After eight days in jail, Dr. King and Abernathy were released on bail. They accepted bail so that Dr. King could reconnect with the SCLC and plan how to handle future legal proceedings. What’s more, Dr. King came out of jail with a new idea to mobilize Birmingham’s Black youth. It wasn’t hard to act on this idea—children and teenagers were eager to contribute to the cause, and though the media skewered the movement for using children as props, their involvement was genuine. Indeed, there was no doubt that the children who joined the movement understood what was on the line.
The robust youth involvement was one of the defining elements of the Birmingham movement. Encouraging young people to join the campaign for racial justice allowed Dr. King and the other organizers to extend the movement and create an even broader “cross section” of people, thus contributing to Dr. King’s idea that uniting many different people is the best way to bring about change.
One of the major advantages of including young people in the movement was that it made it possible to “fill up the jails.” Dr. King and his fellow leaders decided that May 2nd would be a “‘D’ Day” of sorts—a day on which young people would go to jail in astounding numbers. Because the young Black activists were still in school, the plan required them to stage walkouts, and though some principals tried to stop them from leaving, it was no use: there was no stopping the determined young people from fighting for their freedom.
Dr. King has already suggested that nonviolent direct action is effective because it calls attention to the unjust way Black people are treated in the United States. Involving students in an act of civil disobedience further spotlights this injustice, since it’s shocking to see a peaceful teenager being hauled off to jail. In turn, the movement made it that much harder for white Americans to remain complacent in the face of such glaring discrimination.
As the jails filled to capacity, Bull Connor gave up his nonviolent tactics. By May 4th, the national media displayed pictures of police officers beating Black women and children in the streets, releasing vicious dogs on children, and opening powerful hoses on peaceful demonstrators. These pictures shone a spotlight on the injustice playing out in the South, infuriating onlookers who had previously ignored the matter.
The Birmingham movement challenged white America to finally confront the racism and violence that had long been roiling beneath the surface of everyday life. For Black Americans, police brutality was nothing new. But for white Americans who had willfully overlooked such things, it suddenly became nearly impossible to ignore what was happening in the South, where vicious dogs were attacking children and powerful hoses were plowing through peaceful protestors.
Things were finally starting to go well. The boycott of downtown businesses had led to a significant drop in sales. Perhaps more surprisingly, Birmingham’s white population didn’t take up arms against the movement. They didn’t support it, either, but they didn’t use violence to stop it, and Dr. King believes that this sense of “neutrality” helped the movement gain momentum and success.
The white community’s “neutrality” in Birmingham opened up space for the civil rights movement to finally make progress. At the same time, it was still the case that the majority of white Americans weren’t actively fighting for racial justice—they simply remained neutral and, in that way, perpetuated the complacency that had long allowed racism to endure.
Furthermore, the organizers had disobeyed a court injunction and had more or less gotten away with it. To be cited for “criminal contempt” in Alabama required a person to serve five days in jail. To be cited for “civil contempt,” though, meant staying in jail for a very long time—unless, that is, the person renounced their ways, in which case they were free to go. Although most of the demonstrators were cited for criminal contempt, Dr. King and his fellow leaders were cited for civil contempt. But it soon became clear to city officials that the organizers would rather go to jail for the rest of their lives than give up their cause. Afraid the leaders would become martyrs, the officials changed the charges and cited them for criminal contempt instead.
The Birmingham officials were clearly intimidated by Dr. King’s unyielding determination to stand by his beliefs. And they were right: it’s clear that he would have rather stayed in jail than turn his back on the civil rights movement. After all, he thoroughly believed in what he was doing, viewing the act of standing up to injustice not just as something that was worthwhile, but as a legitimate “moral responsibility.”
Dr. King and his associates wanted to have an open dialogue with the leaders of Birmingham. They had four demands: that stores and public spaces should be desegregated, that Black people should be given equal employment opportunities, that the demonstrators should have all criminal charges related to the movement expunged, and that the city should establish a “biracial committee to work out a timetable for desegregation in other areas of Birmingham life.” Although the influential figures of Birmingham were stubborn and hesitant to negotiate, they eventually met with Dr. King and his associates, largely because the Kennedy administration sent officials to help ease tensions in the area.
The movement’s demands might not seem all that monumental in contemporary times, since they mostly entail a basic level of racial equality. However, in 1963, these forms of equality still felt groundbreaking, since the nation—and especially the South—had been so racist and segregated for the 100 years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Even as negotiations began, violence erupted in the streets. Bull Connor used increasingly aggressive tactics, and some Black citizens who weren’t part of the movement retaliated by throwing things at the police officers. When officers opened a pressure hose on demonstrators, Shuttlesworth was flung against a building and escorted in an ambulance to the hospital. After hearing the news, Bull Connor said, “I wish he’d been carried away in a hearse.”
