation and sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to try to mediate a solution. Under pressure from Connor, downtown business leaders refused to budge and civil rights leaders refused to call off daily protests.
Although the youthful demonstrators were disciplined, onlookers, including parents, often became enraged and there were incidents of bottles and rocks being thrown at police despite the pleas of Bevel and organizers that, “if any police are hurt, we lose.” On May 6, Connor converted the Fair Grounds to an open air jail to hold those arrested. More were arrested that day as they attempted to worship at some White churches, although Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian houses of worship did admit the demonstrators. Connor attempted to prevent marches by blocking the doors of Black churches with demonstrators still inside and even blasting the interiors with fire hoses.
The next day, Monday May 7, the situation reached crisis levels. Connor was out with hoses and dogs again, but hundreds of new recruits marched on city center. Rev. Shuttlesworth was hit and injured by a fire hose. Connor regretted that he had not seen it and the minister had not been killed. More than 1000 were arrested, yet protests continued. More than 3000 protestors made it to the downtown district and occupied stores. No business of any kind could be conducted downtown that day.
On May 8, business leaders capitulated to virtually all of the demonstrator’s demands, but claimed that they could not control the actions of the city. The campaign continued until King and Shuttlesworth announced an agreement with the city to officially desegregate public facilities within 90 days. Those held in jail would be released on their own recognizance. Connor and his ally the outgoing Mayor opposed the settlement.
Just as it seemed that the crisis might be passed, the Gastonia Motel, where King and SCLC leaders had stayed was destroyed by a powerful bomb on May 11 and the home of King’s brother, A. D. King, was damaged in another blast. Fire and police responding to the explosions were pelted with rocks by local residents. Over the objections of Alabama Governor George Wallace, President Kennedy dispatch Federal Troops to restore order and Dr. King returned to Birmingham to plead for peace.
The Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that “moderate” Albert Boutwell could take office on May 21 replacing Connor ally Art Hanes. Connor was also stripped of his position and tearfully told reporters “This is the worst day of my life” as he picked up his last paycheck. In June the Jim Crow signs regulating segregated public places were taken down. Although many businesses dragged their feet in complying with the new reality, and King and others were criticized for not continuing the demonstrations until all promises were fulfilled, the crisis seemed over.
King’s prestige as a leader was reaching his high point. President Kennedy drafted Civil Rights legislation that was soon tied up in a Senate filibuster. The March on Washington August would gain even more wide spread public support.
But bitter Whites, led by the active Ku Klux Klan, began a virtual guerilla campaign against local civil rights leaders and white, “race traitors” who accommodated them. A tear gas canister was thrown into Loveman’s Department Store when it complied with the desegregation agreement and twenty people required hospital treatment. The home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores was bombed injuring his wife.
Tensions rose again when city schools were desegregated in September. Governor Wallace’s vow to resist with Alabama National Guard troops was foiled when Kennedy nationalized the Guard and ordered them to stand down. Still, most white students shunned the newly integrated schools.
On Sunday morning September 15 a white man driving a white and turquoise Chevrolet was seen placing a box under the steps of the 16th Street Church. A bomb exploded as students were filing into a basement room for Sunday school. The bomb killed 11 year old Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 years old.
Rev. King spoke the funeral for three of the girls. More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the service. No city officials attended.
Outrage over the bombing and other atrocities paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson the following summer.
Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss was later identified as the man who left the package. He was soon arrested and 122 sticks of dynamite were found in his home matching the forensic pattern of the explosives used in the bomb. Despite overwhelming evidence, including an eyewitness, a local jury acquitted Chambliss of murder and convicted him of a minor charge of possessing explosives. He was fined $100 and sentenced to six months in local jail, where he was safely separated from Black inmates and treated as a hero by jailers.
The verdict shocked and outraged the nation. But it was not until 1977 when young Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case that anything like justice began to be done. Baxley secured a conviction of Chambliss despite not having access to FBI files which were denied him because the agency feared that the extent of its infiltration of the Klan—and possible advance knowledge of the bombing plot—might be exposed. Chambliss was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in an Alabama prison on October 29, 1985.
In May of 2002 the FBI finally made public its files on the case and said that Klansmen Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry had conspired with Chambliss on the bombing. Cash was dead. Blanton and Cherry were charged with murder and eventually convicted in separate trials. Cherry was identified as the ring leader and the man whose military training made him familiar with explosives. Cherry died in prison in 2004. Blanton remains in prison.