A full century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Birmingham was a deeply racist and segregated place. It was almost as if the Supreme Court had never ruled segregation illegal in 1954. Life for Black people in Birmingham was infused with racism, as hospitals, housing developments, public parks, stores, and churches remained segregated. Worse, all of the city’s Black institutions were significantly inferior to the white institutions, since the city neglected the upkeep of resources for its Black citizens. It was also impossible for Black workers to find good jobs, and those who did find employment received terrible wages and had no chance of getting promoted. Voting was also all but impossible for Black people, as white officials went out of their way to make it difficult for them to cast their ballots.
To further explain why Birmingham was an ideal place to center the civil rights movement in 1963, Dr. King lists the many injustices of living in the city at the time. All of these injustices are defined by a severe lack of resources and support for Black people from the city government, making it glaringly clear that Black people living in Birmingham were at an extreme disadvantage and had to endure much harder lives than the city’s white people.
The Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham was a racist man named Eugene “Bull” Connor. He made a point of doing whatever he could to preserve desegregation and oppress Black citizens. There were also many white racists in Birmingham who beat and even murdered Black people without consequences. Between 1957 and 1963, there were 17 bombings of Black homes and churches, and none of these cases were ever solved by the police department or anyone else in the government. Fear was a big part of Bull Connor’s Birmingham. And although there were presumably some white people in Birmingham who disagreed with the city’s racist ways, they remained silent.
Based on Dr. King’s description of Birmingham in the early 1960s, it’s clear that it was a deeply racist and violent city. Bull Connor’s influence ensured that segregation and discrimination continued unchecked, making it that much harder for anyone to bring about change. In other words, racism was the status quo, and Bull Connor did everything he could to maintain that status quo. To make matters worse, even white people who didn’t necessarily support segregation had sunk into complacency and apathy, unwilling to help the city’s Black residents challenge such widespread oppression.
After the Montgomery bus boycott, many organized movements for racial justice began in cities throughout the South. One of these was the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHR), which was led by Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham. Shuttlesworth’s goal was to address inequality in Birmingham and to put an end to Bull Connor’s racist reign over the city. The ACHR was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose president was Dr. King. The ACHR made great strides, winning a court case to desegregate public-recreation buildings. In response to this victory, though, Birmingham simply closed the facilities.
What happened with the ACHR’s legal battle to desegregate public facilities is a good example of how committed the city of Birmingham was to maintaining the status quo of racism and discrimination. Rather than obeying the courts and desegregating public-recreation buildings, the city decided to deprive all of its citizens—including white people—of these facilities. In turn, the city sent a spiteful message to the Black community and activists like Fred Shuttlesworth, making it abundantly clear that racists would do everything in their power to ensure the continuation of racism and discrimination in Birmingham.
Dr. King and the SCLC decided in 1962 to help Fred Shuttlesworth and the ACHR. Shuttlesworth had staged an effective boycott of white-owned Birmingham businesses and managed to drive down profits by 40%. As a result of efforts like this one, though, Shuttlesworth was in constant danger, as racists bombed both his church and his home. In light of Shuttlesworth’s success and the great challenges he faced, the SCLC decided to unite with the ACHR to stage a large campaign against segregation in Birmingham.
The fact that Shuttlesworth’s life was in danger simply because he was trying to bring about racial equality is a good indicator of just how resistant the white people in Birmingham were to change. Believing in the power of unity, then, Dr. King and the SCLC came to the aid of Shuttlesworth and the ACHR, joining forces and, in doing so, forming a strong coalition capable of taking on hatred and aggression.
The business owners of Birmingham became concerned about how boycotts and demonstrations would impact their businesses. They were particularly nervous about a convention that the SCLC planned to hold in conjunction with the ACHR in Birmingham, so they met with the ACHR to strike a compromise. They agreed to take down segregationist signs in their stores and also promised to back the ACHR in a lawsuit to desegregate lunch counters. In turn, the ACHR called off the boycotts. But shortly after the convention, the business owners went back to their old ways, so the leaders of the ACHR and the SCLC decided to come together to organize a large direct-action campaign in Birmingham.
The reaction that the ACHR and SCLC originally received from white business owners was perhaps the first sign that a nonviolent direct-action campaign for racial equality might actually work. It was clear, after all, that the business owners were worried about what a boycott would do to their profits. Of course, the business owners didn’t uphold their end of the deal, suggesting that achieving racial equality wouldn’t be quite so easy. Still, though, the mere fact that they responded in the first place suggests that the ACHR and SCLC had hit a nerve.