Although the movement had begun to get through to complacent white Americans, it’s clear that there was still a lot of work to do. After all, authorities in Birmingham were still using violent tactics against peaceful Black protestors. Bull Connor’s cruel comment about Shuttlesworth perfectly illustrates the extent to which hatred and cruelty remained embedded in the upper ranks of the city’s government.
Around this time, the white businessmen and leaders of Birmingham walked outside during a break in a meeting about the movement’s demands. They suddenly laid eyes on an extraordinarily large and peaceful demonstration that took up multiple blocks. The jails were completely full, and the demonstrators in the streets were peacefully singing freedom songs. Struck by the realization that the movement was strong and unstoppable, the white leaders of Birmingham went back inside and finally agreed to negotiate.
The sheer size and resiliency of the direct-action campaign was enough to shock Birmingham’s powerful white leaders into a willingness to negotiate. It was quite clear that the movement wasn’t going to fizzle out anytime soon, so the city’s prominent business owners were obviously worried that their stores would suffer an ongoing impact if they didn’t agree to desegregate.
Dr. King and other leaders of the movement met with the influential white figures of Birmingham. After several hours of conversation, they agreed to call a truce. Finally, it seemed that the white powerbrokers of Birmingham were willing to make real changes. By May 10th, there was an official agreement in which the powerful white people of Birmingham agreed to uphold all four of the movement’s demands, including the desegregation of stores and public spaces, an increase in equal employment opportunities for Black workers, the release of anyone jailed during the demonstrations, and an open line of communication between the Black and white communities to ensure the continuation of desegregation (and to “prevent the necessity of further demonstrations and protests”).
By strategically using nonviolent tactics, the movement managed to motivate otherwise complacent white people and push them to take steps toward desegregation. Given that the white powerbrokers of Birmingham had gone back on their promises before, though, it remained to be seen whether or not this truce would last.
The day after the pact was announced, white supremacists lashed out by bombing the home of Dr. King’s brother, A. D. King. They also bombed the Gaston Motel, not knowing that Dr. King was in Atlanta for the night. These bombs were strategically timed to go off just after midnight, which was when the bars in the Black part of Birmingham closed. The idea was to incite a riot and, in doing so, immediately unsettle the pact. Sure enough, fighting broke out, fires were started, and people threw rocks at police officers. The state police—who had been called in several days earlier—responded by going on a merciless rampage, even going so far as to beat Wyatt Walker’s wife and then, on his way home from visiting her in the hospital, Wyatt himself.
Just because the white powerbrokers of Birmingham agreed to negotiate with the civil rights organizers doesn’t mean the rest of the white population was ready to embrace the idea of racial equality. In particular, aggressive white supremacists were eager to do whatever they could to undermine the progress that had been made between the Black and white communities. By bombing A. D. King’s house and the Gaston Motel, these hateful white supremacists made it clear that there was a lot of work left to do in terms of achieving true harmony.
In Atlanta, Dr. King received a call from his brother, who told him about the bombings in Birmingham. And though the atmosphere was full of fear, Dr. King could hear people in the movement singing “We Shall Overcome” in the background of the call. He will never forget, he says, what it felt like to hear that hopeful song in a moment of such hardship and sorrow.
The freedom songs that Dr. King mentions in Why We Can’t Wait are—for him, at least—full of an uplifting kind of hope. Although white supremacists had shown their desire to kill him and anyone close to him, he was buoyed by hearing the faint strains of “We Shall Overcome,” a song that embodies the resiliency and sense of promise that the civil rights movement set forth.
There were other threats to the pact in Birmingham. Certain segregationists managed to get the Board of Education to suspend or expel any Black students who had participated in demonstrations. Although some people in the movement wanted to respond by resuming demonstrations, Dr. King urged them to refrain. Instead, they took the matter up in court with the help of the NAACP. The court not only reversed the decision but also reprimanded the Board of Education. And the next day, Bull Connor was finally pushed out of office by the Alabama Supreme Court.
Although Dr. King believes in standing up to injustice, he advocated for patience after the Board of Education sought to unsettle the pact. His decision, it seems, was based on the idea that nonviolent direct action is only helpful in certain circumstances. In this case, he was correct: it was more effective to challenge the Board of Education’s ruling in the courts, illustrating that an important part of leading any movement is knowing what strategies to use and when to use them.
At the time of writing Why We Can’t Wait in 1964, Dr. King says that there’s still work to be done in Birmingham. There are still many people fighting to preserve segregation. But he feels as if the writing is on the wall: segregation “lies on its deathbed.” The only question, Dr. King believes, is how “costly” the funeral will be.
The metaphor Dr. King uses here not only suggests that segregationist policies will inevitably topple, but also puts the impetus on white society to address inequality. If white Americans fail to do anything to achieve racial equality, segregation will still eventually be defeated. Dr. King thus implies that, instead of trying to preserve outdated and unjust practices, white people should work alongside Black Americans to achieve a better future.