By the end of this section, you will: –
Explain how and why various groups responded to calls for the expansion of civil rights from 1960 to 1980
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the direct-action civil rights movement that had begun with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 suddenly became more daring and more ambitious. The college students’ “sit-ins” of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961 were more direct, confrontational, and far-reaching challenges to racial segregation and discrimination than the Montgomery campaign had been.
- The movement’s next significant campaign took place in Albany, Georgia.
- The Albany campaign sought to end that city’s practices of race discrimination in voting rights, employment, and equal access to various public venues.
- It was the first instance of mass direct action in which many African American adults went to jail to demonstrate their commitment, and it was the first civil rights campaign led by an alliance of local and outside organizations.
Despite those important firsts, it is also widely regarded as the movement’s first significant setback. The campaign began in late summer 1961, when Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, two young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists, traveled to Albany to initiate a voter registration drive and further the effort to desegregate interstate transportation facilities – stations as well as buses and trains. A replica of a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pin. The SNCC helped organize protests and marches throughout the 1960s as part of the civil rights movement. The first protest occurred days before Thanksgiving, when a handful of African American college students from Albany State ventured into the white section of the city’s bus station and were promptly arrested.
- Shortly thereafter, Sherrod and Reagon called James Forman, executive secretary of SNCC, to suggest organizing a group of freedom riders to travel by train from Atlanta to test the Albany station.
- On their arrival on December 10, Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett ordered the arrest of the riders, and the next morning, a crowd of approximately 400 marched to city hall to show support for those arrested.
Fearing an eruption of violence, Pritchett ordered the jailing of hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators. To gain material support and national attention, the Albany protesters agreed to invite the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to participate.
King accepted, but two more rounds of demonstrations proved unsuccessful. King left Albany in early August amid media reports that declared the campaign a defeat. Chief Pritchett, himself a student of protest campaigns, had outwitted the protesters by securing enough jail space to house them and by ordering his officers to refrain from violence against them.
After Albany, King and other movement leaders understood more clearly their main formula for success. Direct-action protests needed to attract sympathetic attention from national news media, which, in turn, would arouse public sentiment and move the federal government to intervene on the side of the protesters.
- Efforts to fill local jails with nonviolent protesters could be effective, but the surest means of attracting sympathetic media attention was for protesters to subject themselves peacefully to violence perpetrated by defenders of the old racial order.
- The key was to display a sharp contrast between the moral discipline of the protesters and the intemperance of their adversaries.
Mindful of this lesson and inspired by the daring of the movement’s younger activists, King and his SCLC colleagues elected to strike next at the very heart of racial segregation and discrimination in the South. King wrote that Birmingham, Alabama, was “the most segregated city in America.” Blacks and whites resided in racially segregated neighborhoods, sent their children to segregated schools, and attended segregated churches.
- Employment opportunities for African Americans were generally limited, and the large majority of black citizens were prevented, by law or intimidation, from voting.
- Brutality against blacks “was an unquestioned and unchallenged reality.” A campaign in Birmingham, SCLC leaders expected, would be “the toughest fight of our careers.” Yet “as Birmingham goes,” local activist minister Fred Shuttlesworth declared, “so goes the nation.” The year 1963 marked the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Now is the time,” King wrote as the campaign commenced, “to make real the promise of democracy,” and Birmingham was the place. “Project C” for confrontation, as campaign leaders dubbed it, was designed to pressure Birmingham merchants to desegregate and adopt fair hiring practices.
The campaign began with sit-in demonstrations the week before Easter. The city then obtained a court injunction against additional demonstrations, and after anxious deliberation, the protest leaders elected to disobey the court order. Led by King, Ralph Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth, protesters marched from Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to city hall on Good Friday, April 12.
The leaders were arrested and jailed for demonstrating without a permit. Protesters in Birmingham mobilized at the 16th Street Baptist Church and marched to city hall in 1963. The following day, two Birmingham newspapers published a letter by eight local white clergymen imploring protesters to obey the law and pursue their goals by negotiation rather than by street demonstrations.
