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Birmingham Demonstrations

"Birmingham is the most thoroughly segregated city in America," was the verdict of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began the Birmingham demonstrations. These were a series of protests carried out by Birmingham blacks under the direction of the SCLC from April 3 to May 10, 1963, against segregated public accommodations in downtown Birmingham and against employment discrimination. The city was the largest and richest in Alabama, but African Americans benefitted little from its wealth. Most were denied the right to vote, were banned from using city recreational facilities, and were relegated to the area's most menial and lowest- paid jobs. Most humiliating of all, in downtown stores, they were forced to use "colored" water fountains, dressing rooms, restrooms, and lunch counters.

But some blacks refused to accept racial discrimination and degradation. They established protest groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which challenged disfranchisement, police murders of blacks, and other forms of racial oppression, largely through the courts. In 1956, however, a new protest group was formed which confronted racial bigotry in new ways. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) emerged as the brainchild of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local African-American Baptist minister who believed that a more direct attack on racism was necessary. The boycotts and other anti-racism activities it sponsored had failed to win the support of a large number of blacks and had not posed a serious challenge to unfair laws and protest against the group.

The ACMHR and Shuttlesworth decided that, perhaps, a civil rights agency with a national image and broader connections might provide the assistance and guidance it needed in its struggle for relative equality. It decided SCLC was that civil rights group. Indeed, SCLC, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as its head, had the kind of visibility, prestige, and experience in civil rights activities which could focus national attention on the racial injustice under which black Birminghamians lived. King and the SCLC accepted Shuttlesworth's and his organization's invitation to come to Birmingham because they believed that exposure of the city's discrimination against blacks would pressure the federal government to force local white leaders to rectify past injustices.

They labeled their efforts "Project C" for "Confrontation." They realized that local police would vigorously resist them, but also knew that such opposition would accomplish their goal of using Birmingham and its racial laws and practices to dramatize the general unfair conditions under which blacks across the South were forced to live. Specifically targeted were segregated downtown facilities and job discrimination against African Americans by white employers.

The thirty-two day protest was launched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and involved thousands of black residents of Birmingham, including hundreds of black youths. During its first phase (April 3-April 6), small groups of demonstrators attempted to march to downtown department stores and to city hall. They were arrested by the Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. The head of the city's law enforcement officials was the city's most well-known racist, but in the earliest stage of the protest, he failed to demonstrate the violent behavior many expected of him.

Meanwhile, a local judge issued an injunction barring further protest. In what can be termed phase two of the struggle (April 6-April 20), blacks extended their efforts to undermine segregation and discrimination. Several hundred blacks marched from the Sixteenth Street Church headed for the downtown area. This time Connor had the police use dogs and high-powered water hoses against them. Tensions mounted when, on April 12, King and his closest aide, Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, were arrested for violating the judge's order against demonstrations. While in jail, King responded to a statement from eight white clergymen criticizing him and SCLC as "outsiders" and the protest as "unwise and untimely." King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" asserted that long-term racism in the city "compelled [him] to carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] particular hometown."

Phase three of the Birmingham Campaign took place from April 20 to May 10. It began with King's release from jail and with SCLC's decision to use school children (ages 6 to 16) in the marches. Admittedly "a calculated risk," the use of hundreds of youngsters helped accomplish SCLC's goal. Millions across the nation were appalled by scenes of young children being attacked by Connor's snarling dogs and knocked against walls by high-pressured water hoses. Although the demonstrations continued, it was such actions by Connor that convinced a group of Birmingham business leaders to agree to the demonstrator's basic demands.