The Testing of America: Birmingham 1963

Against the Current No. 227, November/December 2023

Malik Miah

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live:
Ten Weeks in Birmingham
That Changed America
By Paul Kix
McMillan Publishers: Celadon Books, May 2023, 400 pages, $30 hardcover.

THE TITLE OF this important book reflects a turning point in the civil rights revolution of the 20th Century. It is based on a comment by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the most dynamic and committed of Birmingham’s civil rights leaders.

Little had changed for Black people in the nearly 10 years since Brown v. Board of Education overturned the “separate but equal” racist doctrine as applied in public education for nearly a century.

The successful 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama 13-month bus boycott put the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership on the map. Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of a bus, also became a leading voice for change. The Freedom Rides had desegregated interstate busing.

Yet these victories were limited. Congress failed to adopt national civil rights laws with teeth. Legal segregation with all its indignities and brutalities continued to be enforced across the South.

The slow progress to end Jim Crow divided the movement. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had failed in its 1962 attempt to desegregate Albany, Georgia. Some younger activists thought King’s strategy was ineffective. They argued for more radical strategies.

The Supreme Court’s recent rulings opened some doors, but the white power structures in the South refused to back down. The Federal government bowed before “states’ rights,” and with rare exceptions refused to use its power to break segregation.

Birmingham Takes Center Stage

King and his leadership team needed to change that failure to permanently end segregation. He turned to Birmingham, the most segregated city in the South, understanding what awaited there.

Journalist and author Paul Kix vividly describes Birmingham’s brutal treatment of African Americans:

“Birmingham, Alabama, was not so much a city in 1963 as a site of domestic terror. It was known, sometimes gleefully, and by public officials, as ‘Bombingham.’

“More than fifty residences and Black-owned businesses had been bombed since the end of World War II. Bombings were so frequent in one Black neighborhood that it was now called Dynamite Hill. These bombings went unsolved for the same reason cops routinely exercise their ‘rights’ to shoot any Black ‘suspects’ who turned their backs and fled.

“The force was overseen by Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, a virulent racist and public safety commissioner with barely cloaked ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The point of Bull’s Birmingham — and make no mistake, Bull ran Birmingham — was fear.

“The police raped Black women. The Klan castrated Black men. The cops and Klavern tapped the phones and, no doubt, bombed the houses of anyone who tried to improve the lives of the oppressed….

“In order for its nonviolence to work, the SCLC needed to subject itself to the full wrath of Birmingham, in the hope that white people outside the city might at last see, through the SCLC’s suffering, the plight of all Black people in America.“(7)

Kix, who is white, authored his book partly to tell the dramatic events of 1963, but also under the impact of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and to teach the lessons to his own biracial children and today’s activists fighting systemic racial injustice.

From Plan to Implementation

The 1963 Birmingham 10-week campaign would shape the course of the Civil Rights Movement and the future of the country.

The white business owners of the city would eventually break ranks. The mass actions filled the jails and hurt the economy, leading to a compromise agreement at the end of May. The deal had the quiet backing of the Kennedy administration.

Even though the city bosses including the mayor and Bull Conner did not sign off on it, that “truce” cracked open segregation, including plans to remove “Whites Only” signs and to hire a few Black people to the downtown businesses for the first time. It was the victory King hoped to win.

Kix notes, “By breaking segregation in Birmingham, the project began to move beyond the city’s borders. Marches and protests spread though the segregated South.” (284)

Narrative Reads Like a Novel

The book includes on its first page the infamous photograph of a Black teenager standing up to a police officer and his lunging German Shepherd. (The teenager was not part of the protest.)

What Kix describes is the full legacy of the 1963 Birmingham photo. It represented not just the past but the present reality. Kix wrote the Birmingham story as he stared at a May, 2020 photo of the Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Kix takes the reader behind the scenes telling the story of the SCLC’s pivotal campaign. Few white people in Alabama believed that Blacks were equal to them, and definitely did not support a “colorblind” society.

“White is right” was their firm belief. Governor George Wallace, like Bull Conner, was openly racist (at his inauguration he proclaimed “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) and pledged to defend Jim Crow.

Kix provides a window into the minds of the four extraordinary SCLC men who met at Dorchester Academy in Georgia, along with others, to discuss and plan what was initially called Project X — Martin Luther King, Jr. (president), Wyatt Walker (executive director), Fred Shuttlesworth (Birmingham leader) and James Bevel (national director of direct action).