Those clergymen were not segregationists; they supported the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings. Their letter stung King, who composed in response what became the movement’s classic statement of its principles. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” drafted during his stay in jail, King explained and defended the practices of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.
He argued that the civil rights movement, in its means and ends, was in accord with the higher-law tradition of western moral philosophy epitomized in the Declaration of Independence. Despite the eloquence of his “Letter,” when King and the other leaders were released from jail after eight days, the campaign was on the verge of failure.
The turning point came with the decision, sharply controversial among Birmingham’s black parents, to enlist the aid of children in filling the jails. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, a notorious hardline segregationist, had acted to that point with relative restraint. Angered by the “children’s crusade,” however, he unleashed police dogs and turned fire hoses on the marchers to drive them from the streets.
Connor’s reaction generated a surge of negative media coverage, with televised images of police brutality arousing national sympathy for the protesters. Birmingham’s business leaders, alarmed by the disorder and the negative publicity, quickly accepted a negotiated desegregation settlement.
Birmingham signified the greatest victory to date in the civil rights struggle, and movement leaders were eager to build on it. In the most audacious demonstration of all, they planned to march on Washington, DC. A mass march on the nation’s capital for jobs and equal rights was a longstanding project of venerable labor leader and rights activist A.
Philip Randolph, who first proposed such a march in 1941. As Randolph and others revived the idea in 1963, President John Kennedy was fashioning a comprehensive civil rights bill to send to Congress. Fearing disorder and an anti-civil rights backlash, however, Kennedy convened a June conference during which he attempted to dissuade King and his colleagues from going through with the march.
- The president had reason to worry.
- In the weeks after Birmingham, hundreds of racial protest demonstrations had flared up in southern cities, and the murder of voting rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi had provoked additional national outrage.
- Movement leaders shared Kennedy’s concerns, but they were not dissuaded.
The march took place on August 28, drawing an estimated 250,000 participants from across the United States. Thanks largely to careful preparation by public officials and the organizational skill of longtime equal-rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin, the event was peaceful and orderly. Participants in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington listened to speeches at the Lincoln Memorial, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Mindful of the magnitude of the occasion, King aspired to emulate Lincoln’s achievement in the Gettysburg Address.
He invoked “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” but the words that immortalized his speech came as he departed from his prepared text and transformed a formal address into a civic sermon. Even though we face difficulties, King declared, “I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” The march on Washington was a landmark event in U.S.
Why did Martin Luther King Jr target Birmingham Alabama for a civil rights?
Why did Martin Luther King target Birmingham, Alabama for a civil rights campaign? Because it was considered the most segregated city in the South. The members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) believed that direct, nonviolent methods could gain civil rights for African Americans.
What was the civil rights movement in Birmingham Alabama?
Firemen turn fire hoses on demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 Photo by Charles Moore. Fair Use Image The Birmingham Campaign was a movement led in early 1963 by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which sought to bring national attention to the efforts of local Black leaders to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama.
- The campaign was led by Dr.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- And Reverends James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others.
- In April 1963, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined Birmingham’s local campaign organized by Rev.
- Shuttlesworth and his group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
The goal of the local campaign was to attack the city’s segregation system by putting pressure on Birmingham’s merchants during the Easter season, the second-biggest shopping season of the year. When that campaign stalled, the ACMHR asked SCLC to help.
- The campaign was originally scheduled to begin in early March 1963 but was postponed until April.
- On April 3, 1963, it was launched with mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, a march on city hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants.
- Ing spoke to Birmingham’s Black citizens about nonviolence and its methods and appealed for volunteers.
When Birmingham’s residents enthusiastically responded, the campaign’s actions expanded to kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the library, and a march on the county courthouse to register voters. On April 10, 1963, the city government obtained a state court injunction against the protests.
- After debate, campaign leaders decided to disobey the court order.
