The Fire That Won’t Go Out

This story follows on directly from ‘Bombingham’

Despite the massive publicity surrounding April’s civil rights protests in Birmingham, the campaign faltered. Few people were willing to follow Martin Luther King in his crusade to jail.

Although Bull Connor had a reputation for using police dogs on protestors in the past, his tactics in arresting protestors had failed to garner significant media coverage. In desperation, James Bevel, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) leader of direct action, devised a plan to recruit Birmingham’s students. Bevel targeted not only politically active college students, but children from high schools and elementary schools.

Despite the obvious concern of the other campaign leaders, Bevel perceived that high school children formed the most cohesive group in black society due to the amount of time they spent together. Bevel also recognised that the campaign could more easily recruit black girls, who had comparatively less experience of violence at the hands of white law enforcement. The high proportion of adolescent girls joining the movement would in turn attract the support of the boys. As naïve or offensive as this may seem, it was an incredibly successful recruitment policy.

Children were given lessons in nonviolent resistance from Bevel and shown films of previous protests in an attempt to subdue their fear of dogs and prison cells. Posters in schools read ‘fight for freedom first, then go to school’.

On May 2nd, more than 2,000 students skipped classes and gathered at 16th Street Baptist Church, even vaulting the walls of their schools in order to attend the march. In organised waves, the children walked towards the town centre, singing freedom songs and clapping their hands. Bull Connor and the police department awaited them, but were completely dumbfounded by the sheer scale of protestors at the march. Commandeering fire trucks to block the road and school buses to ferry the children to prison, the police arrested 600 students, some as young as eight. Birmingham Jail’s population rocketed over 1,000.

The tactics were widely condemned, but the day’s campaigning made the front page of both the Washington Post and the New York Times, providing the protestors with national coverage that their previous campaigns had lacked.

16th Street Baptist Church, the headquarters and epicentre of the Birmingham Campaign, pictured in 1993

The next day, Bull Connor realised there was not enough space in Birmingham Jail to arrest the 1,000 students who had gathered at 16th Street. The police force blocked off the town centre entirely, armed with fire hoses powerful enough to strip bark from trees.

As the students advanced, those hoses were set on children, knocking them over cars and sending them rolling back down the road. Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the local Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, was hospitalised after being hit by a stream of water, something Connor expressed disappointment at not seeing in person. Students who made it past the fire hoses were set upon by police dogs.

By 3pm, the protest was over, but not before photographers from international publications had captured powerful images of police violence against peaceful students that would be seen throughout the world. Almost all of these remain under copyright and so cannot be included here, but they include Charles Moore’s They Fight A Fire That Won’t Go Out and Bill Hudson’s iconic photograph of student Walter Gadsden being attacked by two police dogs.

By May 7th, Birmingham had reached a crisis point. None of the downtown businesses were functioning, 1,000 further protestors were arrested and Governor George Wallace sent in state troopers to assist Bull Connor in his work. On the 8th, business leaders reached a resolution to desegregate lunch counters, public toilets and drinking fountains. This move was condemned by the city’s political leaders and police department, who refused to release the protestors from prison.

This was not to be the end. On the 11th, bomb blasts struck the Gaston Motel, where Martin Luther King had been staying only hours before, and the house of his brother, A.D. King. Eyewitness reports that the Gaston bomb had been planted by police officers ignited city-wide rioting, in which buildings were looted and burned, and a police officer was stabbed to death. Federal troops were deployed to quell the violence and King was forced to return to the city to publicly repeat his nonviolent mantra.

Damage at the Gaston Motel following the bomb blast of May 11th

The Birmingham campaign represented a seismic shift in the fate of the Civil Rights Movement, transforming it from a struggling and divided band of activists into an iconic movement with global support, led by an era-defining leader who was yet to speak his most famous words. The process of desegregation would be slow. Birmingham’s Jim Crow signs were not taken down until June, and blacks remained barred from joining the police or fire departments or enrolling with the Birmingham Bar Association for black attorneys.

Birmingham’s men, women and children also succeeded in convincing their President that justice for the black citizens of the United States could not be delayed further. Kennedy’s administration began writing the 1964 Civil Rights Act shortly after the Birmingham campaign. Having achieved so much, it might be easy to imagine that Birmingham might represent the end, for now, of mass protests for racial justice in the United States. Instead, it catalysed further action.

Bull Connor lost his job in disgrace, having earned a reputation as a national villain. JFK would later say that “the Civil Rights Movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”


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