May 3, 1963

Forty-five years ago, Americans were shocked at the news reports and TV footage from Birmingham, Alabama.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been in Birmingham since the first of April.  Their purpose was to confront what they called “the most segregated city in America”, and they deliberately staged sit-ins at lunch counters and led marches.  Judge W.A. Jenkins issued an order forbidding King from leading demonstrations, but he refused to comply, and on Good Friday, April 12, he was arrested.  He told his staff:  “Look, I don’t know what to do. I just know that something has got to change in Birmingham. I don’t know whether I can raise money to get people out of jail. I do know that I can go into jail with them.”

While King was in solitary confinement, he read an ad in the newspaper which had been placed by local clergymen calling him a troublemaker.  His response to them, written on the margins of the ad and on toilet paper, eventually became known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  The response said, in part:

While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely” . . . . Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.”

King was released on April 20 and immediately began planning the next demonstration.  On May 2, a large group of young people ranging in age from six to eightteen began gathering in the park across from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  At 1:00, fifty of them began walking downtown, singing We Shall Overcome.  As soon as they were arrested, another group left the church.  Upon their arrest, another group began marching and singing, until the city had 959 children and youth in custody.  The jails were packed, and there was no place to put anyone else. The next day, May 3, a thousand children stayed out of school and assembled at the park.  Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor was the commissioner of public safety, a member of the Klan, and an ardent segregationist.  He was determined that the march would not succeed, but because the jails were full, he couldn’t arrest the marchers.  He called out the firefighters and ordered them to turn their firehoses on the city’s schoolchildren.  The hoses shot streams of water strong enough to break bones and roll the protesters down the street.  He also called out the K-9 units, and the images that were transmitted around the country of police dogs straining at their leashes and snapping at young people were shocking, and did as much as anything to turn public opinion in favor of integration and full civil rights, and bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Comments

  1. May 3rd, my daughter’s birthday. :)

    Truly Martin Luther King changed our world.

  2. Thank you for this reminder. Its message is simultaneously sad and heroic. We humans are capable of such brutality. Yet whenever we encounter it, we will also encounter someone who has risen to heroic heights as a solemn witness, or as a leader of other witnesses. How often do these heroes die for their brave stands? How many heroes have we not yet heard of? How many of us would do what Dr. King did in the face of such daunting possibilities, and with so much at stake?

  3. Thanks for this history lesson. As someone who grew up in the more “enlightened” 70’s and 80’s (well, at least compared to the early 1960’s), it’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like in the country at that time. I think I just got a better glimpse.

  4. I do have to add, Dan, that King could not have done what he did without those who came before–Dubois, Charles Hamilton Houston (a man whose name should be much better known), Frederick Douglass…
    I would hope we all could make long lists of African Americans who paved the way towards equality–a path we have not yet finished.

  5. Ardis Parshall says:

    While I wasn’t raised with contempt for Dr. King or the people he led, I think my parents and the other adults in my life in the ’60s were bewildered, or uneasy about whether events would get out of hand, and I remember being a little suspicious or fearful about what were always called “rioters.” The more I learn from the documentary record and the more I come to realize the part played by children and students and mothers and self-restrained men, the more I stand in awe of what they did and how they did it. Would that all revolutionaries could be so noble.

  6. My family lived in Alabama during this period. My mother was a girl still, but her older sister was a part of the march. Thanks, Mark, for the reminder.

  7. Mark B. says:

    For a boy of 8 in Utah Valley (or even in La Crescenta, CA, where we spent six months in 1963), the events of Birmingham or Philadelphia, Mississippi, or later Watts or Newark or Selma, all seemed far, far away. There were no black people in Utah Valley in 1963–none in our schools, none in the stores or on the farms, none in our churches–and I think the uneasiness of many arose out of that distance between Birmingham in 1963, say, and Orem in that same year.

  8. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a deeply personal issue for me, both because of experiences I had in the Deep South only 15 years ago and those we had while housing and trying to help raise our black son here is Ohio.