- Ing contemplated whether he and Ralph Abernathy—SCLC’s second-in-command—should be arrested.
- Ing decided that he must risk jail.
- On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham after violating the anti-protest injunction and was placed in solitary confinement.
During this time, he wrote Letter From a Birmingham Jail on the margins of the Birmingham News, in reaction to a statement published by eight Birmingham clergymen condemning the protests. King asked his jailers for permission to call his wife, Coretta Scott King, who at the time was home in Atlanta, recovering from the birth of their fourth child, Bernice King.
- They denied the request.
- After Mrs.
- Ing shared her concern about her husband’s safety with the Kennedy administration, Birmingham officials permitted King to call home.
- He was released on bail on April 20, 1963.
- On May 2, 1963, more than one thousand African American students attempted to march into downtown Birmingham where hundreds were arrested.
The following day, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor directed local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstrations. The next few days’ images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, sparking international outrage.
- Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, his chief civil rights assistant, to negotiate between the Black citizens and Birmingham city business leadership.
- The business leaders sought a moratorium on street protests as an act of good faith before any settlement could be declared.
- Marshall encouraged the campaign leaders to halt demonstrations and accept this interim compromise.
King and the other leaders agreed on May 8, 1963, and called off further demonstrations. On May 10, 1963, King and Fred Shuttlesworth announced an agreement with the city of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains, and department store fitting rooms within ninety days, to hire Blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks, and to release of hundreds of jail protesters on bond.
- Their victory, however, was met by violence.
- On May 11, 1963, a bomb damaged the Gaston Motel where King and SCLC members were staying.
- The next day, the home of King’s brother and Birmingham resident, Alfred Daniel King, was bombed.
- Four months later on September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church which had been the staging center for many of the spring demonstrations.
Four young Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair—were killed. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy at their funeral on September 18, 1963. Nonetheless, Birmingham was considered one of the most successful campaigns of the civil rights era.
Why was Alabama the center of the civil rights movement?
Civil Rights Movement in Alabama Alabama was the site of many key events in the American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’s stand against segregation on a public bus led to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the violence targeted toward the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s drew the nation’s attention to racial hatred in Alabama.
What was the protest in Birmingham Alabama?
events The climax of the modern civil rights movement occurred in Birmingham, The city’s violent response to the spring 1963 demonstrations against white supremacy forced the federal government to intervene on behalf of race reform. City Commissioner T.
- Eugene “Bull” Connor ‘s use of police dogs and fire hoses against nonviolent black activists, led by Fred L.
- Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
- Enraged the nation.
- The public outcry provoked Pres. John F.
- Ennedy to propose civil rights legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The act opened America’s social, economic, and political system to African Americans and other minorities, including women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. The legislation addressed the principal goal of the movement of gaining access to the system as consumers but also set in motion strategies to gain equality through affirmative action policies. Shuttlesworth Home Bombed Having witnessed the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Shuttlesworth organized his own group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), in June 1956 after the state outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,
- In December 1956, when the federal courts ordered the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses, Shuttlesworth asked the officials of Birmingham’s transit system to end segregated seating, setting a December 26 deadline.
- He intended to challenge the laws on a bus on that day, but on the night of December 25, Klansmen bombed Bethel Baptist Church and parsonage, nearly assassinating Shuttlesworth.
He emerged out of the rubble of his dynamited house and led a protest the next morning that resulted in a legal case against the city’s segregation ordinance. Coinciding with school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, Shuttlesworth arranged a challenge to Birmingham’s all-white Phillips High School in September 1957, nearly suffering death at the hands of an angry mob.
Segregationist vigilantes again greeted Shuttlesworth when he desegregated the train station. In 1958, Shuttlesworth organized a boycott of Birmingham’s buses in support of the ACMHR legal case against segregated seating. Shuttlesworth’s aggressive strategy of direct action alienated him from Birmingham’s established black leadership.
