In the spring of 1963, the African-American Civil Rights Movement was in crisis. Such is the iconic status of the Civil Rights Movement in the public conscious today that it can be difficult to separate the chronology of events from each other. We are left with images of protests, marches, riots and speeches without the knowledge of how each of these must have felt like in their own context.
Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 had seen the Supreme Court rule that the segregation of state-run schools was unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks sat down in the front half of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, igniting a legendary year-long bus boycott that led to the repeal of segregation on public buses and the rise to prominence of a local preacher called Martin Luther King, Jr. The same year, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered by a white gang in Mississippi after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 saw activists travel on interstate buses into southern states, in an attempt to test a recent ruling stating that segregation was unconstitutional on interstate travel. They were met with mob violence.
In 1961, Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) committed much of its financial resources to an attempt to desegregate the city of Albany in Georgia. The campaign was an unmitigated failure, due to disagreements among the campaign’s leadership, and widespread public opinion within the black community that King was haughty and disconnected from their struggle.
Police Chief Laurie Pritchett was also incredibly savvy in the way he dealt with the protestors, arresting them without violence and distributing protestors equally amongst the regions prisons, so that none of them became overcrowded. He repeatedly released Dr. King so as not to garner significant national media coverage. King would later say that the movement in Albany failed because is demands were too broad.
Low on money and self-confidence, the SCLC relocated to Birmingham, Alabama. King had called the city the most segregated in the country, and fifty unsolved, racially motivated attacks on black houses had earned it the nickname ‘Bombingham’.
Here the SCLC devised ‘Project C’, a confrontational strategy intending to antagonise Theophilus Eugene Connor. Connor, better known as ‘Bull’, had authority over the city’s segregated police and fire departments, schools, and prisons. He was an arch-segregationist, believed that the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot and had incited violence against the Freedom Riders in 1961.
Connor’s tendency for violence would prove vital.
The SCLC, led by King and James Bevel, along with local leader Fred Shuttlesworth, urged the city’s black population to stage sit-in protests at lunch counters and kneel-ins at churches, the plan being to fill the city’s jails to capacity so that the county would have to negotiate. This didn’t work, and like Albany before, the local black community became increasingly critical of King and the protestors.
On April 10th, Bull Connor obtained an injunction barring the protests, which King and the SCLC choose to ignore – a marked departure from the Albany campaign.
As a result King was forced to decide between touring the country to raise bail for those in prison, or heading to jail himself in solidarity. After a day in his hotel room spent in prayer and contemplation, King settled on the latter, and was arrested along with 50 others the following day.
Initially denied the right to consult an attorney, the jail administrators tried to persuade the SCLC to bail King, knowing his prolonged arrest would garner significant media attention. Wise to the failures of Albany, the campaign declined to offer bail.
Meanwhile, on scraps of paper and the margins of a newspaper, King sat in his cell writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, addressed to eight white moderate preachers who had accused him of agitating the locals. In what would become an iconic treatise, King defended his nonviolent methods and proclaimed the Christian’s responsibility to break unjust laws.
King was released on April 20th, vowing to continue the struggle to desegregate Birmingham.
The featured image shows a rally at Arkansas State Capitol in 1959, protesting the integration of a local high school. The placards condemn ‘race-mixing’ as the work of communists and the anti-Christ.