The basic schedule for our actual tours is as follows.As you read through the stopping places in the following blogs, I’ll tell you those background stories that are so interesting.
Day 1: Birmingham: Kelly Ingram Park; 16th Street Baptist Church; The Birmingham Civil Rights Intitute;talks from foot soldiers. Driving tour of 4th Ave (Black Wall Street); A.G. Gaston Motel; Rickwood Field.
Day 2: Say goodbye to Birmingham and head toward Marion, stopping at Coretta Scott King’s childhood home.Tour Marion with Della Maynor as your guide to Zion UM Church and the jailhouse. Leave Marion for Selma; stopping at Browns Chapel, TabernacleChurch, and the walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then continuing on to Montgomery; Joining Wanda Battle and touring Dexter Ave. Church and parsonage
Day 3: In Montgomery. A quick stop at the SPLC Menorial, then on to the Peace and Justice Memorial. Lunch at Panni-George’s, then the afternoon at the Legacy Museum.
We’ll start with Birmingham. Here’s the background. Next week’s blog will take you step-by-step through everything. Things written in GREEN are things you won’t find in general public knowledge. Things written in BLUE are contact information.
In the spring of 1963 Dr. MLK, Jr. came to Birmingham, AL to create an economic boycott against the downtown department stores. This led to what has become known as the Children’s March, the results of which are what finally prompted JFK to propose civil rights legislation on Capitol Hill in June 1963. With Kennedy’s death in Nov, 1963, the legislation was not actually signed until July 2, 1964 by Pres. Lyndon Johnson.
In order to understand the importance of those spring events of 1963, however, we need to look even further back. We’ll look at what had been happening with the Movement and what had been happening in Birmingham, and we’ll see how the events of 1963 were inevitable.
Now, what was happening in the Movement in the 50s?
There had been “smatterings”, especially since the 50s: voter registration drives, sit-ins, etc.
1953 – Baton Rouge – Rev. T.J. Jemison leads 1st successful bus boycott by southern Blacks. City agrees to open sitting, saving 2 front seats for whites and 2 back seats for Blacks. But, now, things were beginning to change from equality WITHIN Jim Crow to real equality.
1954 – Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Supreme Court unanimously upholds Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, which has been in the courts since 1951.(If you’re interested in such things, researching the background of how this legislation came to be is fascinating! Work started back in the ‘40s.The Doll Study by psychologists Kenneth & Marie Clark in the ‘40s was influential in getting the decision. Google it for interesting background or ask me more in “comment” section.) Many southern states immediately passed laws to maintain segregation, for example, barring funds to support integrated schools. The White Citizens Councils are formed to maintain white supremacy and many “Christian Academies” sprout up.
1955 – Montgomery bus boycott – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to the forefront as the Civil Rights Movement leader.
1956 – U of AL students riot against Autherine Lucy (& Pollie Ann Myers) entering U of AL. Actually, by then, over 1,000 Blacks had been admitted to white southern universities. Pollie Ann Myers applied with Autherine Lucy, but background check showed she had had an “early baby”, so she was considered unacceptable for admittance.
1956 – NAACP is banned in AL. As a result, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham forms the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) & Monday eve “mass meetings” are started. The goal was to improve employment opportunities & end discrimination. It was primarily only a local emphasis, not national.
1957 – Federal troops sent to Little Rock to desegregate school
1957 – Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. Difference between NAACP & SCLC –the NAACP worked primarily through legislation. SCLC was formed on Gandhian principals of non-violence, and it was religion-based. As it developed, SCLC success rested with King’s personality.
There was division within the Black community between those who wanted a more comfortable method and those who wanted more action. This difference was demonstrated between King & Shuttlesworth – compromise (King) & confrontation (Shuttlesworth).
In the 1960s things began to shift. A big milestone was the sit-ins in Greensboro, NC which demonstrated a move from passive resistance of bus boycott to direct nonviolent action of sit ins. College students became more involved, which became a big part of the Movement. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) was formed at Shaw University in Raleigh under guidance of Ella Baker. It was funded by national level of CORE/SCLC.