Many people in the black middle class found as too extreme the intense religious belief held by ACMHR members that God was going to end segregation. Freedom Riders Prompted by the national sit-in movement begun by four black college men in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, a group of black students in Birmingham from Miles College and Daniel Payne College held a prayer vigil. Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR supported their efforts.
- When a national group of black and white demonstrators undertook the Freedom Rides in May 1961, Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR provided assistance, rescuing the stranded protesters outside Anniston as well as those who suffered a Klan attack at the Birmingham Trailways Station.
- In spring 1962, Birmingham’s black college students initiated the Selective Buying Campaign and, with support from Shuttlesworth and ACMHR, it became the catalyst for the spring 1963 demonstrations.
Chosen as secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when it organized in 1957, Shutttlesworth had been an active member of the region’s leading civil rights group. But he was frustrated because he believed that the SCLC lacked clear direction under King’s leadership.
Shuttlesworth watched the SCLC intervene in Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and fail to successfully challenge segregation in a manner that forced reforms in local race relations. Aware that King’s reputation had suffered from this defeat, Shuttlesworth invited the SCLC to assist him and the ACMHR in Birmingham.
Believing that a success would restore his reputation as a national civil rights leader, King agreed. Shuttlesworth hoped King’s prestige would attract the black masses and thus mobilize Birmingham’s black community behind the joint ACMHR-SCLC campaign. “Bull” Connor in 1963 Leaders from the ACMHR met with SCLC officials to plan strategy. Having learned from prior mistakes, King’s lieutenant, the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, proposed a limited campaign of sit-ins and pickets designed to pressure merchants and local business leaders into demanding the city commission repeal the municipal segregation ordinances.
Some scholars have argued that the strategy called for violent confrontations with Bull Connor leading to mass arrests that would force the Kennedy Administration to intervene on behalf of civil rights, but this was not the case. The tactic of filling the jail had failed to alter race relations in Albany, and the noncommittal Kennedy Administration had yet to offer support for the movement and in fact had aided the segregationists.
Indeed, the best ACMHR-SCLC could hope to achieve was some modicum of change in local race relations that might point the way toward regional reform of the South’s segregated social structure. Police Dog Attack The joint ACMHR-SCLC Birmingham campaign began quietly with sit-ins on April 3, 1963, at several downtown “whites-only” lunch counters. From the outset, the campaign confronted an apathetic black community, an openly hostile established black leadership, and Bull Connor’s “nonviolent resistance” in the form of polite arrests of the offenders of the city’s segregation ordinances.
With no sensational news, the national media found nothing to report, and the campaign floundered. But when Connor ordered out police dogs to disperse a crowd of black bystanders, journalists recorded the attack of a German shepherd on a nonviolent protester, thereby revealing the brutality that underpinned segregation.
The episode convinced Walker and King to use direct-action tactics to generate creative tension for the sake of media coverage. The ease with which the campaign changed directions reflected the fluidity of the movement. Shuttlesworth led the first of many protest marches on City Hall to emphasize the refusal of the city commission to issue parade permits to the protestors. Good Friday March As the number of demonstrations increased, police arrested more ACMHR members, consequently draining the financial resources of the campaign. Black bystanders gave the campaign the appearance of mass support, but the vast majority of Birmingham’s black residents remained uninvolved.
A more serious threat came from established black leaders who opposed the civil rights campaign and actively worked to undermine Shuttlesworth by negotiating with the white power structure. Although King’s decision to seek arrest marked a turning point in his life as a leader, it did little to increase support for the faltering ACMHR-SCLC campaign.
From behind bars, he penned the ” Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which became the clearest statement on the righteousness of civil rights protest. But after a month of exhaustive demonstrations, the stalemate with white authorities suggested another Albany and the looming defeat of the Birmingham Campaign. Birmingham Campaign Demonstrators In a desperate bid to generate media coverage and to keep the campaign alive, King’s lieutenants launched the Children’s Crusade on May 2, 1963, in which black youth from area schools served as demonstrators. Trying to avoid the use of force, Bull Connor arrested hundreds of school children and hauled them off to jail on school buses.