Planning the direct-action campaign in Birmingham, Dr. King and other leaders held a three-day retreat at a training center in Savannah, Georgia. During this time, they looked to their failed attempt in Albany, Georgia. One of the reasons they didn’t succeed in Albany was that they tried to do too many things all at once. Rather than taking such a broad approach, Dr. King and the others decided to focus on boycotting the white businesses in Birmingham, knowing that Black people in the city had significant “buying power.” Accordingly, they decided to target stores with segregated lunch counters.
Again, Dr. King suggests that even failed campaigns for equality weren’t completely unsuccessful—rather, the movement in Albany provided Dr. King and other leaders with precious knowledge about the most effective ways to bring about change. In particular, civil rights leaders learned that it was best to focus on several key issues. This idea makes sense, since narrowing the campaign’s concerns makes it that much easier to communicate the movement’s message to the public—a complacent, apathetic public that might not pay attention if there were too many issues and demands at stake.
After the three-day retreat, Dr. King and his associates went to Birmingham to make plans. They stayed in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel, which was to become their headquarters in the coming months. Dr. King traveled with his executive assistant, Wyatt Walker, and friend Ralph Abernathy. Together with other leaders, they tried to decide when would be the best time to stage the direct-action campaign. Because the time around Easter is one of the biggest shopping periods, they decided to focus on the six weeks leading up to the holiday.
Although Dr. King is the most famous person associated with the civil rights movement, there were many key players in the push for racial equality and desegregation. Wyatt Walker, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth were among these important figures, working alongside Dr. King to help guide the movement. It’s good to remember, then, that Dr. King wasn’t acting on his own—rather, he belonged to a cohesive group of organizers, thus demonstrating the kind of unity that the movement wanted to inspire in the world at large.
However, Dr. King and his associates soon remembered there was a local election taking place on March 5th. The top candidates were Bull Connor, Albert Boutwell, and Tom King. All of them were segregationists, and because Dr. King and the others didn’t want the direct-action campaign to be used as political fodder, they decided it would be best to delay until two weeks after the election.
Many strategic decisions went into the planning of the Birmingham movement. Because the activists faced so much adversity in the city, they knew they had to be calculated and tactical about how they launched the campaign for racial justice. Therefore, they thought very carefully about when to start demonstrating and boycotting, knowing that their efforts would be demonized in the media if local politicians caught wind of the movement during the election cycle.
By the beginning of March, Dr. King’s associates had recruited 250 volunteers to take part in demonstrations. But then the election complicated things because there was no clear winner, meaning that there would be a run-off election between Bull Connor and Albert Boutwell in early April. Once again, Dr. King and the others were forced to delay, losing contact with many of their volunteers.
Dr. King and his fellow organizers were undoubtedly eager to launch the campaign for racial justice and desegregation, but it would have been unwise to do so during the run-off election between Bull Connor and Albert Boutwell. Both candidates were segregationists, so they surely would have used the civil rights movement as fodder on the campaign trail, telling voters that unruly activists would upend the status quo if the other candidate won the election. They would, in other words, instill fear in the white community.
In the meantime, Dr. King went to New York City with Shuttlesworth. They knew they would need support once the direct-action campaign began in Birmingham, so they held a meeting in the apartment of the singer Harry Belafonte, who was an ardent supporter of the SCLC. He gathered 75 people to hear Dr. King and Shuttlesworth talk about the movement and its plans. When Shuttlesworth said, “You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live,” everyone in the room was profoundly moved. The meeting generated a lot of support, as Harry Belafonte and the others pledged money to help bail protestors out of jail.
Although Dr. King and the other organizers had to delay the direct-action campaign, that didn’t mean they couldn’t still work on strengthening the movement. In fact, their efforts to drum up support from people like Harry Belafonte and his friends was crucial, since it helped them ensure there would be enough money to bail demonstrators out of jail when the time came. Once again, then, Dr. King put his faith in the power of a strong, cohesive community and its ability to challenge injustice.
In addition to the meeting at Harry Belafonte’s apartment, the movement received support from multiple organizations. The NAACP even raised $75,000. Dr. King returned to Birmingham on April 2nd and started reconnecting with the 250 volunteers from the month before. He and his associates managed to reach 65 of them, and the direct-action campaign began the very next day.
One problem with delaying the campaign was that Dr. King and the other leaders lost touch with the many volunteers they had reached out to in March of 1963. It was wise for them to avoid launching the campaign during the run-off mayoral election, but this delay unfortunately fractured the community they had built up, making it harder to begin the push for racial justice with a large, united group of demonstrators.