The Unsung Heroes of the Birmingham Campaign

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When one thinks about the civil rights movement, the first name that comes to mind is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He contributed greatly to the advancement of African American people in the U.S.; however, in the case of the Birmingham Campaign, it was a collective group effort from numerous local leaders and MLK that peacefully protested for, and eventually gained, the rights that all American citizens deserve. Few mention the efforts of local leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth’s work with Project “C”, James Bevel’s orchestrating of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, Wyatt Tee Walker’s organizing confrontations with city officials. MLK’s own brother A.D. King, who played a part in the eventual success of the movement, is often left out of these conversations as well. None of the rights that African Americans gained after the movement would have been possible without the cooperation of President John F. Kennedy and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a public address to the nation, President Kennedy stated, “It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation…without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street.” He continued with, “It ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal,” which was in fact a goal of the Birmingham campaign.1

There were many factors that brought the civil rights movement to Birmingham. Although it was a city with a forty percent black population in 1960, Birmingham remained one of the most segregated communities in America.2 The fact that African Americans had been free from slavery for nearly one hundred years did not mean anything to a majority of whites in the South. Segregation of both communal and commercial facilities was required by law and enforced strictly in Birmingham.3

African Americans had gained the right to vote ninety years before the beginning of the Birmingham Campaign, but that did not seem to mean much in the South. Whites used several methods including poll taxes, literacy exams, and the grandfather clause to prevent blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote. In 1960, only ten percent of the African American population in Birmingham registered to vote.4 Some might wonder why the white community was so opposed to desegregation. One answer is the that they simply had nothing to gain except increased competitions for jobs.5 The unemployment rate for blacks was two and a half times higher that it was for whites. Also, a vast majority of whites had been raised thinking they were superior to African Americans based solely on the color of their skin. It was this stubborn and ignorant way of thinking that made it so difficult for blacks to attain equality in the south.

Although the white and black communities of Birmingham would have never been considered to be at peace, tension between them began to mount early in 1963. On January 14, Governor George C. Wallace was inaugurated. In his speech he stated he believed in “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”6 It was at this time that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was founded in 1957, made plans for the Birmingham Campaign.7 Originally it was scheduled for March of the same year. However, the SCLC chose to wait until after the run-off election for Mayor of Birmingham on April 2. Albert Boutwell, who was moderate compared to his segregationist opponent Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, won the election. Connor remained the Commissioner of Public Safety, and would later play an instrumental part in the Campaign.8 They believed this would be the best time to bring the civil rights movement to Birmingham in full force. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a group created in 1956 when Alabama outlawed the NAACP, released a statement entitled the “Birmingham...
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