When the jails were filled, he called out fire hoses and police dogs to contain large protests in the black business district along the city’s Kelly Ingram Park. African American spectators responded with outrage, pelting police with bricks and bottles as firemen opened up the hoses on not just the nonviolent youngsters but also on enraged black bystanders who had nearly begun a riot.
The media captured the negative images of Connor and his men suppressing the nonviolent protest of school children with brutal blasts from water cannons and attacks from police dogs. Front-page photographs in the nation’s newspapers convinced Kennedy to send Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall to Birmingham to secure negotiations that would end the violent demonstrations.
Previous federal policy regarding civil rights issues had left enforcement to local law and order officials without direct intervention by the national government. At first, Marshall succeeded in fashioning a similar resolution by convincing King to call off the protests without winning any real concessions from the local white power structure.
Shuttlesworth held out for more concrete results, and his opposition led to a re-evaluation of the terms for an ultimate truce that announced limited local race reforms. Desegregation Settlement Reached The national media attention helped to spread the fervor of the ACMHR-SCLC Birmingham Campaign well beyond the city’s borders, and national demonstrations, international pressure, and inner city riots followed in the wake of the agreement.
These actions convinced a reluctant Kennedy administration to propose sweeping reforms that Congress ultimately passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With this legislation, the civil rights movement achieved its goals of gaining access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunities, thereby ending acquiescence to white supremacy and opening the system to African Americans and other minorities.
In hindsight the moderate success of inclusion only expanded access and did not alter or challenge the class structure, thus leaving movement members with a wistful sense for the need for economic justice. In the years that followed, white resistance exaggerated the significance of the limited racial inclusion. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing White vigilantes attempted to scuttle the race reforms by bombing sites related to the civil rights struggle. When court-ordered school desegregation arrived in the city in September 1963, Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls.
Only with the implementation of the Civil Rights Act, adopted the next year, did the city completely desegregate, and then only following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heart of Atlanta Motel v. the United States case, which also involved Birmingham’s Ollie’s Barbecue. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 many African Americans in Birmingham won the right to vote for the first time, foreshadowing a sea change in local politics.
Although members of the black middle class and working class enjoyed access to the system, many African Americans remained shut out, having gained little from the reforms won in Birmingham. Nevertheless, the appointment of Arthur Shores to the city council in 1968 and the election of Richard Arrington as mayor in 1979 represented the strength of the growing black electorate and the success of black political empowerment that grew directly out of the Birmingham campaign.
Additional Resources Bass, S. Jonathan. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Eskew, Glenn T. But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle,
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Garrow, David J. Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Brooklyn.N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1989. Manis, Andrew M. A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
Why did people move to Birmingham during the Industrial Revolution?
In the Saxon 6th Century Birmingham was just one small settlement in thick forest – the home (ham) of the tribe (ing) of a leader called Birm or Beorma. Geography played a major role in the transformation of Birmingham from a hamlet worth 20 shillings in 1086 into Britain’s centre of manufacturing in the 20th Century.
It was a dry site with a good supply of water, routes converging at Deritend Ford across the River Rea. There was easy access to coal, iron and timber. The de Bermingham family held the Lordship of the manor of Birmingham for four hundred years from around 1150. In 1166 Peter de Birmingham obtained a market charter from Henry II and in 1250 William de Bermingham obtained permission to hold a four day fair at Whitsun.
In addition the family allowed many freedoms to their tenants and there were no restrictive obstacles to trade. Developing as a market centre, Birmingham also saw the beginnings of small scale smithing and metal working. Craftsmen were listed amongst the taxpayers in 1327.
When Leland visited Birmingham in 1538 there were 1500 people in 200 houses, one main street with a number of side streets, markets and many smiths who were selling goods all over England. By supplying the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War (1642-46) with swords, pikes and armour, Birmingham emerged with a strong reputation as a metal working centre.
