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Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Freedom now!

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Fifty years ago a campaign started in Birmingham, Alabama, that helped to transform America. Ken Olende looks back at the battle for civil rights in the capital of the segregated South and shows how it transformed the movement
Issue 2349

For five weeks television viewers around the world saw non-violent protesters, including young children, attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses. They saw Martin Luther King arrested and jailed. They saw white racist thugs lining up to batter  unarmed black people. And after they had seen all that they asked, how can this be happening in the heart of the “free world”?

Birmingham Alabama in 1963 was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. King said it was “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”. 

The city was 40 percent black—yet it had not a single black fire fighter, bus driver, bank teller, police officer or store cashier. 

Black secretaries were not allowed to work for white bosses. 

When the US federal government demanded that parks be desegregated in 1961, the city government responded by closing all public parks.

King explained, “We believed that while a campaign in Birmingham would surely be the toughest fight of our civil rights careers, it could, if successful, break the back of segregation all over the nation.”

King’s organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), desperately needed a victory.

A campaign to desegregate the town of Albany in Georgia had failed in the summer of 1962. 

The racist police kept arresting Civil Rights militants­—but nothing dramatic happened to force the national, federal government to intervene.

The SCLC’s strategy was ­non-violent civil disobedience. 

More than 20,000 activists had been arrested in the previous two years. Many others were beaten and attacked. King’s home had been firebombed. 

The tactic relied on embarrassing the federal government, at the time trying to build influence as the head of the “free world”. Reports of black people being brutalised damaged its image. 

Again and again the government used force—federal troops—to enforce integration legislation that local racist authorities would not enact.

Many young militants were worried that King was becoming more conservative because he wanted to make alliances with John F Kennedy’s government in Washington. 

Kennedy wanted the movement to tone down its demands and concentrate on voter registration. 

This angered many activists, especially as Kennedy’s  Democratic Party was also the party of the Jim Crow politicians in the South (see 

The SCLC leadership joined with other Civil Rights organisations to plot “Project C”—Confrontation.


They decided it was a waste of time to target Birmingham’s racist authorities. Instead they would damage business through a boycott, and constant demonstrations in the town centre.

They had to return to mass action by the whole local black population that had built the movement’s first great success—the Montgomery bus boycott.

The anti-racists raised the stakes by demanding a “package deal” desegregation of all public facilities and job opportunities for black people.

On 10 April the racist police chief “Bull” Connor banned demonstrations in Birmingham and raised bail fourfold. The confrontation began.

Activists succeeded in getting local people to take part and were soon joined by students. 

Demonstrators threw stones and bricks at the police—confirming that they weren’t just the traditional SCLC activists.

The police brutally attacked them and the national media showed it.

King said, “If they let us march they admitted their lie that the black man was content. If they shot us down they told the world that they were inhuman brutes.”

King led a march on 12 April knowing he would be arrested. Activists knew this would catch international media attention. 

When Project C began, eight local religious leaders wrote in the local paper that it was badly timed.

King replied with his scathing Letter from Birmingham Jail, which became one of the definitive documents of the movement.

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” he said. 

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the negroes’ greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ ‘Councillor’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed’, according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” 

More than 1,000 school students walked out of their classes on 2 May, in what became known as the Children’s Crusade.

They marched into the centre of town, where they were arrested. They were released—and the following day hundreds returned to face arrest again. 

Television images of children being clubbed by police and targeted by high-pressure hoses shocked the world.


King told the children’s parents, “Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.”

The strategy worked. 

Local activist Ed Gardner said, “We marched in every department store, every eating joint and tied up everything, all the traffic, everything was at a standstill. We had 4,500 folks in jail.” Connor had “run out of space”. 

On 8 May local business leaders agreed to most of the protesters’ demands. This led to further confusion as the police, not the businessmen, controlled who would be released from prison. Even then, business owners were very slow to fulfil the promises of jobs and desegregation. 

But the Civil Rights marchers sensed victory. In June all Birmingham’s Jim Crow signs were removed.

A local cotton planter complained, “Every one of the negroes on my land has a television set in his shack and he sits there in the evening and watches.” And that inspiration ricocheted around the South. 

In the months that followed hundreds of boycotts broke out in Southern cities. The “package deal” became the normal demand.

The events of Birmingham led Kennedy to promise the Civil Rights bill. Racists tried to strike back the day the official agreement was made. 

That night a bomb was let off at the hotel where King had stayed and that the SCLC had used as headquarters. The next day the home of King’s brother, who lived in Birmingham, was bombed.

The local black population responded with riots, much to King’s annoyance. Kennedy ordered 3,000 federal troops to Birmingham and threatened to take federal control of the Alabama National Guard. 

Four months later Ku Klux Klan members bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.

The victory in Birmingham gave black people a new confidence, but the contradictions did not go away. Once the Civil Rights legislation was passed King’s alliance with the White House became a liability.

In the following years he was driven to break from the Democrats and return to supporting mass action from below. King maintained his non-violent strategy until his death. 

But many of his supporters shifted to more revolutionary politics.

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