1961 – Freedom Riders – (SNCC - CORE) – expanded scope to more national level because of interstate travel. – didn’t really achieve anything for desegregation & stopped because of violence – 2 steps forward, 1 step back
1961 –Dr. King and SCLC decided to go to Albany, GA movement in an effort to push the Movement forward. Before they went, however, over several weeks, scores of SNCC- led activists participated in mass demonstrations, marches, boycotts of white stores, sit ins, jail ins and Freedom Rides. Unlike other activities in southern cities, they were not met with violence. Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett arrested almost 500 demonstrators, but without any brutality. Because the city wouldn’t meet the demonstrators demands, the demonstrators asked Dr. King to come down, and he and Rev. Abernathy did so in December. They led a march the next day and all were arrested. Privately, Black leaders & city officials reached a compromise – no more demonstrations & protesters would be released from jail. Immediately after, officials reneged, and King left Albany discouraged by news reports that it had been an extreme loss of face. Because of this considered failure, the Movement needed something to get it moving again, plus it needed something to help raise funds as they had been depleted. These funds were desperately needed for bail money.
Birmingham itself was setting up to have what happened in May, ’63 inevitable.
Like much of the United States in the 20’s and 30s, the culture was changing from an agrarian society to an urban society. Birmingham had been known as the Magic City because of its fast growth with steel mills and mines. It was called the Pittsburg of the South. While it started as a booming city, it was hit hard by the Depression. Then during the war years there was revival due to the needs of the war, but afterwards, there was a decline in jobs. One of the triggers for prejudice is fear of losing your job to one of another race, so those issues were festering.- US Steel & others were mostly run from the outside (Pittsburg/ NYC). They wanted to keep labor low-paid and were not concerned about issues such as housing, infrastructure, etc. The White Citizen’s Councils had been formed in 50s and became a strong force in the 1960s.
After World War II, white flight began to go over the mountain to the outlying communities. With the physical arrangement itself (Red Mtn running through Birmingham), the Black and white communities were even more separated.
As the mines petered out and the steel mills began to close, there was a change from steel/iron ore to service industry. There were 2 immediate results. 1) UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham) took over land that was Black residential and rezoned it for commercial and 2) there were more Blacks coming to the city, but fewer unskilled jobs were available. The housing prices had become inflated so no maintenance by absentee landlords was being done, plus rezoning for commercial was common. When housing for Blacks decreased and was confined to one area, they began pushing against white lines. The result was continuing white flight and many of the new Black homes encroaching on whites were bombed. There were so many unsolved bombings that Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham.”
The city didn’t pay attention to providing adequate public services for the inner city. Birmingham was run by “Big Mules”, (name given to powerful owners of steel mills & mines who lived elsewhere), and they were only self-serving.
However, the African American community was a strong community. People in authority – the teachers, ministers, parents- were respected. The schools were strong, although they often were working with 2nd hand and 2nd rate materials. The middle class, especially, had lots of activities – music, social clubs, etc. The churches were very important, and they played an important role in the Movement. The Black community was growing during 50s, but jobs were declining, and during this time the Black community was mostly encapsulated on the fringe of downtown Birmingham.
Birmingham was becoming more and more racist resulting in more bombings and police brutality. Other southern cities had Black police, but not Birmingham. In 1961, the city was required to desegregate public spaces – the libraries, pools, public golf courses, parks, etc. – but rather than do that, they simply closed everything. This did not impact whites because they had their own pools and resources in the communities around the city that they had moved to.
So, Birmingham itself was setting itself up as a powder keg ready to explode. That was the setting for King to come to Birmingham – a city of complete unrest. Not only that, but in November 1962, Birmingham had voted to change from 3 Commissioners (puppets of the “Big Mules”) government to a mayor/council government, but after the new government was sworn in in January 1963, the commissioners refused to leave. Both factions stayed in city hall as decision about who was running the city went through the courts.
April 3, 1963 – The protest movement started with sit ins at lunch counters. The organizers (SCLC) didn’t appear to have long term plans. During the mass meetings the plans and goals were laid out. The organizers were demanding the following:
1) downtown stores desegregate
2) no charges vs demonstrators
3) reopening desegregated parks, etc
4) establish a bi-racial committee.
Rev. Shuttlesworth continued urging Dr. King to come help them. Shuttlesworth was sure that with King’s arrival the national media would come and that would help the Movement. One of the reasons Dr. King decided to come to Birmingham to lead the boycott was because the students at the HBCU Miles College had already set up for such a boycott.
However, in spite of King’s presence and the preaching at the mass meetings, the Black adults did not flock to join the protest. And no wonder. Black adults feared for their jobs. Their houses were mortgaged by white banks, their car loans were with white dealerships, their credit lines in stores would be stopped. The protest was not getting much newspaper coverage and the news broadcasts were still only 15 minutes so there was no mention of the little action going on in Birmingham.
The protest continued but few were arrested. The leaders wondered if this would be another Albany.
