The Civil Rights Movement
In Birmingham, Alabama 1963
An analysis of the dynamics behind the success of a specific nonviolent campaign.
by Roslyn Roberts
The success of a nonviolent campaign can be ascertained by whether or not the campaigner has achieved their goals and objectives. This is often a difficult task to achieve; particularly when the practices of the oppressors may be weaved so intricately into the fabric of society and held there by ingrained doctrines and dogmas.
Some particularly good examples of successful nonviolent campaigns to combat structural violence are in the American Civil Rights movement where the aim was to rid the United States of the "separate but equal" doctrine that had been recognised by the courts inPlessy v. Ferguson in 1896.1
The efforts of the civil rights activists from 1954 - 1965 gained momentous ground in the campaign for civil rights and the Supreme Court recognised many of the injustices and made segregation unlawful. Despite this, it took a series of struggles to break down the injustices and unconstitutionality that existed with segregation, particularly in the South. Individual states refused to recognise the decisions of the Supreme Court and Federal and on a number of occasions federal troops had to be deployed to enforce the rulings.2
Even today, though segregation may have been removed through government laws, it is arguable whether structural violence has been fully removed and whether the difficult scourge of racism has been eradicated from the hearts of individuals.
Before Birmingham - Albany, Georgia 1962
Before analysing the successes of Birmingham we need to review the lessons learned from the mistakes of Albany. There appears to have been little defined leadership at this stage. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Albany Movement that was formed to try and co-ordinate the other groups found it often difficult to reach unilateral agreement.3
Burrowes explains the advantages of decentralised leadership and it's importance to involve the people in the decisions that affect their own lives.4 Unity was not attained between the groups in Albany. Each appears to have had separate agendas and a poorly defined plan of attack. Egos and jealousies also played a detrimental role in the campaign; there appeared to be resentments about the public perception ofMartin Luther King Jr as the saviour of the blacks and this upset each group who felt they too, were working hard for little gain or recognition. 5
The ultimate goal of the Albany protests was to obtain overall desegregation. In hindsight however, King admitted that their efforts were scattered too widely.6 Had they had specific demands tabled and focus maintained on those demands, the Civil Rights movement may have been able to obtain progressive changes and achieve their ultimate aim.
Sharp discusses that when actionists remain fearless and refusing to be provoked into retaliation, the opponents police, troops and the like may become frustrated. Their ability to control the situation has been reduced because the power has been shifted. The oppressor feels a loss of power and may resort to violence. He quotes Seifert:
"When measures taken against resisters have proved ineffectual, and when an opponent faces a personal loss of status or threat to his personality, he may lay on all the harder. Feeling powerless and being unable to tolerate such a feeling of impotence, he resorts to force to give himself the illusion of strength" 7
This was recognised by the Civil Rights Movement. They were aware of the need to remain focused on nonviolence and that violent retaliation was probable. It was a situation used to their advantage; constant media publicity helped to gain widespread public support and sympathy for their cause. Albany Police ChiefLaurie Pritchett had read King's book on Birmingham of 1961 and understood the tactics of nonviolence.8 He realised that the group's aim was to maintain nonviolence in the face of violent retaliation from authorities. Pritchett was a clever tactician who countered strategies by refusing to be drawn into brutalities and culled ways to avoid confrontation by meeting nonviolence with nonviolence. It was revealed years later that when King was arrested and jailed to gain media attention, Pritchett secretly paid his bail money to release him from jail and have King leave town.9 With King free, there was little media coverage to fuel the campaign and it was deemed a failure.
The Albany arrests were based on violations of city ordinances rather than the Supreme Court rulings. To the city administrators and a public that had few graphic images of brutality to sympathise with the movement, it became as simple as "rabble rousers" stirring up trouble and breaking the law.
The reactions of the NAACP, SNCC and Albany Movement were not cohesive. The NAACP wanted to fight the violations through the Supreme Court based on Constitutional rights, and would bail their members out, while the SNCC members elected to stay in jail to publicise the injustices of segregation to a world media. 10 Each faction of the movement was hazy about what they wanted - but they all knew they wanted an end to all segregation.
King left Albany disappointed with the FBI, the Justice Department and the Kennedy administration because he felt that they had contributed to the difficulty of continuing the Albany campaign by not stepping in to enforce the desegregation laws that were being breached under the guise of disobeying city ordinances. 11
King was determined not to make the same mistakes in Birmingham. The tactics needed to be more definitive and King must select an adversary who would show the true colours of bigotry.
