Birmingham Campaign: History, Issues, and Legacy

Firemen bear in on a group of black Americans who sought shelter in a doorway in Birmingham, Alabama, 3rd May 1963.
Firemen bear in on a group of black Americans who sought shelter in a doorway in Birmingham, Alabama, 3rd May 1963.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Birmingham Campaign was a decisive civil rights movement protest during April and May of 1963 led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), seeking to bring attention to attempts by local Black leaders to end the de jure racial segregation of public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. While the campaign, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth and James Bevel, eventually forced Birmingham’s government to relax the city’s segregation laws, the concessions triggered even more tragic violence in the weeks that followed.

Fast Facts: Birmingham Campaign

  • Short Description: A series of demonstrations and protests which became a turning point in the American civil rights movement
  • Key Players: Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, “Bull” Connor
  • Event Start Date: April 3, 1963
  • Event End Date: May 10, 1963
  • Other Significant Date: September 15, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing
  • Location: Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.

"The Most Segregated City in America"

Although Birmingham’s population of almost 350,000 in 1963 was 40% Black, Martin Luther King Jr. called it “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”

Laws carried over from the Jim Crow era barred Black people from serving as police officers or firefighters, driving city buses, working as cashiers in department stores, or as tellers in banks. Segregation in the form of “Colored Only” signs at public water fountains and restrooms, was strictly enforced, and downtown lunch counters were off-limits to Black people. Due to poll taxes and rigged literacy tests, fewer than 10% of Birmingham’s Black population was registered to vote.

Segregated drinking fountain in use in the American South.
Segregated drinking fountain in use in the American South. Bettmann / Getty Images

The scene of more than 50 unsolved racially motivated bombings between 1945 and 1962, the city had been nicknamed “Bombingham,” with one often-targeted predominantly Black neighborhood knows as “Dynamite Hill.” Always suspected of—but never charged with—any of the bombings, the Birmingham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) drove home the certainty that violence awaited area Black people who failed to “remember their place.”

Though the city’s apartheid-like all-White city government had long turned a deaf ear to the mere mention of racial integration, Birmingham's Black community began to organize. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956 after Alabama Governor George Wallace banned all activities of the NAACP in the state. As the ACMHR’s protests and lawsuits against Birmingham's segregationist policies gained attention, Shuttlesworth's home and Bethel Baptist Church were bombed. Jailed for “parading without a permit,” Shuttlesworth invited Martin Luther King Jr. and his SCLC to join him in the Birmingham Campaign. “If you come to Birmingham, you will not only gain prestige but really shake the country,” he wrote in a letter to King, “If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.”

A Black American protester being attacked by a police dog during demonstrations against segregation, Birmingham, Alabama, May 4, 1963.
A Black American protester being attacked by a police dog during demonstrations against segregation, Birmingham, Alabama, May 4, 1963. Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor

Ironically, one of the most significant figures in the Birmingham Campaign’s eventual success was perhaps its greatest nemesis, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Called an “arch-segregationist” by Time magazine, Connor blamed the bombings of Black homes and churches on local Black civil rights activists. In response to a federal probe of police misconduct in Birmingham, Connor stated, “If the North keeps trying to cram this [desegregation] thing down our throats, there's going to be bloodshed.”

Birmingham, Alabama public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor appears at a press conference.
Birmingham, Alabama, public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor appears at a press conference. Bettmann / Getty Images

Through his constant support of segregation and refusals to investigate violence against Black people, Conner unintentionally built support for Black Americans and the civil rights movement. “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor,” President John F. Kennedy once said of him. “He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”

Role of the SCLC in Birmingham

Martin Luther King and the SCLC joined Reverend Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR in April 1963. Having largely failed in its recent attempts to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the SCLC decided to use different tactics in the Birmingham Campaign. Rather than desegregation of the city as a whole, King decided to focus on the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown business and shopping district. Other specific goals included the desegregation of all public parks and the integration of Birmingham's public schools. In recruiting supporters, King promised the Birmingham Campaign would result in “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth hold a press conference at the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963.
Civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth hold a press conference at the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963. Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When local adults were hesitant to openly join the campaign, Rev. James Bevel, SCLC’s Director of Direct Action, decided to use children as demonstrators. Bevel reasoned that Birmingham’s Black children, having seen their parents’ involvement, had adopted the movement as their cause. Bevel trained elementary, high school, and college students in King’s techniques of nonviolent protest. He then asked them to take part in a march from the 16th Street Baptist Church to the Birmingham City Hall to discuss desegregation with the mayor. King and Bevel were both criticized and praised for placing the children in danger.