On April 10 an injunction against marching was issued, and Dr. King saw an opportunity to be arrested even though the SCLC was low in funds for bail. He felt that his incarceration might motivate the adults to protest. He struggled with the decision as to what might nudge the Movement forward. Should he leave to raise money for bail or stay & get arrested? Either way the march and boycott might lose momentum. Ultimately, he decided to march and get arrested.
Two very important things happened at this point that made a tremendous difference in our history. 1) He called for help from Rev. James Bevel, a young, charismatic SCLC minister working in Mississippi, and 2) While in jail, he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, which in hindsight became the manifesto for Movement.
King & Abernathy’s arrest did not get the reaction of the Blacks to march. While the Black economic boycott was not strong, the pre-Easter shopping by whites was curtailed because they were afraid to go downtown so the effect was being felt by the store owners.
On April 20 King & Abernathy got out of jail. In the meantime, Rev. Bevel, James Orange and Diane Nash (important names you’ll hear about later) were working on the kids – The Black DJ’s got involved (Shelley Stuart & Too Tall Paul). They were helping to get the kids fired up. They developed code words and code songs so the kids could keep their involvement from adults, which, of course, made the idea of marching even more exciting.
Once Dr. King was released from jail, he wanted to see more adults marching. He wanted to fill the jails so the national media would notice. Rev. Bevel told him the students were ready to march and get arrested, but Dr. King was against it. Discussions went on for days and nights. Finally, in spite of the enthusiasm of the mass meetings, there appeared to be no other choice but to use the children.
Dr. King never actually said yes and he wasn’t at the church when “D Day” began, but on May 2nd as the students first turned on their transistor radios that morning, Shelley Stuart told them that there would be a picnic in the park and to bring their toothbrushes because luncheon would be served. That was the code they needed to know they might be in jail that night and would need their toothbrushes. Someone went by Parker High School, the largest Black high school, and held up a sign. It simply said, “It’s Time.”–The young people poured out of the schools all over Birmingham and made their way to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Hundreds and hundreds filled the church before long.
Finally, about 1 p.m., Rev. Bevel started sending them out, 50 at a time. The Children’s March had begun! Waiting for them was the Commissioner of Public Safety, the notorious Bull Connor. As the students came out, they were arrested, put in paddy wagons and sent to juvenile hall, then the jail, then the jails in surrounding areas. The police finally had to use school busses to haul them away. As soon as the 50 were arrested, another 50 came out. The last were housed at the fairgrounds, first in the 4-H dorm, then in the livestock pens. The first day almost 1,000 youngsters were arrested.
On May 3rd, most young people went directly to the 16th Street Baptist Church. This is the day Bull Connor had not only the police, but also the fire department with their hoses and dogs waiting. When the young people came out and were near Kelly Ingram Park, the hoses were turned on them full force. It was strong enough to take bark off the trees. The replays of this horrendous treatment made the national news that night and changed everything.
That is what finally got the nation’s attention and Kennedy’s attention (Pres. JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy). The Kennedys had not been interested in the civil rights movement before, but the sight of what was being done to children finally woke them up. Not only that, but many of the Blacks who were not supportive of Dr. King stirring up things in Birmingham – people like A.G. Gaston, for example – changed their minds about what had to happen. And there was the international response. CEOs whose corporations had a presence in other countries were embarrassed and brought pressure to have things change. Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for civil rights to work things out.
As the days went on, Sid Smyer, a prominent Birmingham businessman, kept working behind the scenes to get a biracial committee together. The issue of which government was in control was not yet resolved. The marches continued. By now, there were Black bystanders complicating the situation by throwing bottles, bricks, etc. at the police and firemen.
All this time, negotiations continued, with lots of back and forth – looking at some concessions, but not all. Things were going downhill. The jails were full so they couldn’t keep arresting people. The city leaders were wondering if they should ask the governor to declare martial law.
For days – and nights -Burke Marshall worked hard to get a compromise, and the kids kept marching. There were violent reactions on all sides. At one point, the force of the hoses pushed Rev. Shuttlesworth down the basement steps of the 16th Street Church, and his injuries put him in the hospital. The negotiations continued.
Finally, there was enough pressure to accept negotiations and stop the demonstrations. Rev. Shuttlesworth got out of the hospital just in time to sit at the table when Dr. King announced the settlement, however he wasn’t happy about it at all. Shuttlesworth felt that Dr. King would agree to lesser demands, then go back to Atlanta, leaving Birmingham without any leverage for getting change to happen. There were 3 postponements of the press conference, but it finally happened on May 10th
So, that’s the story of what happened in Birmingham and the Movement. Next blog will give you specifics of what to see on your tour.