By 1731 the population had grown to 23,000 and manufacturing business thrived. By the time of the Industrial Revolution Birmingham had become the industrial and commercial centre of the Midlands.
What was the most important reason that Birmingham Alabama was chosen as the location for the Children’s Crusade?
What was the most important reason that Birmingham, Alabama was chosen as the location for the Children’s Crusade? Because it was known for their racism towards African Americans. People were shocked by the violence of the Police towards children.
What led to the decision to start the protests in Birmingham quizlet?
Birmingham was addressed to have so many violent protests because of the fact that it is the most segregated city in the nation. MLK addresses that if there is no social justice in that city, there won’t be social justice in any city.
What was the strategy of the Birmingham Campaign?
Birmingham Campaign (1963) – The Birmingham Campaign was one of the most significant campaigns of the civil rights movement. Lasting through the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, the campaign aimed to draw national attention to attempts to desegregate the city.
Why did MLK write Birmingham?
“I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 These words were spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. during his ten-day jail term for violating a court injunction against any “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” in Birmingham.
He came to Alabama’s largest city to lead an Easter weekend protest and boycott of downtown stores as a way of forcing white city leaders to negotiate a settlement of black citizens’ grievances. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a public statement by eight white clergymen appealing to the local black population to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights.
The clergymen counseled “law and order and common sense,” not demonstrations that “incite to hatred and violence,” as the most prudent means to promote justice. This criticism of King was elaborated the following year by a fellow Baptist minister, Joseph H.
Jackson (president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953–1982), who delivered a speech counseling blacks to reject “direct confrontation” and “stick to law and order.” By examining King’s famous essay in defense of nonviolent protest, along with two significant criticisms of his direct action campaign, this lesson will help students assess various alternatives for securing civil rights for black Americans in a self-governing society.
Background If students know anything about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, it will probably be Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in leading the Movement along the path of nonviolent resistance against racial segregation. Most likely, they will have seen or read his “I Have a Dream” speech (August 28, 1963), delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which closes with the famous line, “Free at last, free at last.
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Next to the “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s most famous writing is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He began writing the lengthy essay while jailed over Easter weekend in 1963. He eventually arranged its publication as part of a public relations strategy to bring national attention to the struggle for civil rights in the South.
The Birmingham campaign of March and April 1963 followed a less successful protest the previous year in Albany, Georgia. Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett did not want to draw media attention to the Albany protest led by King and local citizens. He dispersed jailed protesters to surrounding jails to avoid overcrowding, and had local city officials post bail for King any time he got arrested.
- Ing eventually left Albany in August 1962 when the protest movement stalled for months and when the city reneged on its promise to desegregate bus and train stations.
- Discouraged by the Movement’s inability to provoke a reaction that would precipitate change, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to accept the invitation of Birmingham activist Rev.
Fred Shuttlesworth to agitate for change there. In Birmingham they devised a new strategy called “Project C” (for “confrontation”). Birmingham was Alabama’s largest city, but its 40 percent black population suffered stark inequities in education, employment, and income.
- In 1961, when Freedom Riders were mobbed in the city bus terminal, Birmingham drew unwelcome national attention.
- Moreover, recent years saw so many bombings in its black neighborhoods that went unsolved that the city earned the nickname “Bombingham.” In 1962, Birmingham even closed public parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and golf courses to avoid federal court orders to desegregate.
Nevertheless, the fight to hold onto segregationist practices began to wear on some whites; the question remained, how best to address the concerns of local black citizens? When eight white clergymen (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) learned of King’s plans to stage mass protests in Birmingham during the Easter season in 1963, they published a statement voicing disagreement with King’s attempt to reform the segregated city.
- It appeared in the Birmingham News on Good Friday, the very day King was jailed for violating the injunction against marching.
- The white clergymen complained that local black citizens were being “directed and led in part by outsiders” to engage in demonstrations that were “unwise and untimely.” The prudence of the Movement’s actions in Birmingham was also called into question by local merchants who believed the new city government and mayor—replacing the staunch segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor (the commissioner of public safety who later employed fire hoses and police dogs against protesters, many of whom were high school and college students)—would offer a new opportunity to address black concerns.