    It is highly ironic that our “religion” celebrates the Anti-Nephi-Lehis as the epitome of courage and selflessness and extols the martyrdom of our own pioneer ancestors, while our “religion” looked upon King and his movement with curiosity and suspicion – and even explicit criticism. If we do nothing else in our own day, I hope we at least are able to follow our current leaders’ condemnation of racist attitudes and fully and truly embrace our black brothers and sisters without reservation and pre-judgment – simply as brothers and sisters.

    Thanks, Mark, for posting this reminder. It means a lot to me and to my family.

  9. Thanks for this, Mark. Stories like this truly put things into perspective.

  10. Thanks, Mark, for a great reminder.

  11. Margaret,

    #4,

    Truly, Martin Luther King stood on the shoulders of giants. He could not have done what he did without them, but he also did them proud.

  12. Forty-five years ago, Americans were shocked at the news reports and TV footage from Birmingham, Alabama.

    Echoing some of the other previous comments, I think claiming that “Americans were shocked” overstates the reality. I’m not aware of any polls, but I dare say that a solid majority of Americans at the time were not shocked, and actually agreed with Birmingham’s law enforcement officials.

    MLK has only come to be recognized (rightly) as a visionary pioneer long after his death and after much of the institutionalized racism in American has been dismantled.

  13. As a lifelong resident of Birmingham, and a civil rights sympathizer all my life, (I was only 5 at the time but was taught by my family to support equal rights) I want to say that I feel very proud of what happened in Birmingham back then. It was an example of how to bring about change and social justice that will inspire future generations. It gives me so much hope and faith in America and in the people of the world to bring about positive transitions in society.

    The civil rights activists won their fight and the fights of all the disenfranchised people who follow them, all at the same time. Our country is the strongest and most united in our ethnic diversity of any in the world that I know of, and it’s all due to these brave children, women, and men who were willing to risk their lives and liberty to stand up for what is right. May we always live up to their magnificent legacy. They made America come true.

  14. sister blah 2 says:

    By their fruits ye shall know them.

  15. Steve Jones says:

    I went to Montgomery six months after Dr. King was killed. I was there when there was a march from Selm to Montgomery in commemoration of his life and and the earlier Selma to Montgomery march. I later served in Birmingham. When I was in Birmingham they had the highest unsolved murder rate in the country. They were quick to say that if a black person was the victim they did not even investigate. It was an eye opening experience. During the 1970 gubertorial campaign. George Allace was running for the seat his dead wife Lurlene had held til her death. He ran against a man named Brewer who had succeeded Lurlene. Another candidate was Asa Carter, who had been Wallace’s speech writer. He ran on a blatantly racist platform that there should be a slave in every household. Brewer won the primary, there was no republican party in Alabama at that time. Wallace was a very poor second. Brewer did not get a majority and there was a runoff. Wallace turned his campaign decidedly racist and stated that if the people wanted a black lover then vote for Brewer. Wallace won the runoff handily.

  16. To this high school junior in 1963, the shock went far beyond the firehoses. The greater shock was learning of the situation in the South and then in considering the issue of racism nationwide and beyond for the first time. Few of us had recognized overt racism or considered pervasive covert racism. In our peaceful integrated but at least 97% white high school of 2700 in Spokane, WA, the adventurous readers were reading Vonnegut, Salinger, Orwell, Golding, Rand and Tolkien. Baldwin and Ellison’s works had been out for quite a while and Griffin’s classic Black Like me came out in 1963, but we had never heard of them. Travel was much rarer than today. Society was much less affluent and mobile. I met my first Southerner at Girls’ Nation the summer of 1963 and was stunned by her descriptions and acceptance of segregation. TV news was still in its childhood and our parents were consumed with providing a middle class life and forgetting the horrors of the 2 wars they had fought. The adults I knew well were as surprised and disturbed by the news as I. (The only difference I recall in their reactions and mine was their fear of chaos and war, all too fresh in their minds.) Textbooks and teachers apparently also knew little of the realities of the South. It must seem strange to you who are younger, but race and gender history were scarcely mentioned in school. All changed with Martin Luther King and his brilliant nonviolent strategy and timing. That brilliance can’t be overestimated.

    1963 was also the year The Feminine Mystique was published, Kennedy was assassinated and we began to hear little rumors of Vietnam. It was a momentous time, a profound awakening.

  17. Wonderful perspective, Molly. Sometimes we forget and aren’t as merciful as we should be toward those who simply were ignorant of the situation and reacting, as you said, to what they perceived as just more turmoil in a tumultuous time. Thank you.

  18. john willis says:

    Compare and contrast the letter from a Brimingham Jail with Doctrine and Covenants Sections 121 and 122. There is something about being confined in Jail that brings out great words of inspiration from great spiritual leaders. Other examples would be the Paul’s letters while in Roman captivity and Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments with Truth written while in a British Jail.
    There are many other similarities between the life of Martin Luther King and Joseph Smith(both were murdered at age 39 for example.) But that is another post

  19. I’m not old enough to remember the events of 1963 (although I have a memory of the JFK assassination), but it wasn’t long after that (perhaps two or three years) that in my school they had a black man featured at a school assembly. I don’t remember now if he was there to speak or if he was a performer of some sort (he might have been an opera singer). The only thing I remember for certain is my surprise at seeing that the skin of his palms was much lighter than the rest of his skin. That’s how sheltered I was, living in the Pacific Northwest; I may not have ever seen a black person close up before that time.

    I am thankful for the progress our country has made since that time. I’m grateful that I was able to go to college and live in a dorm that had black people, and I am glad that my children wouldn’t think it unusual to have friends of a different race.

    And I’m glad that I am able to (and will) vote for a black man for president in the upcoming presidential primary. For the work of King and many others, I am grateful.

    We still have a long, long way to go. There’s still a huge racial voting divide, especially in the more “integrated” states, and even some “liberals” haven’t abstained from playing the race card when it would be to their advantage. And there are huge racial gaps as well in incomes, education and other things we measure success by.

    And just as there were those a generation ago who prayed for the day when descendants of Africa could receive the priesthood, I pray for the day when we see nonwhites as apostles.

  20. This brings up the very interesting issue of civil disobedience. The 12th Article of Faith says,

    “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

    I don’t really agree with this because the law is created by human beings and is therefore flawed. A several months ago I saw Betty Krawczyk speak about her experiences as an environmental activist and she talked about getting arrested (she joked that being in prison was like receiving a grant to write her book). This got me thinking about whether it would be considered wrong in the eyes of God to defy the law to stand up for what you believe in, as Martin Luther King Jr and others have done. Sadly I think many LDS people would disapprove of this. Of course they are obviously forgetting about how the early saints broke the law when they practiced polygamy in the state of Illinois…

  21. cj douglass says:

    SAP,
    I think you’re right the 12th article is a little puzzling. The American revolutionary war is a good example. Ghandi, Dr. King and even the early LDS muddy the waters even more. Disobey the law for a moral and just cause? Of course I would.

  22. I don’t see it as puzzling; rather, I see it as a general rule. Generally, we believe in honoring and sustaining the law; sometimes, we don’t. It’s crossing articles and “allowing all men everywhere the same privilege” with which we tend to struggle.

  23. BruceC says:

    I like the comparison of Martin Luther King to Joseph Smith. I recall hearing some less than flattering biographical information about MLK and it reminded me of how Joseph was similarly attacked. They were both human. But none of their shortcomings should overshadow the great things they accomplished. It is often the last available means of the loosing side to attack the character of their opponent.

  24. I think the Eldorado raid is the modern equivalent. Many people have demonized the FLDS. But, the non-violence in the face of religious bigotry has won them many supporters.

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