The campaign that was initially labeled “Project X” became known as “Project C” (for confrontation). Kix zeros in on why Project C is crucial to our understanding of our own time and the impact that strategic activism can have.

King closed the planning meeting saying, “I want to make a point that I think everyone here should consider very carefully. I have to tell you that in my judgment some of the people sitting here today will not come back alive from the campaign.” (16)

King was not naïve. He knew that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was following him and his associates. He was careful where he held meetings like the two-day conference in Georgia and used codes in his calls.

Nonviolent Confrontation Strategy

The SCLC leadership saw a major confrontation as essential to force the city’s white government as to move the ruling class to end segregation. Kix writes that the leadership knew the confrontation would be bloody for the community, but thought it was the only tactic that could push the Federal government to act.

The aim was to fill the jails with nonviolent demonstrators in sit-ins at lunch counters and segregated businesses. When that failed to get a mass response, the SCLC and local leaders faced a choice: retreat or find a new strategy.

The leaders knew that success was a long shot, especially after the first week when there were arrests but the Black community activism was not what they hoped for. There were not the beatings and lockups by the police that they believed could change the state’s or country’s views of segregation.

James Bevel had left the city in that first week in frustration. Wyatt Walker and King were worried about defeat.

King called the SCLC brain trust to Birmingham to discuss what to do next. All of them, including his father, urged him to pause or delay more demonstrations. King instead decided to announce he would march and lead a small peaceful delegation to be arrested on “Good Friday.” Ralph Abernathy, his close associate and friend, joined him.

In response to King’s announcement, the city filed a legal injunction to stop protests without permits. The state court ruled that those arrested could be jailed for up to six months, and the only bails bondsman was told by the city it would no longer accept its bonds. This meant the SCLC would have to pay the entire bond. No permits were ever granted.

King, Abernathy and Shuttlesworth were arrested by Bull Conner’s cops. King was placed in the notorious Birmingham jail and put in solitary confinement and not allowed to see his lawyers.

Walker contacted singer and activist Harry Belafonte in New York to see if he could talk to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about doing something to help. The AG wouldn’t.

Belafonte drafted a letter signed by prominent King allies and sent it to President Kennedy and the AG. Walker also had the letter go to the New York Times reporter in Birmingham. Belafonte also pledged to raise funds for bail.

The NYT reported the next day that President Kennedy was not happy about King’s confinement. The jail warden then allowed King’s lawyer access.

The Democratic president was sympathetic, but he led a party that was run by southern Dixiecrats who wholeheartedly supported white supremacy.

In a coordinated campaign that would last for weeks, King and his team used economic boycotts, marches and rallies.

King’s Good Friday incarceration (it took eight days until bail was raised with help from labor unions), Kix explains, was the spark needed to force change in the radically racist town of Birmingham.

The Letter from Birmingham’s Jail

While incarcerated King wrote his famous manifesto “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He used a stub pencil, whatever paper his lawyer, Clarence Jones, could get to him, and after a week completed it. Wyatt Walker later had it published as the campaign unfolded.

The letter is a powerful statement of the SCLC’s strategy and views on how to defeat segregation. King wrote the letter in response to eight clergymen’s “open letter” published in the Birmingham newspapers. King replied:

“I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of ‘outsiders coming in.’ I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

“We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Whenever necessary and possible, we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates.

“Several months ago, our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came, we lived up to our promises…

“Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider. …

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality.

“There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.”

King also took up the views of white “moderates” that demonstrators must be “patient” as these liberals claim sympathy for the fight to end segregation:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…”

Youth Take Lead

The strategy of nonviolent direct action and communication through codes was crucial in organizing including with youth in middle and high schools. The leaders, including King, were initially opposed to mobilizing children in school walk outs and protests. They had never done this in other cities.

 But James Bevel and his wife Diane Nash thought otherwise. Bevel had returned from Mississippi to Birmingham after King’s arrest. He and Nash began with training children in King’s nonviolent civil disobedience tactics.

The young made the Campaign C dynamic and powerful. The planned action was called D-Day, May 2, which began at 11:00 am with school walk outs. Some 973 Black children were arrested that day. They packed paddy wagons and buses, and the jails. The “Children’s Crusade“ was a success. Bevel had outwitted Bull Connor.

The next day, “Double D-Day,” some two thousand kids came to the organizing church ready to march and be jailed. Walker sent them out in waves of fifty marching to the public park.

