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.