Rev Fred Shuttlesworth, head of the Birmingham based group called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights asked King to come to Birmingham. The prior Mother's Day 1961 mob attack on Freedom riders had enraged the local papers, who were usually supportive of Birmingham police commission Eugene "Bull" Connor. Since 1956 the NAACP had been kept out of Alabama. In 1962 the city closed 68 parks, 38 playgrounds, 6 swimming pools and four golf courses to avoid complying with a federal court order to desegregate public facilities. 12
In order to implement an effective and successful campaign in Birmingham, well planned and carefully executed strategies needed to be developed. In January 1963, the SLSC held a three-day retreat in Dorchester, Georgia. King,Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt T Walker, and Reverend Shuttlesworth carved out a plan of attack on segregation in Birmingham.13 The strategy was named Project "C" for "confrontation" and it was to commence in March 1963.
A fundamental part of the strategy of Project "C" was economic boycotts. One huge advantage in Alabama was that Birmingham Negroes had "buying power" within the community. The year before, a student led boycott had deprived businesses of 80% of their black patronage. This had influenced some of the merchants to remove their "colored only" signs and integrate lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains and even hire some black clerks. However, Public Safety Commissioner Connor sent inspectors to cite the stores for building code violations and the "colored only" signs were returned. 14
Timing was also an important factor in the success of the Birmingham campaign. The boycotts were scheduled for Easter 1963 as it was the second largest shopping period of the year. An election was scheduled for 5 March and details of the campaign were kept secret lest the Civil Rights issues became an emotion-charged political football that would gain Bull Connor political advantage and have the effect of him actually winning. 15
The organisers of Project "C" wanted to gain maximum public interest to show the injustices of the segregation in the south. For this they had to be willing to go to jail, and in large numbers, on trumped-up charges to do with violations of city ordinances. Between January and March 1963, King delivered speeches in sixteen cities, asking for volunteers and donations for bail money and collected nearly $75,000 in bail money for anticipated arrests. 16
The city laws and ordinances were studied to learn what constituted grounds for arrest. The SLSC had not even been aware of the need for a parade permit for demonstrations in Albany. 17
The headquarters for the operation was to be in the Sixteenth Street Baptist church. Walking distance from the church to the stores targeted was timed for best routes for protest marches and age of walkers was taken into consideration. 18
Discreetly, Walker visited the three targeted stores and counted the stools, tables and chairs to establish the best methods for protesters to enter and be replaced by others once they were arrested. This meant that as soon as police marched out one group of protesters, another group would be ready to take their seats. 19
Another element of the strategy to gain awareness of the cause encompassed Kings request to the Kennedy administration to issue a modern emancipation proclamation to outlaw segregation on the 100th anniversary of the original document's signing. This would have gained further media exposure by showing the public that inequality because of segregation still existed nearly a century later. However, February 1963 met with a setback; the Kennedy administration refused King's requests. The Cuban missile crisis had replaced the civil rights issue as the government's main agenda. Though the civil rights bill had been sent to Congress, it languished in committee.
Sharp discusses protest and persuasion and the use of prayer and worship to express moral condemnation and even political protest.20 The use of prayer and hymns combined with nonviolence was used extensively throughout all the Civil Rights campaigns. This helped to open the eyes of the general public and sympathetically view the Negroes cause as a people who had genuine grievances rather than being discarded as "rabble rousers". Freedom songs were another important part of the mass meetings.
Nowhere was the power of prayer more evident than where King describes "One of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story." Several hundred Birmingham Negroes began praying and marching toward the border between the white and Negro areas. Connor ordered his men to turn on the firehoses. King describes "Connor's men, as though hypnotised, fell back, their hoses sagging uselessly in their hands, while several hundred Negroes marched past them, without further interference and held their prayer meeting as planned." 21
While the NAACP tried to approach the issue from with legal arguments, the SCLC accelerated its demonstrations. King recalls, "By the end of the first three days of lunch counter sit-ins, there had been thirty-five arrests. On April 6th, Shuttlesworth marched with the first wave of thirty demonstrators to City Hall. They had been trained to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion, marching in files of two, quietly and non-provocatively. The group refused to disperse and 42 were arrested for "parading without a permit". Though King calls this arrest "amazingly polite", the hospitality of the Birmingham police was short-lived. On 7th April, Palm Sunday, A.D. King, the younger brother of Martin Luther King headed a prayer march through the downtown streets. Police using dogs and nightsticks clashed with the demonstrators. This only served to increase public awareness of the campaign and gain much needed empathy from white citizens.
Bull Connor sought an injunction banning further picketing. On April 10, Alabama Circuit Court Judge W.A. Jenkins Jr issued an order naming 133 civil rights leaders (including King) who were forbidden from taking part in or encouraging any demonstrations. This threatened to impede part of Project "C" which called for King to be arrested in Birmingham on April 12. The choice was to obey the court order or lose a pivotal point of the campaign and attract the attention of the televisions and newspapers. 22
King's strategy in campaigns prior to this was to always obey the orders of the courts. The civil disobedience issue had been discussed earlier and they felt that his refusal to defy the court injunction in Albany irrevocably hampered the movement's momentum. King agonised over the decision for a few hours and then chose civil disobedience in order to retain the strength of the campaign.