Bull Conner, his police and now the fire department with powerful fire hoses were ready to prevent the students from going anywhere. They sprayed the first protesters with moderate level of water spray. Ten boys and girls stood firm, shouting, FREEDOM.

The firefighters then shot the water at full blast, yelling “knock the niggers down.”

The spectators, mainly adults, watching the students walk into the fire hoses, reacted by throwing stuff at the police and fire crew. Then the cops brought out the K-9 German Sheppard dogs. One dog was called “Nigger.”(218)

“The whole world is watching Birmingham!” Shuttleworth said as the jails were filled — precisely the aim of Project Confrontation. National and international media highlighted the actions of the white supremacist police and ruling class.

White terror united Blacks and liberal whites around the country. It pushed the Kennedy brothers to consider action.

As one teenage girl later said, “The reality of it was that we were born Black in Alabama. And we were going to get hurt if we didn’t do something.” (190)

While Project C was a turning point in the civil rights movement to end legal segregation, it was not the only major political event that changed history that year.

On August 28, 1963 King and other leaders led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They understood that the time was now, through legal and extra-legal action, to push the federal government to enact laws to make “separate but equal” dead forever.

Meaning of March on Washington

Today conservatives and rightwing commentators try to claim the mantle of King’s famous “I have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March. The only meaning for them was King’s hope someday to see Blacks and whites as equal and considered by “the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.”

This leaves out King’s call to end racial injustice, create affirmative action, equal job opportunities and education programs. Full freedom was not possible unless all these actions were taken.

At the same time, the movement was led by the civil rights establishment but also challenged by a more militant youth left wing. A young John Lewis, then 23, arrived at the March for Jobs and Freedom prepared to excoriate the Kennedy administration, which many racial justice activists viewed as lacking moral resolve in its approach to civil rights.

The key point that Lewis, who later served in Congress for years and died in July 2020, made was that patience was running out — Black people in the South were living in a police state and the inaction of the government to end segregation was no longer acceptable.

The toned-down speech by Lewis, after the rally organizers’ editing, was still quite militant. (His speech, available on the SNCC digital archives, deserves to be read today.)

Meeting President Kennedy

Prior to the August march, President Kennedy and AG Robert Kennedy met with King and the civil rights leaders.

As Kix observes in the concluding chapter, “But for Birmingham,” this meeting was held in June. Kennedy said he wasn’t against a march, but not now.

Kix writes, “President Kennedy said he wasn’t against a march per se, but ‘now we are in a new phase, the legislative phase, and results are essential….To get the votes , we need … first, to oppose demonstrations which will lead to violence, and second give Congress a fair chance to work its will.’”

King responded, “Some people thought Birmingham ill-timed.” That had included Robert Kennedy.

“But for Birmingham,” President Kennedy conceded, “we wouldn’t be here today.” (308-9)

The success of the Birmingham mass actions led to more protests across the South and changed Kennedy’s mind. What became the 1964 Civil Rights Act was in fact the second Emancipation Proclamation. It would be the death blow to legal segregation.

Nevertheless, the white supremacists continued their violence after the Birmingham deal. They never accepted a challenge to white power.

Three months after the Birmingham “C” campaign success, the 16th Street Baptist Church where many of the nightly mass meetings occurred, the Ku Klux Klan set a dynamite bomb that exploded killing four Black girls on Sunday morning.

That terrorist act did not slow the march toward the end of legal segregation. King of course did not back down from using direct action marches and protests. The lesson for today is the same: never back down in the face of racism, police violence and capitalist injustice.

After President Kennedy’s assassination in November, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act (after Birmingham, Kennedy referred to the draft as the “Bull Conner” act), the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other historic decisions including executive orders supporting affirmative action programs.

King would become a martyr with his assassination in 1968. Many civil rights leaders rushed through the legislative doors and other portals to take advantage of these legal changes. In response the Dixiecrats quit the Democratic Party and became Republicans. They pushed back at the end of legal segregation and fought to roll back the gains.

In 2023 the Supreme Court has declared the society “colorblind,” to outlaw affirmative action in higher education and thereby roll back educational opportunity for Black people. Around the country, books that tell the story of racism and freedom struggles are banned from school classrooms and libraries.

That’s another reason why You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live is a must-read for every student of history and fighter for social justice and equality. It is an important record of 1963, but just as significantly a call to action today.

November-December 2023, ATC 227

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