Even the Justice Department under President John F. Kennedy urged King to leave Birmingham. The clergymen advised locals to follow “the principles of law and order and common sense,” to engage in patient negotiation, and, if necessary, seek redress in the courts.
They called street protests and economic boycotts “extreme measures” and, thus, saw them as imprudent means of redressing grievances. Finally, if peaceful protests sparked hatred and riots, they would hold the protesters responsible for the violence that ensued. In spite of the court injunction, King went ahead with his protest march on Good Friday, and was promptly arrested, along with his close friend and fellow Baptist preacher Ralph Abernathy and fifty-two other protestors.
King served his jail sentence in solitary confinement, but soon began reading press reports of the Birmingham campaign in newspapers smuggled into his cell by his lawyer. Both local and national media expressed greater optimism for reform from the new city government and lesser sympathy for King and his nonviolent, direct action campaign.
But what irked him most was the criticism from the Birmingham clergymen, most of whom had actually criticized Governor George Wallace’s inauguration proclamation of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” So King began to write, using the margins of the Birmingham News, King’s reply to the clergymen’s public letter of complaint grew to almost 7,000 words, and presented a detailed response to the criticisms of his fellow men of the cloth.
Employing theological and philosophical arguments, as well as reflections on American and world history, King defended the legitimacy of his intervention to desegregate Birmingham. He explained how the nonviolent movement employed peaceful mass protest and even civil disobedience to bring pressure to bear on the social and political status quo.
- Given that the immediate audience of his letter were religious leaders, his letter made numerous references to biblical and historical events and figures they might find persuasive.
- Ing’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a plea for a more robust and relevant participation of white church leaders (and members) in the affairs of this world, starting with the just complaints of their black neighbors and fellow Christians.
The following year, a longstanding critic* of King delivered an address that focused on an alternative way for black Americans to secure progress in civil rights. Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, was known as “the black pope” because of his leadership of the largest religious organization of blacks in the United States.
Jackson thought King’s civil disobedience and nonviolent but confrontational methods undermined the very rule of law that black Americans desperately needed. Appealing to the historic contribution of blacks to the development and prosperity of America, Jackson counseled that less controversial and provocative means should be adopted in the struggle for civil rights.
He also encouraged them not to neglect their “ability, talent, genius, and capacity” in efforts of self-help and self-improvement. Citing the 1954 Brown v. Board decision and 1964 Civil Rights Act as important signs of progress and hope for black Americans, Jackson argued that to advance in America, blacks had to work with and not against the structures and ideals of the nation.
- In 1961, after failing to oust Jackson from the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, King broke away from the organization and founded a rival group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
- In 1967, Jackson would publish Unholy Shadows and Freedom’s Holy Light, which reaffirmed his “law and order’ approach to the civil rights struggle.
Content Standards NCSS. D1.2.6-8. Explain points of agreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question. NCSS. D1.3.6-8. Explain points of agreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a supporting question.
NCSS. D2.Civ.2.9-12. Analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system, with attention to various theories of democracy, changes in Americans’ participation over time, and alternative models from other countries, past and present. NCSS. D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
NCSS. D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras. NCSS. D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context. NCSS.
D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras. NCSS. D3.1.9-12. Gather relevant information from multiple sources representing a wide range of views while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
Preparation Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the public statement of the white Birmingham clergymen make a natural pairing for a discussion of the pros and cons of nonviolent resistance. However, because the “Letter to Martin Luther King from a Group of Clergymen” is a relatively short document compared with King’s 6,800-word reply, this lesson includes a longer statement critical of King’s campaign of mass protest and civil disobedience: Joseph H.
- Jackson’s 1964 Address to the National Baptist Convention.
- This lesson contains written primary source documents, photographs, sound recordings, and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson.
- Students can read and analyze source materials entirely online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress,