Martin Luther King, Jr., reviews the events leading up to the demonstrations for racial equality in 1963. Although it had been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (which technically granted freedom to Black people living in slavery), racial equality still wasn’t a reality in the United States. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but very few southern states had actually obeyed the ruling—largely because the Supreme Court also allowed states to implement the Pupil Placement Law, which gave states the power to determine where students went to school based on things like the student’s “family background.” As a result, most southern states maintained the status quo of segregation.
Dr. King suggests that living under racist policies for so long pushed Black Americans toward revolution in the summer of 1963. There was a sense of urgency during this period, even if many white people argued that Black people should show patience and simply wait for freedom to come their way. Dr. King challenges the idea that equality ever comes about on its own, refuting the notion that the social revolution in 1963 was sudden or unexpected. Rather, Black Americans had been waiting for freedom and equality for 100 years, and by the early 1960s, it had become quite clear that waiting for justice was no longer an option.
To address inequality, Dr. King and his fellow activists devoted themselves to the practice of nonviolent direct action—a method of peacefully protesting injustice without resorting to physical force or aggression. Nonviolence, Dr. King believes, is an extremely powerful tool. He also strongly believes that it enriches and “ennobles” the people who use it because it allows them to fight for their rights while maintaining their morality and dignity. As a Christian minister, Dr. King cares deeply about such matters.
One reason nonviolent direct action was so effective in 1963 is that it confounded violent police officers. Law enforcement officials had grown accustomed to their ability to frighten Black people with the threat of violence and imprisonment, but nonviolent direct action encouraged demonstrators to actively seek out such treatment as a way of challenging their oppressors. Because it was so obvious that the demonstrators weren’t behaving violently, any kind of police brutality became especially glaring, attracting attention to the cause and revealing to the nation just how badly the police treated Black people. Plus, by willingly going to jail, demonstrators took away law enforcement’s ability to intimidate them with threats of imprisonment.
Dr. King was one of the leading organizers of the movement in Birmingham, Alabama, which was where the struggle for racial equality was centered in 1963. Having recently failed to bring about true change in a campaign in Albany, Georgia, he set his sights on Birmingham because a fellow organizer, Fred Shuttlesworth, had been struggling for racial equality in the city. Birmingham was the perfect place to center the movement, since it was under the influence of a racist Commissioner of Public Safety named Eugene “Bull” Connor. Bull Connor was a staunch segregationist, and Birmingham’s white power structures were arranged to keep Black people in a state of constant oppression and danger. In the six years leading up to 1963, for instance, there were 17 bombings of Black houses and churches, all of them unresolved. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. King came to Birmingham to assist Shuttlesworth and his work with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHR), which was affiliated with the SCLC.
Working together, the SCLC and the ACHR planned a direct-action campaign in Birmingham for the weeks leading up to Easter. The campaign included a boycott of the businesses downtown, since Black shoppers accounted for a large percentage of those stores’ profits. However, Dr. King and the others had to delay because of a mayoral election taking place on April 2nd—an election between three segregationists, including Bull Connor. Not wanting the candidates to use the civil rights movement to their own political advantage, Dr. King and the others decided to wait. Their decision stalled the momentum of the movement, especially when there was no clear winner in the election, causing a run-off election between Bull Connor and the segregationist Albert Boutwell, who eventually won. However, Bull Connor refused to leave office, challenging the city government’s right to remove him until later in the year. As a result, the direct-action campaign still had to contend with Connor and his racist ways.
Having delayed as long as possible, the movement began. Because they hadn’t wanted news of the campaign to be used for political purposes, Dr. King and the others had been forced to keep their plans secret. They were criticized widely for this decision, as many Black community leaders felt excluded and blindsided by the sudden demonstrations. Knowing that unity is one of the most important aspects of any successful movement, Dr. King met with a broad “cross section” of community members, eventually rallying enough support to continue the movement as a united front.
Although the demonstrations started small, things were going well. Surprisingly, the police hadn’t yet resorted to violent tactics while arresting the peaceful demonstrators. But then the city government obtained an injunction ordering the movement to halt all demonstrations until it argued its case in court. Dr. King knew this might happen, since court orders were common ways of halting progress when it came to the civil rights movement. Although he and his fellow organizers didn’t want to break the law, they decided to continue demonstrating, acting on the belief that breaking an unjust law is not only permissible, but moral, too.
Dr. King and his fellow leader, Ralph Abernathy, planned to be the first ones to practice civil disobedience and go to jail. But then they learned that the person in the movement who had been paying bail for jailed protestors wouldn’t be able to continue doing so. They were thus faced with a hard choice: they could refrain from going to jail even though they’d encouraged so many others to do exactly that, or they could go to jail and risk the possibility of staying there for a very, very long time. Despite the risk, Dr. King decided to go to jail, and Abernathy accompanied him.
In a Birmingham jail, Dr. King composed a letter to eight white clergymen who had publicly criticized him and the rest of the movement. The clergymen had suggested that the campaign was “untimely” and believed that the demonstrators were inciting dangerous disorder. But Dr. King reminded these men that Black Americans had been waiting hundreds of years for freedom, which must be “demanded by the oppressed”—it will never just come about on its own. He also chastised the clergymen for failing to recognize that, as religious leaders, they had a moral responsibility to stand by a movement of equality and justice.
When Dr. King got bailed out of jail—with funds raised by the famous singer Harry Belafonte, an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement—he set to work mobilizing Birmingham’s Black youth, realizing that their enthusiasm would add power to the movement. Nonviolent demonstrations were extremely successful during this time, as Bull Connor’s police force started using violent tactics that attracted the entire nation’s attention, especially as the media publicized the police’s aggressive treatment of Black children and teenagers.
Finally, the powerful white leaders of Birmingham met one day to talk about the possibility of negotiating with Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders. At first, they remained unwilling to make any concessions. But then they took a lunch break and walked outside to find the streets packed with demonstrators practicing nonviolent direct action. Realizing that the movement wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, they decided to negotiate. After meeting with Dr. King and his allies, the white leaders of Birmingham agreed to desegregate the city and work toward racial equality. To add to this victory, Bull Connor lost his lawsuit and was pushed out of office.
But Dr. King notes that, although the outcome in Birmingham was a great victory for the civil rights movement, things didn’t change overnight. Not long after the successful negotiations, white supremacists bombed the house of Dr. King’s brother on the same night that they bombed the Gaston Motel, where Dr. King himself had been staying. Luckily, Dr. King was in Atlanta that night, and his brother survived the bombing at his house. Dr. King suspected that white supremacists were trying to provoke Black activists, hoping that they would break the pact they made with the white city leaders by resuming demonstrations. The movement, however, refused to take the bait, even when white supremacists bombed a Black church in September of 1963, killing four young girls attending Sunday School.
At the time of writing Why We Can’t Wait in 1964, Dr. King reports that there’s a “lull” in Birmingham. He notes that the future of Birmingham is largely up to the city itself: the white leaders must decide whether or not they’re going to stand up for civil rights and make good on their promise to push for equality. Even if they don’t decide to keep their word, though, freedom and justice will still come—either Birmingham (and the rest of the country) will willingly work toward racial equality, or activists will force it upon the city through nonviolent direct action, ultimately benefitting all Americans because equality will inevitably enrich the entire nation.