The Birmingham Protests and Children’s Crusade

The first phase of the Birmingham Campaign began on April 3, 1963, with lunch counter sit-ins, marches around City Hall, and a boycott of downtown businesses. These actions soon expanded to include sit-ins at the city library and a massive voter registration rally at the Jefferson County administrative building. On April 10, campaign leaders decided to disobey a court order banning further protests. In the days that followed, thousands were arrested, including Martin Luther King, who wrote his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16. In this defense of peaceful resistance, King wrote, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

On May 2, the thousands of students taking part in James Bevel’s “Children’s Crusade” left the 16th Street Baptist Church in groups, spreading throughout the city peacefully protesting segregation. The response, however, was far from peaceful. On May 2 alone, hundreds of children were arrested. On May 3, Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered police to attack the children with water cannons, beat them with batons, and threaten them with police dogs. King encouraged parents of the young protesters, telling them, “Don’t worry about your children, they’re going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.”

Black Americans marching on the corner of 16th Street and 5th Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, at the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963.
Black Americans marching on the corner of 16th Street and 5th Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, at the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963. Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Despite the police attacks, the children continued their tactics of nonviolent demonstration. Television footage and photographs of the mistreatment of the children quickly spread, triggering an outcry across the nation. Feeling the pressure of public opinion, city leaders agreed to negotiate on May 10. Birmingham, however, remained far from desegregated or peaceful.

Desegregation in Birmingham

The Children’s Crusade thrust Birmingham into the red-hot center of the world spotlight, convincing local officials they could no longer ignore the civil rights movement. In the compromise agreement signed on May 10, the city agreed to remove “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs from restrooms and on drinking fountains; desegregate lunch counters; create a program for upgrading Black employment; appoint a biracial committee to oversee the application of the agreement; and release all jailed protesters.

As feared, Birmingham’s segregationists responded with violence. The day the agreement was announced, bombs exploded near the motel room where Martin Luther King had been staying. On May 11, the home of King’s brother, Alfred Daniel King, was bombed. In response, President Kennedy ordered 3,000 federal troops to Birmingham and federalized the Alabama National Guard.

A crowd of students at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, flying the Confederate flag in opposition to the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963
A crowd of students at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, flying the Confederate flag in opposition to the start of the Birmingham Campaign, May 1963. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Four months later, on September 15, 1963, four Ku Klux Klan members bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls and injuring 14 other congregation members. In his eulogy delivered on September 18, King preached that the girls were “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

Legacy

Not until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 did Birmingham fully desegregate. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Black Americans in Birmingham gained the right to vote for the first time, leading to sweeping changes in city politics. In 1968, Arthur Shores became the first Black city council member and Richard Arrington was elected as Birmingham’s first Black mayor in 1979. The elections of Shores and Arrington signaled the power of America’s Black voters that had grown out of the Birmingham Campaign.

Though it had produced some of the most disturbing images of the civil rights movement, President Kennedy would later say, “The events in Birmingham... have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Birmingham Campaign.” Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/birmingham-campaign.
  • “The City of Fear: Bombingham” Court TV Crime Library, https://web.archive.org/web/20070818222057/http://www.crimelibrary.com/terrorists_spies/terrorists/birmingham_church/3.html.
  • “Example Segregation Laws.” Civil Rights Movement Archive. https://www.crmvet.org/info/seglaws.htm.
  • King, Martin L., Jr. (April 16, 1963). “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Bates College, 2001, http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html.
  • Foster, Hailey. “Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham.” The New York Times, May 4, 1963, https://movies2.nytimes.com/library/national/race/050463race-ra.html.
  • Levingston, Steven. “Children have changed America before, braving fire hoses and police dogs for civil rights.” The Washington Post, March 23, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/02/20/children-have-changed-america-before-braving-fire-hoses-and-police-dogs-for-civil-rights/.
  • “Birmingham Population by Race: 1880 to 2010.” Bhama Wiki, https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Historical_demographics_of_Birmingham#Birmingham_Population_by_Race.
  • “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/civil-rights-era.html.
  • Charles D. Lowery; John F. Marszalek; Thomas Adams Upchurch, eds. “Birmingham Confrontation.” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Twenty-First Century (2003), Greenwood Press, ISBN 978-0-313-32171.