He marched downtown and was arrested with 50 other demonstrators. 23
Nonviolent workshops were held and pledges signed by volunteers embracing the philosophy of nonviolence. They were taught to resist without bitterness; to be cursed and not reply, to be beaten and not hit back. 24
However, in many nonviolent demonstrations there are times when emotions boil over. One of the disadvantages with larger groups can be the difficulty for all participators in the cause to maintain constraint. When nonviolence erupts into retaliatory violence, the oppressors may take advantage of it and the public may lose sympathy to the cause. As much as King knew the struggle could only succeed by exercising nonviolence, demonstrators had moments of outrage where frustrations boiled over.
Brief fights broke out after Kings jailing. In Why We Can't Wait, King recalls that they did not have the advantage of a sympathetic press when the Birmingham campaign commenced. The words "bad timing" haunted their every move in Birmingham. They were accused of not waiting to for the new city administration to take its course.25
Members of the local white clergy took out a full-page advertisement in The Birmingham News calling King a troublemaker. From his cell, he responded to the ministers with "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"
"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. For years now I have heard the words "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." 26
The demonstrations began to lose supporters as King's incarceration dragged on. They accepted release on 20 April on Bond. And went back to plan the next phase of Project "C". James Bevel, a veteran of student sit-ins in Nashville had devised a strategy. He wanted to use Birmingham's black children as demonstrators. Adults might be reluctant to march, afraid of going to jail at the cost of their jobs, children would be less fearful. Also, he told King, the sight of young children being hauled off to jail would dramatically stir the nation's conscience. 27
Black schoolchildren were recruited from all over Birmingham. On Thursday May 2, the children began their demonstrations. They ranged in age from six to eighteen. By the end of the day, 959 children had been taken to Birmingham jails. 28
The demonstrations continued the next day with the children. Connor brought out the city dogs and ordered firefighters to turn the hoses on the youngsters. The firehoses had 100 pounds of pressure per square inch and actually ripped bark off trees. Television and newspapers at home and abroad were filled with reports and photos. The pictures of children being knocked down, slammed into kerbs and attacked by dogs were broadcast to a shocked and stunned world.
The tactics employed by Connor made further gains in the campaign in another way. The reactions by Connor and the Birmingham city officials to the city's children dissolved any divisions between the groups. The entire black community and all its factions instantaneously consolidated behind Dr King. 29
The next day, the confrontation started and Connor ordered the water turned on again. When Connor was told that Reverend Shuttlesworth had been injured, he responded "I'm sorry I missed it, I wish they'd carried him away in a hearse."30
Day by day Connor was quickly losing support amongst an increasingly sympathetic white community and presenting himself as a bigoted and cruel adversary.
Attorney, David Vann explained "It was a masterpiece in the use of media to explain a cause to the general public" 31
This was perhaps one of the most controversial issues of the entire Birmingham campaign. It may also have been one of the most successful. The aim was to fill the jails with children.
In some ways I find this aspect of the campaign quite disturbing. Was it morally right to involve young children in often extremely dangerous situations? This is countered with the question of whether it was morally right for those children to grow up in a society where merchants were willing to sell them goods from their stores but refused them service at lunch counters belonging to those same stores? Was it morally right that blacks were allocated to rear areas of buses and trains? Where they would attend run-down schools that had fewer funds allocated per child and find it almost impossible to attend colleges of their choice. These questions of "rightness" are countered with the use of children to become tools of a war to fight for their equality?
Though Kennedy could exercise no executive power in Birmingham, the administration could remain neutral no longer. Governor Wallace sent in 500 state troopers. 32 And, as King and the SCLC had hoped the press had drawn the whole world's attention to Birmingham.
Kennedy sent a federal aideBurke Marshall to Birmingham to negotiate with the Negroes. King was asked what concessions he wanted from the whites of Birmingham. King said he really was not sure now that the protests had escalated uncontrollably; the campaign's original goal, desegregation of downtown stores, now seemed too small an issue. Blacks wanted integration in every aspect of the city's life, King said. But at Marshall's insistence, King agreed that the bottom line remained the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown stores. 33
I feel that Birmingham was a pivotal turning point in the campaign because for the first time the Negro cause turned around the attitudes of middle class whites, gaining the support of the majority and shifting the balance of power. There is no underestimating the role that the media played in this campaign. Power of the press in social issues and opinions is often portrayed as negative and damaging. Despite this, Birmingham shows that the media can be used for positive gain. It is difficult to gauge how successful the Birmingham campaign have been had it been undertaken, say 60 years ago before the visual impact of television news became part of our daily culture. It is a voice, a voice that echoes the views of a society. If that voice is able to accurately inform or persuade a group to open their eyes to issues they would have till that point ignored, then that voice must be heard and nurtured.